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Housing Perspectives

Research, trends, and perspective from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies

What Happens When Community-Based Organizations Do Disaster-Related Work?

When environmental disasters such as Hurricane Harvey or California’s multi-year drought occur, community-based organizations (CBOs) focused on affordable housing and economic development often provide immediate and longer-term assistance to people in the affected communities. Yet very little is known about how these groups prepare for and carry out this work, or how their efforts affect the organizations themselves.

In “Totally Familiar Yet Completely New: Opportunities for and Challenges to Integrating Disaster Risk Management in Community Development,” a new paper jointly published by NeighborWorks® America and the Joint Center for Housing Studies, Susanna Pho, who was a 2018 Edward M. Gramlich Fellow in Housing and Community Development, aims to fill this gap. To do so, Pho, a Master in Design Studies student at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, reviewed the existing literature, consulted with experts in the field, and interviewed the leaders of four housing-related groups that have been doing disaster-related work:

Although each organization’s story is unique, Pho found that taken together, the four cases suggest important lessons for leaders of other community-based organizations in places that might also experience an environmental disaster. Leaders of the four organizations, for example, all discussed the importance of both contributing to environmental narratives and utilizing environmental narratives to frame their work.

Illustratively, Self-Help Enterprises, which was founded in 1965 to address housing issues in the San Joaquin Valley, soon found itself working on issues related to ensuring that residents had access to potable water. In 2010 and 2011, when drought conditions started to worsen, homeowners in the valley began calling the organization’s rehab hotline to request assistance with wells that were running dry. Thanks to some entrepreneurial staff members, what began as a few well-replacement projects, carried out through the organization’s housing rehabilitation program, quickly grew.  As a result, in 2015, county officials, who knew and trusted the group’s leaders, turned to S.H.E. to run a new drought-response program. By the end of 2018, S.H.E. had replaced over 1,600 wells with temporary tanks, reestablished over 280 wells, connected more than 950 homes to permanent water distribution systems, and distributed over 11,000 water conservation kits.

In addition to linking disaster narratives to community capacity-building work, leaders of the organizations profiled in Pho’s paper also sought ways to align disaster recovery interventions with their organization’s missions. For example, after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, CCDC, with funding from the city of San Francisco, developed a program in which Chinatown youth offered earthquake preparedness training to residents of the neighborhood’s many single-room occupancy (SRO) buildings. The program, which has grown and become a nationally recognized model, became integral to the organization’s other activities. As CCDC’s Executive Director, Norman Fong, told Pho: “We do community organizing to preserve the community, to preserve affordable housing, and to empower the residents themselves…to organize and to fight back.” After the organization’s representatives went into the SROs to teach earthquake preparedness and fire safety, they often stayed in touch with the residents and got them engaged with CCDC resident associations that were working to address other challenges in the neighborhood.  Moreover, by giving young people opportunities to work with residents and speak in public settings, the earthquake initiative also helped train a new generation of community leaders.

The CBO leaders also noted that over time, their groups’ responses to disasters significantly affected their makeup and capacity.  For example, before Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, disaster preparedness or response was not a meaningful part of Avenue CDC’s activities. Immediately after the storm, however, their staff mobilized quickly to create a resource hub, an undertaking that required an increase in staffing and the creation of an entirely new facility. Similarly, after Hurricane Harvey, the Tejano Center shifted employee roles so they could provide badly needed housing recovery services.

While many of the leaders said these shifts were good for their organizations, they also noted that they had confronted many challenges in doing disaster-related work. All of them, for example, said their organizations have had to grapple with insufficient funding, inadequate access to local governmental decision-making processes, and incomplete documentation and training about the best ways to prepare for and respond to natural and environmental disasters.

Despite these challenges, Pho notes, the four groups’ experiences “highlight the fact that community-based organizations fill a unique niche in domestic disaster response and recovery. As neighborhood-level actors they are nimble, possess local-level knowledge, and are accustomed to acting in moments of uncertainty.” Nevertheless, she cautions, CBOs face a series of unique challenges that limit their ability act as effectively as possible. “To a large extent, many of these challenges could be addressed through greater ongoing local collaboration as well as through increased financial and educational resources,” she writes. “While significant gains on these fronts have occurred over the past few years, environmental disaster work is still often seen as ancillary to community development. Recognizing its centrality is key to supporting the work of CBOs that can and should continuously engage in local disaster risk management.”