Grad student examines links between housing, income and hazard risk

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — An aerial view of some communities can reveal stark income inequalities: Boundaries at the edges of hills, valleys, streets or other features separate high-income from low-income neighborhoods. In some places in the U.S., like Houston, Texas, those same boundaries mark a drastic difference in risk for natural disasters, like flooding.

"Low-income people in the Houston-Galveston region are being concentrated in areas that are most susceptible to impacts from natural disasters," says Travis Young, a doctoral student in geography at Penn State.

Young decided to pursue his doctorate in geography to home in on the origin of these issues. As a recipient of a highly competitive National Science Foundation (NSF) graduate fellowship, Young hopes to make a positive influence on low-income communities in the Houston-Galveston region through his research.

A winding path toward his research

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

He experienced the link between geography, income and risk of natural disaster firsthand while growing up in the rural town of Davis Creek, West Virginia. Wealthier families living at higher elevations were virtually immune to the nearly annual flooding events that took a toll on low-income families, like Young's, situated at lower elevations in floodplains.

"It was something we internalized as a given. We didn’t ask, 'Why do only we flood?' It was just part of how we lived," says Young.

As an AmeriCorps volunteer in San Francisco, California, Young was exposed to the idea of land use planning, seeing how communities worked with businesses, government offices and other organizations to make decisions on where to construct new buildings. Later, in Salt Lake City, Utah, Young was involved with organizations that helped homeless and low-income families find places to live.

These experiences, he says, left him wanting to know more about how communities plan their land use.

"I was gravitating toward wanting to know more about the environmental, human and societal factors. I found myself asking more questions that got bigger and harder to answer, like how regional processes and policy decisions affect disadvantaged families,” he says.

To start to get a handle on some of these complex issues, Young pursued a bachelor’s degree in geography at the University of Utah. He then pursued a master’s degree, beginning at Cornell University and completing 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, making landfall in September 2008, decimated areas of Texas, causing approximately $29 billion in damage, leaving millions without power and thousands without homes.

"I was on an NSF-funded research project that was investigating insurance practices, how people came to live where they did, and evacuation processes," he says.

The Houston project, much like his own experience growing up, demonstrated how entire communities could be put at risk based on geography alone. Young saw that it wasn’t by chance that families ended up where they lived. However, a lack of research made it nearly impossible to say which factors were strongest — in turn making it nearly impossible to propose any effective solutions. That’s what Young wanted to change and it’s the reason 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 ties with demography, hazard studies and other related fields," says Young, whose faculty adviser is Christopher Fowler, assistant professor of geography. "The program, I felt, would provide support and allow me to build connections with researchers across the University and develop a skillset to tackle these issues."

Myriad factors affecting income and risk inequalities

The Houston-Galveston region's economy has been growing steadily in recent years due to an increase in medical institutions, universities and the retail sector. At the same time, there has been an influx of Asian and Latino immigrants, many of whom are living in affordable housing, says Young.

One of the challenges facing low-income families in the area, Young hypothesizes, is that there was a major switch in the area's affordable housing management in the 1990s — from publicly owned to privately owned. The area began employing a voucher system that was subsidized by federal funding.

"This really put the onus on families to find landlords who are willing to accept these vouchers and provide quality, affordable housing. But there aren't a lot of quality, affordable housing options," says Young, noting that there are roughly 30,000 families on the waitlist to receive affordable housing vouchers today.

Another potential issue is that landlords aren't legally required to accept vouchers. Coupling this with the limited availability of affordable housing could lead to families feeling immobilized in areas at high risk for flooding. Houston typically experiences major flooding, most recently in 2015 and 2016.

"Who bears the brunt of these hazard events? Low-income populations, and this really has an amplified impact on them," says Young. "If you're living on the poverty line to begin with, you're probably trying to save money, but at a slower rate than others. You also have less access to car ownership, lines of credit and other resources used in everyday life. A disaster comes and wipes out 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 as just that — a way that low-income families could move across the metropolitan area.

Whether a publicly or privately owned model is best isn’t the right question to ask, says Young, because neither model takes into account changing hazard vulnerability. That's because the city’s floodplain map system hasn’t 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 baseline vulnerability model indicating hazard risk for Houston's communities.

After that is complete, Young will travel to Houston to interview local government officials, residents of subsidized housing and community advocates.

"I'll be trying to get a feel for how people end up where they do, and what they think their opportunities are — basically, unpacking the nuance and complexity of how people make housing decisions," he says.

He'll also be interviewing local government and private developers to gauge how they make housing decisions, whether they are concerned primarily with market analysis or whether other factors are taken into account.

"I'm hoping that my work can help tell a richer picture of hazard vulnerability and housing experience in this region, and how it's changing," he says.

Elements of Young’s research could also help areas outside of Houston.

"Other cities might not be dealing with the magnitude of the growth and changes Houston-Galveston is facing, but every metropolitan area in the country is dealing with problems of providing quality affordable housing," he says.

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Last Updated February 06, 2017