What I learned reporting on housing and economic inequality after Hurricane Harvey
In the months after Hurricane Harvey slammed the Texas Gulf Coast as a Category 4 storm, that was the word I heard repeatedly from renters, homeowners and disaster case managers in small towns and rural communities.
The help that the Federal Emergency Management Agency and state leaders promised hadn’t arrived. They feared their communities would be left behind, overshadowed by larger cities like Houston. In some cases, their homes looked as if Harvey had just hit — not the year before.
But in Victoria, a city of 67,000 where our newspaper is based, elected leaders largely turned a blind eye to families still fighting to recover. In some cases, they even questioned the extent of the damage. During a meeting a couple months after Harvey struck, for example, the mayor told other council members that he’d heard a story about students living in cars — something he doubted.
“I said, ‘You send that first student in a car to my house because I got a place to put them,’” said Mayor Paul Polasek. “No one has taken me up on that, so there’s a lot of information that gets embellished.”
By the end of the school year, however, more than 1,900 children in Victoria qualified for programs to help homeless or displaced students under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act — more than double the year prior. Almost a year after Harvey hit, it was clear that local, state and federal officials were failing to help vulnerable families rebuild.
So in a four-part series, we examined how Hurricane Harvey not only ripped apart families’ homes, but also their financial stability — a reality that those in power appeared to ignore. In our pre-reporting process, we held town hall meetings across the community where residents could share their experiences. And in hopes of making stories as accessible as possible, we partnered with our region’s only bilingual paper to publish the stories in both English and Spanish.
Over the course of our reporting, we examined how natural disasters often widen the economic gap between those who have the resources to rebuild and those who don’t. Research shows that people who are privileged in terms of race, homeownership or education actually see their wealth increase after disasters. The inverse is true for people of color, renters and people with less education.
We documented how local government leaders in Victoria failed to acknowledge the affordable housing crisis exacerbated by Harvey, and how rising rents left some tenants with little choice other than to rent from property owners who repeatedly broke landlord-tenant laws. Another story analyzed how the state of Texas failed to earmark sufficient funding needed to address the rental shortage. Of roughly $2.236 billion in federal grant money earmarked to repair damaged housing in areas outside of Houston, only 20 percent is targeted for rentals.
In all, it took photographer Angela Piazza and I about six months to produce the project, which included 168 photos, multiple videos. and sidebars exploring potential solutions. These are some things we learned along the way:
- Plan how your newsroom covers disasters before they strike. Know that disasters will worsen the existing disparities within your community and overburden resources that might already be strained. In our case, we didn’t start planning this project until months after Harvey struck. Had we been more proactive in our coverage — and not as reactive — we could’ve saved a lot of time and produced this project sooner after the storm hit.
- Data showing how disasters affect families’ finances is often limited. If FEMA or your state emergency agency doesn’t have the information you’re looking for, reach out to school districts, the federal reserve bank, public health foundations or other groups that might collect their own data.
- Make it easy for the people you’re writing about to read your work. We focused on rural communities where many families are trying to climb out of poverty. A lot of them didn’t have internet, and purchasing a newspaper subscription wasn’t an option. When each installment published, we delivered stacks of papers to a local soup kitchen and readers in less privileged areas.
- If someone doesn’t respond to a phone call or text, it doesn’t mean they don’t want to talk with you. Over the course of our reporting, half of the people we wrote about opted to pay for food, housing or other necessities instead of cell phone bills. When that happened, we’d knock on doors and tell folks in their social circles know that we were looking for them.
- Check in regularly with your sources. They might be going through some of the most difficult times in their recent lives. Even if it’s just a text message saying, “How are you?” or “I hope your kids are doing OK”, that goes a long way in building trust.
- Be patient — and ready to invest more time than you expect. On one occasion, for example, a photographer and I waited outside an apartment complex all morning until we caught a landlord throwing out a tenant’s belongings without going through a proper eviction process — something the landlord repeatedly denied doing. The photos of that happening made the wait totally worth it.
- Think about how attitudes — not just policies — might be hurting your community. Over the course of our reporting, it became apparent that we had to tackle the stereotypes surrounding poverty and housing instability. Policies won’t change until attitudes do.
- Be part of the public conversation. About halfway through the project, when it seemed like we weren’t seeing the kind of public discussion we wanted, we began contacting nonprofit leaders with the idea of partnering together to host a roundtable discussion about housing issues. After talking about it together, the nonprofit officials took the lead and planned multiple panel discussions to address homelessness and housing instability.