This page is optimized for a taller screen. Please rotate your device or increase the size of your browser window.

How Can We Improve Housing Resilience in the Face of Climate Change?

March 13, 2019

Challenges in areas ranging from education to the environment, gender to governance, health to housing don’t exist in a vacuum. Each month, Abt experts from two disciplines explore ideas for tackling these challenges in our monthly podcast, The Intersect. Sign up for monthly e-mail notifications here. Catch up with previous episodes here.

In this month’s inaugural episode, Colleen Moore and Megan O’Grady discuss how we can address housing needs as we confront the effects of climate change. We hope you’ll join us at The Intersect:

Read the Transcript:

Eric Tischler: Hi and welcome to The Intersect. Today I'm joined by Colleen Moore and Megan O'Grady. Colleen manages a wide range of housing and community development projects on topics including disaster recovery, resilience and effective HUD program planning and implementation. Megan manages projects that support climate resilience planning at the state and local level. She works on projects for EPA, NOAA, and state and local clients. Thank you both for joining me.

Colleen Moore: Thank you.

Megan O'Grady: Thank you. Thanks for having us.

Eric: As we record this, we've just ping ponged between a polar vortex and then, a week later, 72 degree temperatures. This summer we had deadly and costly wildfires. There's a lot going on with the climate and people are really feeling it and, in some cases, the cost can be billions of dollars. So what can we be doing to help those people and keep those costs down in the future?

Colleen: One of the ways that Megan and I came together really had to do with how HUD responds to disasters and something short of disasters, but the kinds of events that happen because of natural hazard risks. And so we came together around our knowledge of how HUD responds to those things and then Abt's knowledge in the area of climate change and how to evaluate and mitigate those risks.

Megan: Yeah. And we pulled lessons from communities around the country who have already started taking a lot of actions to reduce their potential risks to climate change. Communities already know how to plan for natural disasters. We can look at them for examples and share their lessons with other communities.

Eric: We need to prepare. What are some things we can be doing? What are some steps we can be taking?

Colleen: I think that Megan is right, a lot of communities do know how to do this, but in many cases they don't have the resources to do it. So one of the things that we can do here at Abt is to look at what are the range of resources out there that can be brought to bear and then try to help those communities match some of those resources to the actual challenges that they're facing and how they can actually mitigate them. I use that term from kind of the community perspective, but I mean we can bring the technical knowledge to do that along with the knowledge of how to kind of bring the right resources. And you might want to talk a little bit more about that technical knowledge or mitigation, how you guys look at mitigation.

Megan: Yeah, so I think Colleen mentioned mitigating risks and it's interesting in our field, in the field of climate change, when we talk about mitigation it tends to mean reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And so we tend to use mitigation in a different context. And that's one of the things I think that working with colleagues in other disciplines, we start to explore. And even just making sure that we're using the same lexicon when we're working with communities to provide some understanding of what do we mean when we're talking about changing risks for communities. What might that look like on the ground, whether it's increasing heat or increasing localized flood risk. How do those global concepts actually play out on the ground and what are the impacts that people might feel at a very local neighborhood level? And then how do you support communities to find funding to take some actions to reduce some of those impacts?

Colleen: I think the other thing that kind of comes up in that discussion is the communities that are impacted and what their challenges already are, because one thing that we do see is that many of these risks are felt more by vulnerable communities. So, in our HUD work we might term that as “low- and moderate-income communities.” They might not be necessarily termed that way, but they may be vulnerable in other ways. They may be vulnerable because of their physical environment. But in many cases, these are communities that have a lot of challenges anyway, so finding those resources is even more difficult for them. And also bringing the technical expertise to just figure out how do we do this, how do we avoid this kind of flooding, how do we decrease our risk of wildfire or whatever. So that's something that we talk a lot about from a programmatic perspective.

Megan: Yeah, and an increasing topic of awareness, luckily, is how climate change is likely to disproportionately affect more vulnerable populations. Again, whether that's lower, moderate income housing—to use sort of the HUD terms in flood prone areas—or whether it's lack of proper cooling in public housing facilities, or if it's evacuation plans that are written in English and not other languages that are spoken in the community. So there are lots of ways in which low- and moderate-income populations are potentially more at risk from changing climate, and a lot of times their particular needs are overlooked in planning. And so I think bringing it together—Colleen's background, working with HUD specifically around accommodating needs for vulnerable populations and our work in climate change—we were able, and I think we can continue to work at this intersection to really help particularly vulnerable populations.

Colleen: Yeah, I think that one of the areas that we've talked about—and I think that a lot of people are talking about it, especially when we see these kind of increasing high-profile disasters, particularly hurricanes and these really massive wildfires—is this whole idea of mitigation from a community perspective. And I think that those entities that have to come in and fund disaster recovery would like that to be a smaller undertaking than it's been in the past.

We saw these really, really significant disasters, especially over the past couple of years. And so I think there is more discussion about how do we help those communities decrease their risk of all of these disasters. And I know HUD is looking at specific mitigation funding, which is the first time that I'm aware that they've done that. So I think there are some opportunities, and communities will become even more aware of kind of what some of those strategies are, not only how to evaluate their risks, but how to kind of adopt strategies that will mitigate those. So I think that's an area that people are looking at. And I think that, again, our experience in kind of marrying the program knowledge with some of the technical knowledge around these kinds of risks that had to do with climate change, but there's a real good intersection there in terms of ... not to use your term.

Eric: Please use my term; Megan, did too! It's branded. Thank you! “You're listening to the Intersect.”

Colleen: But it is an intersection of those kind of bodies of knowledge hopefully.

Megan: Yeah. And I think there are a lot of things that communities can do that will help reduce some of their risks now and continue to do so into the future. And certainly those cost money and we need to recognize that can be a hurdle for communities. And then we look at the cost of a recovery after a disaster. Where can we start to bring some of that post-disaster money into preparation and reducing risks for the future.

Colleen: Right. That does come up in the disaster recovery context. I think the challenge is how do you identify those challenges before that major disaster. It will take Puerto Rico years and years and billions of dollars to rebuild and hopefully they will be more resilient. But the challenge is we can't necessarily predict those things, but to try to look at the risks overall and see how to address some of those before those events happen.

Megan: Yeah. I think another thing we can do is help communities prepare better for the unfortunate event of a natural disaster, and how can they think ahead of time about, "Okay, where are our floodplains? Where do we need to start elevating buildings? What sort of teams do we need to have lined up?" So that recovery piece, that build back better piece is ... there's a plan for that ahead of time so it doesn't take so long to get people back in their homes and turn the lights back on and things like that.

Colleen: Yeah. The other piece of this, the resource piece, is interesting because in many cases some of these communities do have access to some of the resources. Some of the resources that we talked about in our work on community resilience, they do already have access to some of those resources, but haven't necessarily thought about using them in this way. So I think that's one thing that our work can help sort of get that word out, we hope, and also help communities think more strategically about that. If they're using some of these resources, whether they're community development resources or others that may become available in the future, they all are going to have to be used as efficiently as possible. What we've seen in Puerto Rico and in the Virgin Islands is it sounds like an unlimited amount of money, but when you look at what the needs are post-disaster and the needs to really build back in a way that helps avoid the kind of effects that they've had, it's not an unlimited amount of money.

Megan: One of the other things, we've been talking a lot about extreme events and sort of these high profile punctuated events that get a lot of media attention, but I think we also need to help  communities think about some of the more gradual changes that aren't as flashy—rising temperatures, for example—and how sort of potentially the slower rise of some of the climate changes might impact communities, and help them think about how they can reduce risks from those gradual changes as well as the extreme events.

Colleen: Yeah, absolutely. And that's also something that I think is not well acknowledged in some of the vulnerable communities.

Megan: I think there's also thinking about rising temperatures and vulnerable populations. One of the actions that's often mentioned is community cooling centers, but there is not enough data around how and when people use those types of resources to really say if that's an effective intervention or not. And I think that's another area where we need a lot of research around: what are the actions that people often cite as mitigating actions really have the biggest impact.

Colleen: That's another intersection Megan. Abt Intersection of research, evaluation and technical assistance.

Megan: There we go.

Colleen: There we go.

Eric: Colleen and Megan, thank you both.

Work With Us
Ready to change people's lives? We want to hear from you.
We do more than solve the challenges our clients have today. We collaborate to solve the challenges of tomorrow.