Pre-Disaster Recovery Planning for Public Housing in Salt Lake County, Utah

Sayma Khajehei
Towson University

Divya Chandrasekhar
University of Utah

Publication Date: 2021


Public housing residents and subsidized housing renters face severe challenges in post-disaster housing, but cities with little experience of disasters may have limited knowledge of how to help them. While research on post-disaster recovery policy has grown, we still lack critical understanding of pre-disaster planning for public housing recovery, which can make recovery challenging for socioeconomically vulnerable groups. Using Salt Lake County, UT, as a case study, this research examines pre-disaster policies focused on providing post-disaster housing for public housing residents. Salt Lake County faces a 57% probability of experiencing a 6.75 magnitude earthquake in the next 50 years. We used archival research techniques and semi-structured key informant interviews with local emergency management, city planning, and housing officials. Using qualitative analyses, we examined post-disaster housing plans, planning motivation, challenges, opportunities, and coordination between various entities. Findings suggest that pre-planning for public housing recovery is challenged by the lack of pre-disaster assessments, poor coordination and information-sharing, lack of dedicated funding resources, poor leadership, and issues of trust. Opportunities for pre-planning include building on existing small-scale emergency plans, using existing funds more creatively, creating joint plans for post-disaster public housing recovery, public education on the importance of pre-planning for post-disaster recovery, and reviewing existing response and recovery protocols.


Pre-disaster mitigation and response plans can help planners make decisions quickly in the aftermath of disasters and can reduce the uncertainty among private decision-makers (Haas et al., 19771; Olshansky, 20052). Despite this, few communities apply this level of forethought to their disaster planning. Communities are even less likely to engage in preparedness if they have not faced a recent catastrophic disaster event (Federal Emergency Management Agency, 20133). Poor pre-disaster planning can negatively affect the quality of disaster response and recovery outcomes for at risk residents. The stakes are especially high for socially vulnerable groups, such as public housing residents, who might not have private resources to compensate for inadequate governmental response. Housing plays a central role in the recovery of individuals and households after a disaster, but not all social groups have the same access to housing (Quarantelli, 19824; Bolin, 19915; Comerio, 20146; Peacock et al., 20077). Studies show that marginalized communities find it harder to access resources, express collective needs, and engage in decision-making (Kamel & Loukaitou-Sideris, 20038). Socially vulnerable populations are typically less prepared for disasters, have fewer affordable shelter options during the evacuation, face prolonged displacement, and experience slower housing recovery than other groups. (Van Zandt et al., 20129, Fothergill & Peek, 2004[^Fothergill & Peek, 2004]; Zhang & Peacock, 2010[^Zhang & Peacock, 2010], Hamideh & Rongerude, 201810).

This study focuses on pre-disaster planning targeted at one such socially vulnerable group—public housing residents. While research on post-disaster housing policy and planning has grown in the last few years (Peacock et al., 2007; Zhang & Peacock, 2010; Hamideh et al., 2018; Comerio, 199711; Peacock et al., 201712), there is little known about pre-disaster planning in at-risk communities. Studies specifically on public housing residents are relatively few. This is perhaps surprising because they are at risk of experiencing damage and displacement after a disaster (Graham, 201213; Hamideh & Rongerude, 2018). The few existing disaster studies on public housing residents are focused on recovery trajectories, not the policies and plans that determine the recovery trajectory (Hamideh & Rongerude, 2018). Given the high dependency of public housing residents on government assistance, there is a need for research that examines the policies, programs, and plans that support public housing residents in the aftermath of disasters. This study addresses this need by examining pre-disaster planning for post-disaster rehousing of public housing residents in at-risk communities.

Case Study Community

Salt Lake County is one of the fastest-growing communities in the nation, with a high probability of experiencing a 6.75 magnitude earthquake in the next 50 years (Wong et al., 201614). The Salt Lake County Housing Authority is a large authority serving 3,000 households and around 8,000 individuals—the majority of whom have family incomes that are less than 30 percent of the area median income (Housing Authority of Salt Lake City, n.d.15). Based on a 7.0 magnitude earthquake scenario created in 2015 for the Salt Lake region (Pankow et al., 201516), nearly 263,300 individuals are expected to be displaced across the region in such an event. About 53,000 individuals will need shelter immediately, including public housing residents. To this end, we used Salt Lake County, Utah, as a case study to examine pre-disaster plans for rehousing of public housing residents. We examined the policies, programs, and plans adopted by the county and cities within it to rehouse public housing residents in the event of an earthquake. Our focus was particularly on temporary and permanent phases of post-disaster housing as defined by Quarantelli (199517).



The study explored pre-disaster policies, programs, and plans of Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County for rehousing of public housing residents. Interviews were conducted with ten officials working in local emergency management, city planning, and housing departments of the State of Utah, Salt Lake County, and Salt Lake City . We interviewed three females and seven male participants. All participants were at least 18 years old.


Archival research involved collecting and analyzing policy, plan, and program documents related to public housing, disaster mitigation, disaster preparedness, and disaster response from the websites and offices of Salt Lake County and the 16 cities located within it. Salt Lake County is also one of the few counties nationwide to have adopted a pre-disaster recovery plan. Key informants were identified using archival research that pointed to those who might be involved in different levels of planning for post-disaster housing, as well as snowball sampling. Participation in the study was voluntary.


We collected data in two steps using qualitative inquiry methods. In the first step, we did archival research that collected and analyzed seven public housing plans, eight hazards mitigation plans, two disaster preparedness plans, and four disaster response plans adopted by Salt Lake County and its 16 constituent cities from their websites. Salt Lake County is one of the few counties nationwide to have adopted a pre-disaster recovery plan. This and other documents were analyzed using thematic content analysis to identify whether these plans, programs, and policies address the post-disaster housing needs of public housing residents, their specific programmatic offerings, and what phases of post-disaster housing they address (emergency sheltering, temporary sheltering, temporary housing, or permanent housing). Institutional arrangements that provide this function, and other innovations were also examined. This step was conducted from March 2020 to May 2020.

The second step was conducting interviews with key informants. In this step, we conducted semi-structured, open-ended interviews with the ten officials mentioned above. The interviewees were recruited via email and the interview meetings were set through Zoom video calls. In the recruiting emails, the participants were provided with a consent form in which the project goals were discussed. The voluntary interviews were between 30-45 minutes long and conducted with informed consent. Interviews focused on whether these agencies were aware of the need for pre-disaster planning for housing recovery, actions they have taken to date, barriers they face in pre-disaster planning, and any creative solutions they might have implemented. Interviews were audio-recorded and then transcribed for analysis. All personal identifiers were removed to maintain informant confidentiality. This step was conducted from June 2020 to December 2020.

Research Design

This research used a case study approach, drawing on archival data and individual interviews in a specific county. Case studies can be a useful means of understanding complex systems (Creswell & Poth, 2018[^Creswell & Poth, 2018]). The case study was used to examine pre-disaster policies, programs, and plans of Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County for the rehousing of public housing residents.

Ethical Approval

This study was approved by the University of Utah’s IRB on December 06, 2019, before the start of the project. All interviews were conducted with informed consent and participation was voluntary. All participant identities were kept confidential during transcription, analysis, and reporting.


Data Analysis

All the interviews with officials working in local emergency management, city planning, and the housing departments of the State of Utah, Salt Lake County, and cities within the county were transcribed and uploaded into ATLAS.ti for qualitative analysis. We read through all transcriptions initially and then began the coding process. Coding allowed for nuanced insights and an understanding about agency awareness of the need for pre-disaster planning for housing recovery, related actions, barriers, and creative solutions. In the first coding round, we used open coding techniques; coding all transcripts, and writing analytical memos to draw out themes. For this, we developed categories and subcategories for coding moving forward. Codes were categorized into five significant groups based on the research questions, including housing recovery and preparedness in general, public housing in Salt Lake County, public housing recovery, and public housing preparedness. The final list of codes consists of five major categories and 36 subcategories. This set of codes examined connections and patterns in the data and allowed us to understand pre-disaster planning for post-disaster rehousing of public housing residents. Furthermore, the coding system provided insights into the barriers and opportunities for pre-disaster planning for post-disaster rehousing of public housing residents, allowing us to formulate preparedness recommendations for similar at-risk communities.


Document analysis indicates there is no stand-alone plan for housing recovery in the disaster preparedness plans and disaster response plans adopted by Salt Lake County and its 16 constituent cities. In these documents, temporary shelters are discussed as a part of other plans, such as emergency management operation plans or emergency management plans. Interviews reveal that officials at housing authorities think about how and where displaced people could be accommodated after disasters, but are not aware of the how many public housing residents are likely to be displaced in the event of an earthquake. They also do not have a planned post-disaster shelter needs assessment for public housing residents. One official described their plans like this:

It’s not a broad plan for rehousing tenants or what we would do to rebuild, but it is a small plan that would help us during the time of crisis to help get people situated and know who’s living where, and who we would call for emergency utility service or anything like that.

Study participants also believed that pre-disaster planning efforts are challenged by the lack of housing and preparedness coordination between housing authorities and other agencies and the lack of formal agreements for taking joint action after disasters. Some reported that housing authorities have limited opportunity for coordination with other housing-related departments in their cities. Some expressed uncertainty about receiving help from neighboring communities after disasters, which points to deeper issues of trust and competition between cities in this fast-growing region. For example, one official said: “I mean, I think most communities would help us rebuild, but I can think of one or two that would push really hard to show us the door. In a major catastrophe or disaster, what does that look like? How does that play out?”

Other participants described the lack of motivation among local leaders to plan ahead as a major challenge. Some attributed this to the lack of experience in dealing with a large-scale disaster. Others pointed to limited resources or funds for pre-disaster planning. For example, one housing authority official described the narrow streams of funding available to them: “And another, we just kind of, we look to HUD to try to help us fund things like [disaster planning], or to even have requirements like that [for other sub-departments]. They are our primary regulator. I’d say about 70-80% of our funding comes from HUD.”

In addition to identifying challenges, participants also described opportunities to improve pre-disaster planning for public housing recovery. Some pointed to small-scale local plans in housing authorities—such as those that help residents of public housing units maintain communication infrastructure in emergencies such as structure fire or plans to maintain continuous electric supply to senior-occupied apartments—as opportunities to further conversation. Others suggested funding-related changes, such as having a defined source of funding for pre-disaster planning or using existing resources more creatively:

For the housing authority, one of the resources we can use to develop a plan are the same grants that come to fix up buildings. You’re allowed to use some of those, it’s called [a] capital fund, a specific HUD program. You’re allowed to use some of that for what they call management improvements, which are really soft costs, not replacing generators. So that would be one potential resource to develop the plan and to get organized.

One the study participants described the need to educate the policymakers, taxpayers, and the public about the importance of pre-disaster planning to increase their investment in the process. Another suggested increasing collaborative action and information sharing on the matter of public housing recovery, saying:

My suggestions would be that the public housing agencies, which are the public housing authorities and the counties or the cities, whoever they have a relationship with, actually develop a joint plan…there’s nothing there that we could rely on in any type of formal agreement. Because public housing residents are very vulnerable it would be good to see what’s in their emergency plan…our emergency management agency should also be aware of what’s in that plan.

The interviewees also described how the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 Magna Earthquake in Utah raised local disaster risk awareness, exposed the gaps in current planning efforts, and taught valuable lessons about the need for flexibility in post-disaster operations. One informant described how the COVID-19 pandemic shown that there were blind spots related to socially vulnerable groups in their emergency planning: “What we’ve learned through this pandemic is that the vulnerable populations were not addressed as readily as they should’ve been. That’s where the spread of COVID-19 is primarily coming from right now in the low-income communities.” Another described small changes to policy made in response to the pandemic, which indicates future plans for post-disaster recovery could benefit from institutional learning:

So, we did change our own internal policy to make it more flexible during emergencies, and we’ve actually already utilized it already. With the pandemic, we housed some people that normally wouldn’t have been housed in our programs. They were people, in one case, they were homeless people that were in shelters and they tested positive and they needed to get out of the shelter and move to an apartment that had kind of its own front door and no lobbies and no elevators. I mean we did [it] on a very small scale, maybe four or five people we’ve moved so far. But we used that broad resolution as the reason to break regulations, bypass waiting lists, things like that.


Our findings indicate that Salt Lake County, as an at-risk community in terms of natural hazards, is generally not prepared to provide housing to public housing residents after disasters. Pre-disaster planning efforts appear to be challenged by the lack of pre-disaster assessments, poor coordination and information-sharing, lack of dedicated funding resources, poor leadership, and issues of trust. On the other hand, there are also opportunities for pre-disaster planning for post-disaster public housing such as building on existing small-scale emergency plans and using existing funds more creatively. Additional opportunities can be created by joint planning for post-disaster public housing recovery, public education on the importance of pre-disaster planning for post-disaster recovery, creating dedicated streams of funding for pre-disaster planning, and involving diverse communities in the planning process. This latter step would help the cities create better policies that benefit all. Lastly, even small experiences with post-disaster response and recovery can provide significant opportunities for institutional learning and to increase awareness and local motivation to do pre-disaster planning for housing recovery. At-risk communities would do well to reflect on their actions in these moments and use these opportunities to improve their preparedness for the “big one.”

Limitations and Strengths

The strengths of this study can be attributed to two aspects. First, our use of qualitative inquiry methods which allowed us to gather nuanced perspectives on important social phenomena. Second, the exceptional context—a community that experienced a large-scale disaster from an unexpected hazard (COVID-19 pandemic) and a small-scale disaster from a highly anticipated hazard (earthquake)—has given us insight into institutional learning stemming from different disaster types and the effect of near-miss hazards.

Concurrent disasters also contributed to the study’s limitations. Data collection was challenged by our inability to recruit participants, who were often busy dealing with evolving crises, and the fact that we could only recruit via email and online methods because of social distancing measures. This study is also limited by its focus on a single case study, although the authors plan to conduct similar research in other communities such as Portland, Oregon, and Memphis, Tennessee.

Future Directions

Future studies will focus on other communities that fact risk to explore their preparedness level in emergencies and hazards, outlining the potential gaps in such communities. More information about barriers to pre-disaster planning for such communities could help planners make better decisions. Future studies will also focus on collecting and analyzing post-disaster public housing recovery cases around the United States, which could help educate housing authorities about the costs and benefits of pre-disaster planning.


Our findings act as a call for action to conduct pre-disaster planning for the public housing recovery. Communities can promote pre-disaster planning for public housing recovery by preparing joint plans, engaging diverse communities into planning processes, dedicating funding for such activities, educating the public about mitigation savings, and using all available opportunities to review existing response and recovery protocols. Actions to highlight the importance of public housing recovery to the community will encourage community investment in pre-disaster planning and improve recovery outcomes for public housing residents in the aftermath.


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Suggested Citation:

Kahejei, S. & Chandrasekhar, D. (2021). Pre-Disaster Recovery Planning for Public Housing in Salt Lake County, Utah (Natural Hazards Center Mitigation Matters Research Report Series, Report 6). Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado Boulder.

Kahejei, S. & Chandrasekhar, D. (2021). Pre-Disaster Recovery Planning for Public Housing in Salt Lake County, Utah (Natural Hazards Center Mitigation Matters Research Report Series, Report 6). Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado Boulder.