If governments want to respond to climate change in a way that protects those who have the least, public housing is their first test. The early results are not good.
Finding out what happens to people who have been forced out of public housing by natural disasters isn't straightforward. Neither the Department of Housing and Urban Development nor the Federal Emergency Management Agency tracks the number of public housing units destroyed each year by natural disasters. Nor does the housing agency track how many of those units get replaced.
But interviews with housing authority directors and advocates around the country show a clear pattern: When public housing is damaged or destroyed by a hurricane or storm, the people forced to leave that housing seldom get to return.
Getting vouchers for private housing means former residents of public housing typically need to pay more. They pose another problem: Vouchers often leave people at even greater risk from climate change, by forcing them to live in the areas most exposed to extreme weather. For the federal government, it's cheaper that way.
The amount that the Department of Housing and Urban Development will pay private landlords for accepting tenants with vouchers is set by a formula that can be as low as the 36th percentile of area rents. Combined with the stigma attached to tenants with vouchers, few landlords are willing to accept them.
"If we have a rental payment standard that's low, then people can only live in the cheapest areas of town," Casius Pealer, a New Orleans housing lawyer and professor at the Tulane School of Architecture, told me. And as flooding gets worse, the cheapest areas of town will increasingly be the wettest.