In Brownsville, a program called RAPIDO places innovative housing design at the center of community resilience.
When Hurricane Dolly struck the gulf coast of Texas in 2008, the storm left behind $1.35 billion in damages, much of it inflicted on houses. Over 38,000 families in the Rio Grande Valley applied to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for assistance with home repairs; around half of those applications were denied.
In the Rio Grande Valley, the poverty rate hovers around 35 percent. It’s one of the poorest regions in the United States, and its coastal location renders it one of the most susceptible to disasters. In the aftermath of such events, low-income people of color may be especially vulnerable. It is FEMA policy to withhold repair money from homes deemed to have been in “substandard condition” prior to the storm. Families who may have lacked the resources to maintain the conditions of their homes are often left with little recourse after a disaster hits.
“We’ve lived through Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Dolly, and Ike, and a series of wildfires, and we’ve been appalled by the inefficiencies in how low-income homeowners recover, and at the racism and injustice that plays out in the process,” says John Henneberger, the director of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service.
Texas RioGrande Legal Aid has filed a lawsuit against FEMA for failing to meet demand for assistance after Hurricane Dolly. Meanwhile, Henneberger’s organization and a coalition of local advocacy groups, architects, and community agencies have devised a system to overhaul the entire disaster-relief recovery system.
The Lower Rio Grande Rapid Re-Housing Program, or RAPIDO, began with one question: When disaster hits low-income families, how could people be housed and folded back into the community as quickly as possible, and in the most cost-effective way?
In 2008, spurred by the recent slew of hurricanes, Henneberger worked with the Texas Society of Architects to solicit design proposals from teams around the state. Henneberger was looking for a plan that would get people re-housed in six weeks, in structures that cost no more than $70,000 apiece. The structures should survive a Category 4-type disaster in a high-wind area, and be scalable. “We wanted plan to cover not just 10 or 20 families, but a whole community,” Henneberger says.
RAPIDO, a collaboration between various local organizations and the community design firm buildingcommunityWORKSHOP, was born out of those criteria. The program, which piloted in 2013 in Brownsville, Galveston, and Houston, places temporary-to-permanent housing at the center of disaster relief. Within weeks of a disaster, the program deploys a 400-square-foot core housing unit to a family’s property. The core contains a living area, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a kitchenette, and it’s designed to be expanded upon: Families work with local contractors to customize the structure and add additional rooms. “These are not cookie-cutter designs,” says Elaine Morales, a design associate at bcWORKSHOP. The family’s involvement in the process, she adds, allows them a sense of ownership over their new home.
For his work on RAPIDO, Henneberger has been called the “scourge of FEMA trailers.” The streamlined nature of RAPIDO has highlighted the inefficiencies of FEMA’s disaster-recovery model. After a storm, the federal agency set families up in hotels or in trailers, which Henneberger says cost upwards of $70,000 to purchase and deploy. But unlike the similarly priced RAPIDO structures, the trailers are temporary; after six to nine months, they’re removed, and families are left to tackle their housing situation independently or wait for long-term recovery funds to kick in. That process is run through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and administered by the state; reconstruction is often years in the making. And as Louisiana’s response to Hurricane Katrina demonstrated, long-term relief efforts often de-prioritize poorer homeowners and focus instead on supporting moderate-income housing to pull in more taxes. Through RAPIDO, Morales estimates that the recovery process for a whole area could take months, not years, and allow families and communities to remain in place.
Previous disaster-relief models, Morales adds, didn’t just fail because of inefficient housing—they failed because there were no comprehensive community plans in place before a storm hit. Working with experts at Texas A&M University’s Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center, the team of organizations behind RAPIDO developed a “pre-covery” strategy for communities to foster resilience before a disaster. Outreach officials called “navigators” are assigned to discuss options with families before a storm, and walk through the process of applying for housing relief afterwards to prevent administrative bottlenecking. RAPIDO also convened local government officials and neighborhood representatives to devise a plan for how all layers of the community could most effectively collaborate and organize in advance of a disaster; one aspect of the strategy involves working with local contractors to ready a supply of housing materials that could be deployed within 48 hours of a storm.
In September, Brownsville became the first city to approve the development of a local RAPIDO plan. The city has already collaborated with bcWORKSHOP on a series of affordable housing developments. Beginning in January, through a Ford Foundation grant, Brownsville will work with RAPIDO partners to implement a comprehensive disaster strategy emphasizing preparedness and the streamlined housing strategy. Once it’s finalized, Nick Mitchell-Bennett of the Community Development Corporation of Brownsville says the city will present the model to HUD and FEMA as a template for a broader disaster-relief system. “It will be the first recovery plan shown to those agencies that accounts for recovery prior to a disaster,” Mitchell-Bennett says.
RAPDIO organizers recently launched a website that makes all technical guides and community recommendations open-source. “There’s no silver bullet in disaster recovery; everyone has to tailor these programs to work locally,” Henneberger says. “We want people to tear it apart, repurpose it, and make it work for them.”
While Brownsville proceeds with with private money, Mitchell-Bennett envisions a larger national conversation around overhauling the whole disaster-recovery system. “Everyone we’ve shown this to—local elected officials, FEMA officials—says this is a plan that could save money and save lives,” Mitchell-Bennett says. “But it’s unfortunate that we need to wait for another disaster to prove that this really works.”