Most of the people who left Refugio County since the last census was taken in 2010 left after Hurricane Harvey.
The county also lost twice as many housing units after Harvey than it did in the seven years that preceded the natural disaster, according to data the U.S. Census Bureau released this week.
Shannon Van Zandt, a professor of urban planning at Texas A&M University, said an increase in vacant and abandoned homes, particularly in a rural community, is associated with an increase in drug use and a decrease in home values.
“While it may be good from an affordability perspective, the housing in Refugio is already affordable, and if it’s losing value, the people who live there are losing equity and wealth,” she said.
In April 2020, all U.S. households will receive an invitation to participate in the next census. The results determine not only congressional representation but how big of a piece of the $675 billion federal funding pie communities receive each year. The data released by the U.S. Census Bureau this week included annual housing units and population estimates for communities from 2010 to July 1, 2018, and offer the sharpest picture yet of how that may go. The U.S. Census Bureau defines a housing unit as “a house, an apartment, a group of rooms, or a single room occupied or intended for occupancy as separate living quarters.”
Van Zandt said Refugio County should focus on getting businesses closed by Harvey to reopen.
“It’s really important for Refugio to try to attract back the workers because with the workers comes families, which can help the schools. It’s all connected,” she said.
Friday, Shannon Hendley, the Refugio County Chamber of Commerce’s office manager, rattled off several examples of that happening. For one, she said, people were able to convince Chris Naylor to reopen his nursery in Bayside, and he’s having a lot of success.
“What we’re doing right now as a chamber is there are a lot of grand reopenings that we’re going out and celebrating,” Hendley said.
New business has also replaced old.
Garry Lankford, who worked for three decades in the oil and gas industry, got his brother’s food truck out of storage in November 2018 to fill a void in food options after Harvey blew away Crofutt’s, a beloved sandwich shop.
His food truck, Copano Cabana Grill, even employed one of Crofutt’s former employees before she left for college. Lankford said he is allowed to park his truck on Naylor’s property near the nursery. It is parked between 4th Street and Farm-to-Market Road 136 and serves barbecue, burgers and fried fish.
“I just decided to give this a try since the community was really looking for somebody to do something,” Lankford said.
He thinks it’s just a matter of time before workers move back.
And Golden Crescent Habitat for Humanity is helping them do just that.
The nonprofit’s executive director, Cynthia Staley, announced Friday that it had increased its goal of rebuilding a total of 28 homes in Refugio County to a total of 40 thanks to a recent donation. She declined to name the donor or the amount. She said Habitat has rebuilt three homes there so far.
Staley wasn’t surprised by the story the census data told.
“If you’ve driven through Refugio, if you’ve looked at the housing stock there, it’s devastating,” she said, adding that one man Habitat helped was disabled and forced to live in Alice with family members while his home was rebuilt.
Meanwhile, Calhoun, DeWitt, Goliad, Jackson, Lavaca and Victoria counties all experienced varying degrees of population and housing unit growth.
The numbers for Victoria, though, prove a point that those working in social services have tried to impress upon elected officials. Victoria County’s housing units haven’t increased as rapidly as its population in the past eight years.
Lisa Griffin, who works for Mid-Coast Family Services, said housing shortfall has created an affordability problem that Harvey made worse.
“There’s been some money that’s come into the community, but it’s mostly for homeowners, and rental properties are still trying to recover,” she said.
Griffin said the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Victoria is currently about $865, while the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has determined fair market rent for one-bedroom apartment in the metropolitan area to be $784. Fair market rents are used by HUD to determine payment standard amounts for the housing choice voucher program.