Precarious Housing, Informality and Disasters

Access to safe and affordable housing is a critical challenge for low-income and socially vulnerable households. Households with low incomes are often forced to live in precarious and unsafe housing that is physically vulnerable to natural hazards and that presents unique challenges during post-disaster recovery. I have two ongoing projects that are situated at the intersection of precarious housing and environmental hazards and disasters.

Damaged mobile homes in Lyons, Colorado. Image: The Daily Camera

Damaged mobile homes in Lyons, Colorado. Image: The Daily Camera

Mobile Home Parks and Disaster Risk

Research on affordable housing and disasters in the United States largely focuses on owned and rented housing, the nation’s two most common housing tenures. Researchers have largely overlooked mobile home parks, a third housing type that is home to 2.7 million households. This project seeks to understand how the unique characteristics of mobile home parks - their private ownership, stigmatization in popular culture and by local governance institutions, and unique tenure arrangement, in which residents own their individual homes but rent the land underneath - intersect with environmental, social, and regulatory factors to produce disaster risk. Our research team, which includes myself, Esther Sullivan (author of Manufactured Insecurity), Carrie Makarewicz, Shannon Van Zandt, and a fabulous group of graduate students, is studying the impacts of Hurricanes Harvey and Michael on mobile home parks in Texas and Florida, respectively. This project is being funded by the National Science Foundation’s Humans, Disasters and the Built Environment Program and has been supported in the past by the Natural Hazards Center and the Office of Research Services at the University of Colorado Denver.

You can find some of our preliminary work on mobile home parks and disasters in our Quick Response Grant report and article The Importance of Place in Early Disaster Recovery.

Floodwaters in Kolkata. Image: The Independent

Floodwaters in Kolkata. Image: The Independent

Cities, Informality and Uneven Geographies of Disaster Risk

The global population living in cities will nearly double in the 21st century, with much of that growth occurring in the Global South. Cities are sites of significant risk, because of their location in hazardous geographies, the vulnerabilities of households and community assets, and/or the change in environmental conditions due to global climate change. My research in this area seeks to understand the root causes of environmental risk — how social, economic and political forces shape geographies of vulnerability that are ‘revealed’ at the time and place of disasters. I am particularly interested in understanding the drivers of disaster risk for informal settlements, which house a large share of the urban poor in developing cities.

Scholars have long-documented the risks posed by environmental hazards and disasters to informal settlements (sometimes called “slums”). My research advances this area of inquiry by expanding the spatial and temporal frames within which we analyze vulnerability. How does growth of informal settlements relate to planned spatial development over time, and through whose decisions and actions are those communities located in hazardous geographies and without supporting infrastructure? I approach these questions through mixed-methods research on Kolkata, India, one of the world’s largest and most environmentally at-risk cities. Using survey, interview, geospatial and archival data, I show how highly-planned new town settlements on the periphery of Kolkata have contributed to increasing levels of environmental risk by guiding urban development onto floodplains while failing to provide housing, infrastructure, or basic services for the urban poor, who are themselves a necessary part of urban growth. Manish Shirgaokar and I document the exposure of households living in informal settlements on the periphery of new towns to monsoon rain hazards, annual events that contribute to the everyday accumulation of risk. We show that household exposure varies significantly across populations living in informal settlements and follows predictable patterns based on socioeconomic and infrastructure factors.

 Two papers further examine the socio-political roots of environmental risk in Indian cities. In the Journal of Urban Affairs I argue that the growing trend of highly uneven geographies of risk in Indian cities like Kolkata is rooted in four factors in the political economy there: the commodification of hazardous land, inadequate provision of affordable housing and amenities, the exclusion of the poor, and interdependence of spatially separated groups. This research brings together theories of Indian urbanisms and discourses on disaster risk reduction, a vital connection necessary to improve the emerging literature on urban resilience.

In the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research my co-authors (Liza Weinstein and Saumitra Sinha) and I examine the seeming contradictions between global and national discourses of urban resilience based on “good planning” and patterns of destructive urban development that continue to occur in India’s flood-prone coastal cities. We find that resilience planning, promoted by the central government and international consultants, and presented in locally produced “fantasy plans,” fails to address the risks of flooding due to its tendency to sidestep questions of politics, power and the distributional conflicts that shape urban development. The paper is part of a symposium in IJURR on the future of urban political theory in light of hydrological crises in Asia.

This research has been funded by the Fulbright Program, the Public Entity Risk Institute, the Clarence Stein Institute, and the Geoeye Foundation.