'We're Staying Here,' Harvey Evacuees In Austin Say. But Can They Afford To? | KUOW News and Information

'We're Staying Here,' Harvey Evacuees In Austin Say. But Can They Afford To?

Sep 8, 2017
Originally published on September 11, 2017 5:09 am

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

“We’re pretty wiped out,” Wendy said. The Riveras’ trailer home in Aransas Pass was gone thanks to Harvey, and they were now staying at their second shelter. “There’s not much to salvage.”

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

But will they move to Austin? "Absolutely not," she said. "But outskirts ..."

Who goes back?

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

Scenes From Hurricane Harvey

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, the Texas state demographer.

Cossy Hough worked for the Texas Department of State Health Services during 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,” she said. “People … who relocated to Houston from the New Orleans area, if they were low-income, had a 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 the next step?

Kristie Perez’s family left their apartment in Victoria before Harvey hit. She 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 say they'll restart their lives in Austin.

"We like it here in Austin. My kids love it," she said. "We’re staying here.”

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.

Perez said, however, 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,” she said. “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,” Robinson said. 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, 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,” Robinson said.

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