This Time, Let’s Rebuild for Resiliency

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By Dr. Mehmet Oz and Steve PonTell

Our hearts go out to the people of Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico whose lives were upended by the recent hurricanes. It’s impossible to fathom the challenges so many of them will face as they rebuild their homes and their communities.

But with our thoughts and prayers come hope, confidence and a commitment to do everything in our power to ensure that these communities not only come back stronger than ever, but serve as a model for others to follow.

We know it can happen. Our nation’s history is rich with examples of unimaginable tragedy followed by amazing renaissance. The San Francisco earthquake. The Chicago Fire. Manhattan after 911. Great cities reborn by the energy and resiliency of the community.

A common thread then, as now, was an amazing spirit of collaboration and cooperation – people and organizations of multiple interests working together to put back what was taken away.

Let’s not stop there, however. As we rebuild from the devastation of Harvey, Irma and Maria, let’s make a determined effort to rebuild for resiliency – to rethink how we’ve always done things and create a better place than before.

It starts with housing, and understanding the critical importance of safe, attainable shelter to the health and well-being of any community. The devastation in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico has left tens of thousands of individuals and families without homes – compounding a national housing crisis of epic proportion, and underscoring the need for a “housing for all” strategy at the local, state and federal level.

Central to this is the availability of capital. Many of the traditional funding streams no longer exist, particularly when it comes to low- and moderate-priced housing. This puts a higher premium on tax credit financing and partnerships between private funders, the federal government and non-profit community builders.

Along with funding is the need to plan now for the range of housing types necessary for communities to grow and prosper, from low-income to high-income, from multi-family to single family, from entry level to senior housing to special needs.

This can’t happen in a vacuum. The proximity of jobs and transportation networks, the accessibility to supermarkets, schools and medical facilities, and the strength and sustainability of infrastructure all play into how a healthy, well-function community is built or rebuilt.

The Centers for Disease Control appreciates that access to safe and affordable housing is a fundamental driver of health and inequality, so they take all of this a step further – creating a toolkit for communities to use to engage their citizens in the long-term planning process. The idea is that a community that takes ownership of its future will, in the end, be in a better position to withstand future challenges. As a fringe benefit, supportive housing also reduces healthcare costs.

Included in the toolkit is a checklist for community members to weigh in on, such as the availability of housing for all income levels and household types, better access to public transportation, community gardens and well-marked crosswalks and bike lanes.

Other types of community and stakeholder engagement opportunities include:

Implementing a formal community mapping process, combining small group discussions, annual community satisfaction surveys and outreach to stakeholder groups to identify priorities and improvement needs.
Creating a platform for residents to submit photos of things they like and don’t like about their community.

For hurricane-ravaged communities – and for the rest of us as well – this kind of public involvement in the planning and rebuilding process will pay huge dividends long term.

Nothing can replace the lives or property lost as a result of Harvey, Irma and Maria. To the victims, again, we offer our ongoing thoughts and prayers.

The real tragedy, however, would be if we didn’t learn our lessons. When it comes to healthy communities, the opportunity exists – perhaps as never before – to create real sustainable change. Let’s make that happen.

Dr. Mehmet Oz is professor of surgery at Columbia University and multiple Emmy award-winning host of “The Dr. Oz Show.” Steve PonTell is president and CEO of National Community Renaissance (National CORE), one of the nation’s largest nonprofit community builders and developers of affordable housing, with properties in California, Texas, Florida and Arkansas and three other states. 

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