In November 2021, the Houma-Terrebonne Housing Authority, which manages the complex,  tried to terminate the leases of Shephard and a handful of other residents who had opted to stay in their units, citing “catastrophic damage” to the complex. But Shephard fought back, seeking the help of a pro bono lawyer. She and 10 other residents, mostly other single moms, filed a lawsuit in February 2022.

The lawsuit alleges that the public housing authority improperly cut their leases short and did not provide proper relocation assistance to help residents find comparable housing after the storm. The plaintiffs are seeking comparable housing or compensation.

Two years later, Shephard is one of four tenants allowed to remain in Senator Circle. Many other residents are stuck in a housing limbo, either living in trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) or the state; relocated to public housing outside of town; or using Section 8 housing choice vouchers, a program that subsidizes rent for housing they find on the private market.

The housing authority has assured residents that they have plans to rebuild Senator Circle, but hope is fading as the units sit empty. No timeline has been announced for demolition or construction.

Shephard’s ability to stay is dependent on the outcome of the lawsuit. She doesn’t know what she’ll do if she’s forced to leave — Senator Circle is where she grew up, where she raised her own family.

“That is what we are trying to explain to them,” she said. “It’s not just public housing. It’s home.”

Shephard’s story is one that is increasingly befalling public housing residents across the country as climate change intensifies disasters like hurricanes and flooding, chipping away at this affordable housing stock.

Like other low-income rental housing, public housing is at high risk to being damaged by natural disasters, both due to its condition and location. Across the country, aging public housing stock hasn’t seen significant renovations in decades, leaving much of it structurally frail. In the South, 16 percent of this housing stock is located in a 100-year or 500-year floodplain, according to New York University’s Furman Center. And due to rising sea levels, 5 percent of federally assisted housing is at risk of coastal flooding by 2050.

Public housing falls under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and serves some of the most economically vulnerable people in the country. For nearly 2 million low-income people, it is a stable and affordable place to live, with rent calculations based on income. In a country where the housing crisis is leading to an increase in homelessness, public housing is one of the few options that is a viable long-term housing solution for those who qualify.

Older people and people with disabilities disproportionately live in public housing, as do people of color: 42 percent of residents are Black and 26 percent are Latinx, according to the latest HUD data.

Read the full article about climate change and public housing by Jessica Kutz at The 19th.