Graduate student examines links between housing, income and risk of harm

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pennsylvania – An aerial view of some communities can reveal high income inequalities: boundaries at the edges of hills, valleys, streets, or other features separate high-income neighborhoods from low-income neighborhoods. In some places in the United States, such as Houston, Texas, these same limits mark a drastic difference in risk from natural disasters, such as flooding.

“Low-income people in the Houston-Galveston area are concentrated in areas most prone to the impacts of natural disasters,” says Travis Young, a geography doctoral student at Penn State.

Young decided to pursue his doctorate in geography to realize the origin of these problems. As a recipient of a highly competitive National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Scholarship, Young hopes to positively influence low-income communities in the Houston-Galveston area through his research.

A winding path to his research

Young’s research interests, he says, have been influenced by many factors in his personal and professional life.

He experienced the connection between geography, income, and natural disaster risk growing up in the rural town of Davis Creek, West Virginia. Wealthier families living at higher elevations were virtually immune to the almost annual flooding that wreaked havoc on low-income families, like Young’s, located at lower elevations in the floodplains.

“It was something that we internalized as a given. We didn’t ask, “It was just part of our way of life,” Young explains.

As an AmeriCorps volunteer in San Francisco, Calif., Young was exposed to the idea of ​​land use planning, seeing how communities were working with businesses, government offices and other organizations to take decisions about where to build new buildings. Later, in Salt Lake City, Utah, Young became involved with organizations that helped homeless and low-income families find a place to live.

These experiences, he says, made him want to learn more about how communities plan land use.

“I wanted to know more about environmental, human and societal factors. I found myself asking more questions that became increasingly difficult to answer, such as how regional processes and political decisions affect disadvantaged families, ”he says.

To begin to master some of these complex issues, Young earned a bachelor’s degree in geography from the University of Utah. He then pursued a master’s degree, starting at Cornell University and finishing his degree at Texas A&M. Here, Young began working with families in Houston-Galveston who had been displaced by Hurricane Ike in 2008. Hurricane Ike, which made landfall in September 2008, decimated areas of Texas, causing an estimated $ 29 billion. dollars in damage, leaving millions without electricity and thousands without homes. .

“I was on an NSF-funded research project that investigated insurance practices, how people came to live where they lived and evacuation processes,” he says.

The Houston project, like her own experience growing up, demonstrated how entire communities could be endangered based on geography alone. Young saw that it was no accident that families ended up where they lived. However, a lack of research made it almost impossible to say which factors were the strongest, making it nearly impossible to come up with effective solutions. This is what Young wanted to change and this is the reason why he decided to pursue his doctorate at Penn State.

He felt that geography would be the best program to pursue his line of research.

“It’s a flexible program that has links to demography, risk studies and other related fields,” says Young, whose academic advisor is Christopher Fowler, assistant professor of geography. with researchers from across the University and develop a skill set to tackle these issues. “

A myriad of factors affecting income and risk inequalities

The economy of the Houston-Galveston area has grown steadily in recent years due to an increase in medical facilities, universities, and the retail industry. At the same time, there has been an influx of Asian and Latino immigrants, many of whom are living in affordable housing, Young says.

One of the challenges facing low-income families in the area, according to de Young’s hypothesis, is that there was a major shift in the management of affordable housing in the area in the 1990s – of ownership. public to private property. The region began to use a voucher system which was subsidized by federal funding.

“It really puts pressure on families to find landlords who are willing to accept these vouchers and provide quality, affordable housing. on the waiting list for affordable housing vouchers today.

Another potential problem is that owners are not legally required to accept vouchers. Coupled with the limited availability of affordable housing, families could feel stranded in areas at high risk of flooding. Houston typically experiences major flooding, most recent in 2015 and 2016.

“Who bears the brunt of these dangerous events? Low-income populations, and that’s really having a magnified impact on them, ”Young says. “If you initially live below the poverty line, you are probably trying to save money, but at a slower pace than others. You also have less access to car ownership, lines of credit and other resources used in daily life. . A disaster strikes and destroys your possessions and forces you to move, or forces your employer to move. It has a more intense effect for low-income populations. “

Moving to a more stable neighborhood would be a boon for low-income families, and Young notes that the voucher system was billed like this – a way for low-income families to get around the metro area.

Whether a public or private model is better is not the right question to ask, Young says, because neither model takes into account the evolution of vulnerability to hazards. This is because the city’s floodplain map system has not been able to keep up with the region’s rapid growth and urbanization. One of Young’s first tasks through his research is to develop a basic vulnerability model indicating hazard risks for communities in Houston.

Once this step is completed, Young will travel to Houston to interview local government officials, subsidized housing residents and community advocates.

“I’m going to try to get a feel for how people end up where they are and what they think about their opportunities – basically, breaking down the nuances and complexity of how people make decisions into housing, ”he says.

It will also interview local government and private developers to assess how they make housing decisions, whether they are primarily concerned with market analysis, or whether other factors are taken into account.

“I hope my work can help paint a richer picture of vulnerability to hazards and the housing experience in this region, and how it has changed,” he says.

Evidence from Young’s research may also help areas outside of Houston.

“Other cities may not be dealing with the scale of growth and change Houston-Galveston is facing, but every metropolitan area across the country faces challenges in providing quality affordable housing,” he said. he declared.

  • Travis Young, PhD student in geography at Penn State

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