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Harvey ‘washed us back home’: Is Austin too expensive for those relocating after Harvey?

Friday, September 8, 2017 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

Wendy Rivera sat in a metal folding chair outside the shelter for Hurricane Harvey evacuees in Southeast Austin. She shared a 44-ounce convenience store soda with her husband, Ramiro. Ramiro, tall, soft-spoken and tattooed, used his body and a white towel to shade the two from the demanding sun.

“We’re pretty wiped out,” said Wendy. The Rivera’s trailer home in Aransas Pass was gone thanks to Harvey. “There’s not much to salvage.” The Southeast Austin warehouse was their second shelter.

“We’re gonna stay. We’re originally from Austin and we’ve only been gone for not even a year now,” said Wendy. She and Ramiro met in high school in Del Valle – she was 14, he 17. “(Harvey) just kinda washed us back home.”

Who goes back?

A month after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, 600,000 households affected by the storm remained in temporary housing. One study suggests that those who returned to New Orleans quickly tended to be white college graduates. Many people did not go back. According to the Houston Chronicle, 40,000 people ended up relocating to Houston.

The same could happen with those displaced by Harvey in and around Austin.

“Conceivably if somebody is displaced and goes to another city and they’re relatively speaking low-income there’s less of a pull to get them back to the place where they were displaced from,” said Lloyd Potter, Texas state demographer.

Cossy Hough worked for the Texas Health and Human Services Department during Hurricane Katrina. She now teaches at the University of Texas School of Social Work.

“We saw the same kind of thing after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita,” said Hough. “People … who relocated to Houston from the New Orleans area, if they were low-income, had the tendency to stay. If you’ve lost everything that you owned, if you were renting a house, if you didn’t necessarily have a car, if your job is currently underwater or you didn’t have a job there’s not really a whole lot to return to.”

“What’s our next step?”

Kristie Perez’s family left their apartment in Victoria before Harvey hit. Perez came home to broken windows and a flooded home.

“We lost everything,” said Perez, who is staying at the Austin shelter with her wife and two children. “We don’t want to go back, period.” Instead, they’ll restart their lives in Austin.

Perez’s two children, ages 10 and 11, have already started school in the Del Valle Independent School District. The bus picks up and drops off the kids at the shelter. Perez’s wife, Belinda Salinas, has job interviews at a local McDonald’s and Jack in the Box.

But Perez said she doesn’t think they can afford to live in Austin, which has the most expensive housing market in Texas.

“Austin is more expensive than we can actually afford,” said Perez. “We’re gonna start looking outside and see what we can find that we can afford.”

City of Austin demographer Ryan Robinson said Katrina evacuees looking to relocate faced a similar problem a decade ago.

“The folks from New Orleans, they were able to get jobs, but even then the housing was too expensive and we lost, we think, many of those potential households,” said Robinson. Many ended up in other Texas cities. “We think we lost them out to Houston because the housing in Houston was so much more affordable.”

This time around Harvey evacuees face even steeper housing costs.

“That, I think, is going to be a breaking agent, if you will, on the volume of refugees that we’re going to end up accommodating,” said Robinson.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. Photo: Wendy and Ramiro Rivera outside the city mega shelter at 7000 Metropolis Dr. Martin do Nascimento/KUT.

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