Disasters create uniquely challenging circumstances in affected communities, and the federal resources they bring to them are not always sufficient or promptly delivered. In cases where these federal funds come in greater amounts and arrive quickly after a disaster, localities can leverage them to address immediate and long-term housing needs. This three-part series of case studies explores steps localities have taken to either plan for or respond to a natural disaster while addressing affordability and other housing challenges. The case studies cover:
Expanding recovery possibilities in Sonoma County, CA: When wildfires scorched Sonoma County in October 2017, they destroyed thousands of homes and exacerbated the area’s preexisting affordability crisis. This case study explores how local leaders worked to rebuild as quickly as possible while addressing long-term affordability issues and the risk of future fires. Policymakers in Sonoma implemented a suite of policy changes to maximize the impact of federal relief funds, leading to a faster recovery than most experts thought possible. Their efforts also advanced and energized an ongoing mission to increase the regional housing supply and make Sonoma a more inclusive place for all residents.
Envisioning climate-ready housing in Honolulu, HI: Honolulu is highly vulnerable to disasters because of its geography and high cost of living. This case study discusses the city’s attempt to address both of these vulnerabilities through its Ola: O’ahu Resilience Strategy. The Strategy adopted a holistic approach to disaster planning, proposing actions that could make Honolulu more physically and socially resilient. Through extensive community engagement, local policymakers cultivated broad support for their plans and were able to implement many of them quickly.
Crafting a resiliency framework in Larimer County, CO: Larimer County experienced two devastating disasters in two years: the High Park fire and the Front Range floods. As part of its recovery efforts, the county developed a resilience framework to help the county and its local governments incorporate resilience into other planning tools and processes. The framework employed a holistic approach to resiliency, addressing various social, economic, and environmental factors that exceeded typical hazard mitigation planning. The framework also included recommendations on reducing the risk of natural disasters for homes and residents, especially those unhoused or housing insecure and most vulnerable to future disasters.
Expanding recovery possibilities in Sonoma County, CA
In October 2017, the Tubbs fire engulfed Santa Rosa and parts of greater Sonoma County, California. Together with smaller blazes, it killed 24 people, destroyed 5,300 homes, and burned over 111,000 acres. In the aftermath of the fire, Santa Rosa and Sonoma County faced several intertwined challenges. Officials needed to rebuild devastated areas as quickly as possible, but also prepare for future disasters and address a severe, preexisting housing shortage that the fire had exacerbated. To meet these needs, officials integrated new housing policies into their recovery. They created programs, offices, and resources that all worked to ensure a speedy rebuilding process and lasting solutions for issues beyond the immediate devastation. Their efforts helped the community recover more quickly than expected and work toward becoming more affordable, inclusive, and resilient in the process. This case study analyzes the strategies deployed in Sonoma County and discusses their applicability to other disaster-affected areas.
Local housing policymaking has a crucial role to play in scaffolding successful recovery efforts. When communities are affected by disasters, they usually rely on state and federal programs to fund recovery efforts, such as Community Development Block Grant – Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) appropriations from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Relief funds come with specific parameters for how officials can spend the money. However, these rules do not mean local leaders cannot implement policies promoting faster recovery. In Sonoma, officials enacted local policy changes and leveraged their own resources to expedite community recovery.
Officials can also deploy strategies for increasing housing supply and promoting affordability to bolster disaster recovery. Many of the tactics Sonoma County officials employed to aid recovery, such as streamlining permitting processes and encouraging accessory dwelling units (ADUs), are used by other local governments in non-emergency situations to address housing shortages. Sonoma County officials applied these strategies to the extraordinary context of fire recovery and demonstrated that they can effectively address housing needs caused by a disaster.
Policymakers can use disaster recovery as an opportunity to reimagine local housing policies. Following major disasters, community leaders rightfully prioritize meeting residents’ immediate needs. But returning to a sense of normalcy does not prevent local officials from improving existing housing policies. Leveraging increased funding and attention drawn to housing issues after the fire, Sonoma officials integrated a new, more inclusive housing vision into their recovery efforts. By thinking beyond rebuilding alone, Sonoma accelerated its recovery process and made progress toward addressing the county’s preexisting housing shortage.
Sonoma County covers 1,700 square miles in the northern Bay Area. It is home to 488,000 residents, about one-third of whom live in the City of Santa Rosa. When the Tubbs fire struck in 2017, it caused roughly $7 billion in direct economic damage in the county and left thousands of people without homes. As Sonoma County officials looked to rebuild, they faced obstacles common to disaster-affected areas throughout the country: an overloaded permitting system, underinsured residents, and insufficient contractors to meet construction demands.
The fire was not the only source of housing challenges in Sonoma County. While the blaze created an acute housing crisis, the county faced affordability challenges before the fire, with 55 percent of renter households paying more than 30 percent of their income on housing. In 2017, Sonoma County’s 1.8 percent vacancy rate was a quarter of the national average of 7.2 percent.
The Tubbs Fire exacerbated this situation. At its peak, the fire destroyed more homes in one day than had been built in the county during the previous seven years combined. With even fewer homes available, the county’s median housing value rose over $75,000 in the first year after the fire. Median rents jumped 32 percent in the first month. Homelessness, which had declined over several preceding years, rose by six percent. Due to post-recession cuts, particularly the dissolution of all of California’s local redevelopment agencies in 2011, Sonoma had spent little on supporting new affordable housing for nearly a decade. As they surveyed the post-fire landscape, local leaders recognized affordability as an essential foundation for rebuilding their community.
Sonoma County received funds from various federal and state agencies to facilitate recovery efforts, including short-term aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the California Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES). In April 2018, HUD allocated $212 million in CDBG-DR appropriations to address damage caused by the 2017 California wildfires. While these funds were administered at the state level, federal requirements stipulated that at least $99 million be spent on unmet recovery needs in California’s “Most Impacted and Distressed Areas,” of which Santa Rosa and Sonoma County made up the lion’s share. The two jurisdictions also received supplemental sources of aid, including a combined $43 million through FEMA’s Multifamily Housing Program and $34 million in 2021 CDBG-DR funds.
Sonoma County leaders also confronted the challenge of preparing for future disasters. To better withstand these challenges, local leaders recognized the need to incorporate disaster-proofing and sustainability efforts into the rebuilding process.
Within days of the Tubbs fire, policymakers in Sonoma County and the City of Santa Rosa began implementing new housing measures that would work alongside federal dollars to address recovery, affordability, and resiliency:
- Officials created the Resiliency Permit Center in Sonoma and the Resilient City Permit Center in Santa Rosa to streamline rebuilding permitting. Contractors who worked virtually staffed offices to supplement the standard permitting system. The centers offered expedited approval for residential rebuilding permits, including a guaranteed five-day response. Officials also lowered fees for rebuilding permits to reflect the reduced time needed to review projects with existing infrastructure like driveways and water/septic systems.
- Sonoma County amended its ADU regulations to encourage rebuilding homeowners to add them to their property. Previous restrictions on ADUs limited their size to a maximum of 1,000 square feet and only allowed them on lots that met specific water and sewer requirements and were at least two acres in size. The county raised the size cap to the state maximum of 1,200 square feet and allowed lots as small as one acre to build ADUs without needing an exception (California subsequently eliminated all lot minimums in 2020). Residents could also bundle their home rebuilding and ADU permits in a joint permitting process through the Resiliency Permit Centers. Following the changes, residents in Sonoma County (not including Santa Rosa residents) constructed 91 ADUs in 2018, compared to just 68 in the previous two years combined.
- Sonoma County created the Office of Recovery and Resiliency to institutionalize collaboration across jurisdictions around disaster issues. For its first major initiative, the department produced the Recovery and Resiliency Framework, an action plan for addressing recovery, readiness, and affordability challenges. Drawing on FEMA’s National Disaster Recovery Framework and a lengthy community engagement process, the plan detailed challenges and solutions across five strategic areas: community preparedness and infrastructure, housing, economy, safety net services, and natural resources. The framework set an “aspirational” goal of building 30,000 new housing units over the next five years through increased private construction and infill development on county-owned land. The report also integrated readiness and sustainability measures into its housing goals: formalizing coordination with Fire Safe Sonoma and offering Sonoma Clean Power grants to rebuilding projects that featured new eco-friendly elements.
- Local officials expanded the Sonoma County Energy Independence Program (SCEIP). This initiative, launched in 2009, offers low-interest, low-fee loans to fund energy efficiency upgrades in county homes. The loans are amortized over up to 20 years and repaid through a supplemental property tax assessment. The SCEIP expanded in January 2020 to cover fire safety and other disaster readiness upgrades in response to the fire. The City of Santa Rosa also opted into the program and made it available to its residents.
- Santa Rosa and Sonoma County created the Renewal Enterprise District (RED), a joint powers authority designed to spur regional recovery and housing affordability efforts on an ongoing basis. Consciously inspired by the fire, the RED supported new housing development that fulfilled the “equity, affordability, and climate sustainability” goals of the Recovery and Resiliency Framework. The city and county seeded the RED Housing Fund with $20 million from its settlement with PG&E to extend loans to affordable and market-rate developers. Though the district began as a two-year pilot ending in December 2020, officials made it a permanent body.
- The city and county each passed several provisions to augment the RED to encourage denser and more sustainable development. These included an “express permitting” process for infill development in downtown Santa Rosa and a density incentive discount on permitting fees for developments that add floors and units. New buildings with four floors receive a 25 percent discount, which climbs incrementally to 67 percent for a ten-story building.
Process and timeline
October 2017: Tubbs fire destroyed homes across Santa Rosa and Sonoma County.
November 2017: Santa Rosa established the Resilient City Permit Center.
December 2017: Sonoma County created the Office of Recovery and Resiliency as a dedicated office for all fire recovery issues.
February 2018: Sonoma County established the Resiliency Permitting Center.
December 2018: A months-long community engagement process concluded with the release and approval of the Recovery and Resiliency Framework. As called for in the report, Santa Rosa and Sonoma County formed the Renewal Enterprise District.
January 2020: The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approved the first Annual Implementation Report outlining progress on goals from the Recovery and Resiliency Framework.
February 2021: A permanent version of the Renewal Enterprise District was launched.
Three years after the fire, over 70 percent of destroyed homes in Sonoma County were either rebuilt or actively under reconstruction. Another 15 percent remained in the permitting process. Some areas of the county achieved even faster rebuilds. In Santa Rosa’s middle-income Coffey Park neighborhood, almost entirely destroyed by the Tubbs fire, 95 percent of homes were rebuilt within three years.
While the direct impact of many of Sonoma’s revised housing policies can be difficult to quantify, the city and county’s permitting centers achieved demonstrable success. In their first 24 months, the centers worked on reconstruction permitting for 75 percent of destroyed homes, consistently hitting their promised five-day response time. While widespread delays in survivors receiving payment from insurance companies slowed reconstruction, the permitting centers successfully limited subsequent delays.
Early results for the affordability goals outlined in the Resiliency and Recovery Framework are promising. The RED has coordinated financing for several new affordable and market-rate developments, supporting 745 new housing units across 2020 and 2021. In 2022, it made $4.5 million in loans to fund 325 new units across three projects, including 200 new affordable units.
Santa Rosa and Sonoma County’s successful recovery resulted from more than just effective local policymaking. The region received prompt and ongoing federal and state aid, and most fire-impacted residents were relatively high-income, giving them more resources when rebuilding than in a typical disaster-affected community. However, the case shows that localities can take affirmative steps to increase the speed of disaster recovery and integrate long-term planning to address community goals through the rebuilding process.
In Sonoma’s case, the interventions made by local policymakers blended recovery imperatives with their housing affordability and disaster readiness needs. Rather than addressing these issues with temporary measures, the city and county adopted a longer-term vision. They developed a concept for the kind of community they hoped would emerge from the rebuilding process and built lasting policies to help it take form.
Interview with Lois Hopkins, Administrative Analyst, Sonoma County Administrator’s Office, 9 May 2023.
National Disaster Recovery Framework. This FEMA resource enables effective recovery support to disaster-impacted states, tribes, territorial and local jurisdictions.
Rebuilding Stories. This site created by Permit Sonoma offers documentary clips that track different families recovering from the Tubbs Fire, including navigating the permitting process and constructing an Accessory Dwelling Unit.
Resilient City. Santa Rosa’s recovery data tracking center.
Sonoma County Recovers. The city and county’s consolidated website for providing updates and information about the rebuilding process.
Sonoma County Strong The Rebuild Team Speaks Out. North Bay Biz interviewed public and private sector leaders in Sonoma about rebuilding efforts near the fire’s one-year anniversary.
Envisioning climate-ready housing in Honolulu, HI
Honolulu is among the U.S. cities most vulnerable to natural disasters and ecological shifts caused by climate change. To prepare for deepening environmental challenges, the city’s Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency (CCSR) developed the Ola: O’ahu Resilience Strategy. The Strategy features affordable housing and increased housing density as pillars of climate preparedness, envisioning a resilient housing stock that could minimize the impact of climate-related shocks on vulnerable populations. Shaped by extensive community engagement, the plan’s action items have largely been adopted and have helped shape a wider consensus on the future of the city’s development.
Housing policy can be a core element of planning for climate change. Everyday issues of housing access and affordability can seem far removed from the extraordinary challenges posed by climate change. However, the Strategy demonstrates the value of focusing on housing in climate preparedness efforts. It outlines steps to prepare homes for the physical threat of natural disasters and to prepare whole communities to weather the financial and social shocks that often accompany them.
Increased density can support sustainability and resilience efforts. The idea of increasing housing density in a disaster-prone area might seem counterproductive. However, the Strategy asserts that development in targeted areas, such as along transit corridors, can make a community more secure from disasters and climate change. More density can limit sprawl in acutely vulnerable areas and provide sources of housing security for vulnerable populations. Greater density can also help to concentrate response efforts following natural disasters or emergencies.
Community engagement and regular reporting encourage continued support for the Strategy’s goals. Honolulu embarked on a years-long public engagement process to understand residents’ resiliency needs and concerns, which they used to inform goals and action steps in the Strategy. By closely aligning their goals with established community priorities and demonstrating a commitment to them through transparent reporting, city planners fostered support for quickly enacting most of the Strategy’s recommendations.
Honolulu operates as a consolidated city-county government. It encompasses the island of O’ahu, with a population of 1 million. The city is at high risk for hurricanes and tsunamis but lacks the physical and policy infrastructure to handle them. According to the Strategy, up to 65 percent of Honolulu’s housing would be destroyed or severely damaged if even a Category 1 hurricane struck it. Climate change increases the likelihood of disasters and poses ongoing threats to the city through rising temperatures, diminished rainfall, and heightened flooding risks from sea level rise.
Honolulu’s severe housing crisis exacerbates the danger of these emerging threats. With median home values surpassing $700,000 in 2020, the city has become increasingly unaffordable for many residents. By some metrics, Honolulu has the nation’s highest rate of homelessness, and 53 percent of city households are moderately or severely cost burdened. The share of households in severely crowded housing is nearly three times the national average. The Strategy acknowledges that these factors increase Honolulu residents’ peril from natural disasters by straining family finances and leaving many with “little or no safety net to help them through emergencies.”
To address climate concerns, voters approved a new Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency (CCSR) in a 2016 referendum. To establish the CCSR, Honolulu coordinated with the Rockefeller Foundation’s Resilient Cities Network, which promotes global climate readiness. The city received a seed grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to hire a Chief Resilience Officer and prepare a resiliency strategy to address climate concerns.
As the CCSR began work on its strategy in 2017, it adopted an expansive idea of climate readiness. It focused on building an inclusive community capable of withstanding sudden shocks and ongoing ecological challenges. According to Honolulu’s Chief Resilience Officer Matthew Gonser, these efforts would prove as essential in weathering climate concerns as infrastructure and emergency planning.
CCSR staff began their efforts with a comprehensive public engagement campaign. As described in the strategy, CCSR set out to gather as much input from as many community members as possible to capture the full range of their needs and resources. Beginning with a stakeholder convening in June 2017, the city averaged more than one public meeting per day for six months. This included meeting with all 33 neighborhood boards in O’ahu and collecting survey feedback from more than 2,300 residents. Over 70 percent of these surveys were collected in person, allowing residents to expand on their answers through direct conversations with CCSR staff.
During outreach efforts, city staff asked residents to describe stresses, or factors that they recognized as sapping the community’s strength. Cost of living, driven by unaffordable housing, emerged as the most common source of stress. In months of follow-up meetings with island leaders and officials from different municipal departments, the CCSR worked to develop readiness goals to address cost of living concerns and other community priorities. They organized community feedback into four key areas, including “reducing the long-term cost of living,” and then worked with stakeholders and experts to develop 49 actions for improving community resilience.
After two years of work, Honolulu released the O’ahu Resilience Strategy in 2019. Based on community input, the Strategy centered housing policy as a key tool for addressing climate issues. “Remaining Rooted,” the section of the strategy most focused on housing, frames housing insecurity as a climate issue, arguing that “building resilience on O‘ahu is directly related to maintaining continuity of our community” and that such resilience “requires that affordable housing stock be available to our residents.”
To secure a more stable, affordable supply of housing, the Strategy outlined two major goals: supporting affordable housing development and reducing additional cost burdens. The report identified various actions and metrics for implementing each goal, connecting back to goals from the state’s Aloha+ Sustainable Development plan and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
The Strategy’s affordable housing goal included proposals for:
- Creating a one percent vacancy fee on properties occupied for fewer than six months in a year and cracking down on illegal vacation rentals. These measures would discourage short-term rentals for tourists and open more housing stock for local renters.
- Modifying the city’s land use policy to permit a broader range of alternative affordable housing options. These included zoning changes to encourage the construction of accessory dwelling units through promotional campaigns and expedited permitting. The report also proposed a “pilot pocket community” of multiple units with a shared dining space and bathrooms.
- Replacing the city’s low, flat rate property tax with a progressive property tax that would raise revenue to support affordable housing development.
- Developing a “Guaranteed Security Program” in which a non-profit would provide security deposit funds to landlords and allow renters to contribute low monthly payments. Households could then access their deposit contributions when moving or purchasing a home.
To advance the goal of reducing cost burdens, the city proposed:
- Expediting permiting for new construction and renewable energy efforts through a “Malama Monday” initiative, in which staff would spend one day a week concentrating on clearing permitting backlogs.
- Reducing parking requirements for new construction and eliminating parking requirements around transit-oriented development zones.
- Implementing a Residential Energy Conservation Ordinance requiring sellers and landlords to disclose information about their property’s energy efficiency. By encouraging investments in energy-saving appliances and improvements, the ordinance would help reduce living costs and emissions related to utilities.
Process and timeline
November 2016: Honolulu voters approved the creation of the Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency.
June 2017: Honolulu formally joined the Resilient Cities Network.
July 2017: The resiliency planning process began with a summit of over 140 O’ahu leaders from across government, non-profit, and private sectors.
October 2017 to March 2018: CCSR coordinated an extensive public engagement campaign, gaining feedback from thousands of Honolulu residents.
August 2018: Island leaders reconvened to distill community feedback into specific climate actions.
January 2019: The City Resilience Team, comprised of representatives from across Honolulu government, finalized actions and established coordination plans for implementing them.
May 2019: CSSR released Ola: O’ahu Resilience Strategy.
No major disasters have impacted Honolulu since the resilience report was released, so its ultimate impact on preparedness has yet to be tested. However, officials quickly enacted most of the strategy’s housing recommendations. These included:
- Implementing the report’s proposed crackdown on illegal vacation rentals. This efforted aimed to increase housing supply and limit the population of tourists who might be stranded in case of a disaster.
- Lowering parking requirements for new developments.
- Approving a transit-oriented development plan to allow greater density in neighborhoods with transit accessibility.
- Passing a comprehensive density bill in 2022 that offers total fee waivers, 90-day expedited permitting, and no parking requirements for new buildings where 80 percent of units are affordable for households earning up to 100 percent of the area median income.
- Enacting the proposed Residential Energy Conservation Ordinance in July 2022, expected to lower energy consumption and costs in covered properties by up to five percent.
While property tax changes outlined in the strategy have yet to be passed, the city completed a study in consultation with UCLA on the effects of implementing a vacancy tax, and a measure to enact one is under debate in the city council.
Besides implementing the strategy’s policy recommendations, Honolulu leaders have widely adopted its premise of incorporating housing concerns into resiliency planning. In 2020, the city released One Climate, One Oahu, a 2020-2025 Climate Action Plan. This document maintained the same housing focus as the resilience report, making its first strategy to encourage density and mixed land use in strategic areas and further describing the need for affordable housing development as a preparedness tool. The city has also monitored and documented progress on these issues through its Annual Sustainability Reports.
Honolulu offers a potential model for local resiliency planning that incorporates housing stability and affordability. The city conducted two years of sustained public engagement and coordination within government, during which they assessed community priorities and worked with stakeholders to channel them into policy objectives. The goals and metrics proposed in the Strategy were clear, specific, and cut across multiple timelines to encourage consistent progress. The community’s agreement on the goals likely contributed to their successful implementation within just three years of the report’s release.
The Strategy demonstrates that housing policy can be a nexus for climate action. Through the engagement process, city planners recognized the importance of housing affordability to residents and its relevance to building an inclusive, resilient community. In drafting actions to address the island’s housing crisis, they identified interventions that would not only encourage preparedness through the indirect benefits of inclusion and affordability but also through direct reductions in energy consumption and carbon emissions. By incorporating these policies into their successful planning effort, Honolulu officials could leverage the political will they built and channel it into making quick progress on various housing-related issues.
Honolulu Office of Climate Change, Sustainability, and Resiliency. The office offers more details about the city’s ongoing resiliency and preparedness efforts.
Ola: O’ahu Resilience Strategy. This resilience strategy outlines multiple actions which address the challenge of long-term affordability and the impacts of a climate crisis on Honolulu residents.
Resilient Cities Network. This website profiles cities that created resiliency plans similar to Honolulu’s.
Crafting a resiliency network in Larimer County, CO
Between 2012 and 2013, Larimer County, Colorado, faced two major disasters that were declared federal emergencies. The first was the High Park fire, which burned for three weeks and destroyed hundreds of homes. The second was the Front Range floods, the most expensive floods in Colorado’s history, which resulted in nine deaths.
Recognizing that future disasters were inevitable, the county spent six months developing a Community Resiliency Framework (the Framework) to guide planning efforts across all sectors. Larimer County’s resiliency planning is noteworthy because its goal was not to create a specific set of new tasks for the county. Rather, the Framework was meant to be incorporated into all planning initiatives, ensuring that resilience would be a constant consideration without unduly burdening local governments. This case study describes Larimer County’s framework development process and how the Framework has contributed to the county’s planning efforts thus far.
Localities should engage diverse stakeholders across multiple sectors to create a resiliency framework. Localities should be deliberate in expanding beyond frequently utilized stakeholders, ensuring inclusion. Alongside representatives from local governments’ resilience or emergency management offices, other vital stakeholders may include representatives from the local public health agency or housing authority, nonprofits, community groups, or even individual residents.
The framework should be a living document that gradually evolves as needs or priorities change and the locality identifies new promising strategies for furthering resilience.
A resiliency framework is most effective when it is designed to be integrated into a locality’s routine work and used as guidance for future planning efforts. Local governments balancing multiple priorities may otherwise struggle to devote sufficient time or resources to building resilience.
Larimer County is in northern Colorado along the Wyoming border, where its population of 367,000 residents makes up the Fort Collins Metropolitan Statistical Area. With a per capita income of about $43,000 and an 11.2 percent poverty rate, the county’s economic standing is roughly on par with statewide averages. In 2012 and 2013, however, Larimer County experienced two disasters in quick succession, challenging its preparedness and resilience.
In June of 2012, the High Park Fire burned for three weeks across more than 87,000 acres of land. This area consisted of 49 percent national forest and 45 percent private land, with some additional damage on state-owned land. The fire destroyed 250 homes, and a second, simultaneous fire that broke out nearby destroyed 20 more. The fire killed one person, cost $39 million to suppress, and resulted in $97 million worth of insurance claims.
In September 2013, five days of extreme rainfall caused the Big Thompson and Little Thompson rivers to swell, resulting in the costliest flooding event in Colorado’s history. The Front Range Floods killed nine people, destroyed 47 homes, and significantly damaged 338 more. It also caused road damage that isolated the county’s mountain communities. After experiencing two disasters in less than two years, Larimer County began considering how to improve disaster preparedness in its localities.
The Colorado Resiliency and Recovery Collaborative, a group of counties and state and federal agencies, was formed by the State of Colorado to determine the best methods to improve resilience in preparation for future disasters. After reviewing policy, legislative, and planning recommendations, the Collaborative recommended a resiliency framework. The State offered Larimer County and two other communities the opportunity to develop a framework as part of a pilot program related to Colorado’s submission to HUD’s National Disaster Resilience Competition. This would provide the county with funding from the Colorado Resiliency and Recovery Office, as well as a contractor to assist them. According to Lori Hodges, Director of Emergency Management for Larimer County1 the county accepted the offer, seeing a resiliency framework as a more practical choice than specific resilience policies. That’s because it did not have oversight of all the sectors involved in resilience.
The process began with the creation of the Larimer County Resiliency Steering Committee, whose members would be primarily responsible for designing the Framework. The Steering Committee included representatives from community groups, businesses, non-profit organizations, and all levels of government. Hodges noted that local governments were motivated by the county’s history of disasters to participate in these efforts. Organizations represented on the committee included the Larimer County Office of Emergency Management, Colorado State University, and the United Way of Larimer County, among others. Between August and December 2015, the Steering Committee met three times: twice for intensive work on the Framework and once for a final review. The Framework was officially completed in February 2016.
The finalized Larimer Community Resiliency Framework (the Framework) employed a holistic approach to resilience, addressing a range of social, economic, and environmental factors that exceeded typical hazard mitigation planning. The county recognized that consistent, pervasive challenges such as socioeconomic inequality, insufficient transportation options, or degradation of the natural ecosystem can compound the damage done by a natural disaster.
Six “resiliency sectors” were identified in the Framework as fundamental contributors to overall resilience: community; economic; health and social; watersheds and natural resources; infrastructure; and housing. Based in part on Larimer County’s 2016 Unmet Needs and Community Fragility Study, the Framework described current challenges for each sector. In the housing sector, housing stock affordability and diversity were named the most critical issues. At the time, rapid population growth and low vacancy rates in Larimer County were driving increases in housing prices, and wages were not keeping up. The county also lacked sufficient affordable, transitional, and mixed-income housing options.
The Framework articulated goals, strategies, and potential projects for improving resilience in each of the six sectors. Larimer County’s goal for its housing sector was to “increase the range of housing options and increase stock of affordable housing through traditional means as well as creative land use, building codes, and measures for innovative housing.” The Framework outlined five strategies for achieving this goal: designing housing strategies to keep new housing away from areas at high risk of disaster; producing transitional housing; educating homeowners on the disaster risks in their area and disaster preparedness as a whole; developing housing options for aging residents; and revising codes and development fees to encourage the production of diverse housing options.
Notably, Larimer County’s Community Resiliency Framework did not include an implementation plan. Although it identified a list of priority projects for eventual completion (such as conducting a housing needs assessment) and emphasized the importance of realizing each project, it did not establish a timeline, and neither the county nor its localities were bound to follow through with any given project. Rather, the Framework aimed to make implementing these projects as easy as possible by identifying potential lead stakeholders, leaving the rest up to stakeholders’ interest and capacity.
Larimer County faced three primary challenges when developing the Community Resiliency Framework. The most fundamental concern was that the county had never produced a framework of this sort before, meaning there was no precedent to follow. To guide its work, the Steering Committee decided to use the state’s Colorado Resiliency Framework as a baseline.
Additionally, because the Framework was meant to speak to Larimer County’s holistic needs across many sectors, input was required from a range of community members that traditionally did not work with one another. The diversity of stakeholders included on the Steering Committee was a deliberate step to address this challenge, as it ensured the inclusion of various voices in the planning process.
Finally, because the Framework was attached to Colorado’s application for the National Disaster Resilience Competition, it was developed unusually quickly to meet competition deadlines. Had it not been bound by such a strict six-month timeline, the Steering Committee would have spent more time working on the Framework and incorporating community feedback.
Process and timeline
June 2012: The High Park fire burned for three weeks in Larimer County.
September 2013: The Front Range floods destroyed or damaged 385 homes.
August and October 2015: The Steering Committee was formed and held initial planning sessions.
December 2015: The Steering Committee held the final Framework review session. Separately, the county’s Unmet Needs and Community Fragility Study was published.
February 2016: Completion of the Larimer Community Resiliency Framework.
May 2016: The Larimer County Board of Commissioners adopted the Framework and the Larimer County Office of Emergency Management took over its management. After 2016, according to Hodges, the county institutionalized the Framework and assimilated its goals and potential programs into county offices and organizations.
Since Larimer Community Resiliency Framework’s adoption in 2016, several planning materials have incorporated its guidance. These include the 2019 Larimer County Comprehensive Plan, the 2020 Climate Smart Larimer County Framework, and the 2021 Larimer County Hazard Mitigation Plan. Larimer Connects, a tool for community education on best practices for resilience, is a great example of a fully implemented resilience project identified in the Framework.
The Steering Committee became the Larimer County Resilience Network, which met annually to set new resilience goals and priority projects for several years after the Framework completion.
The county then increased its capacity to respond to the Framework’s objectives by adding county leads for all resilience sectors, according to Hodges. This encouraged all sectors’ involvement and prevented the entire responsibility of resilience from falling onto the Office of Emergency Management. As county offices took ownership of different goals and programs detailed in the Framework, they embedded resilience in the county’s work. Each office now monitors its progress on the Framework’s goals and updates its priorities independently.
A success of the Framework noted by Hodges is the emphasis it placed on social connections as a fundamental component of resilience. The county came to see social connections as important because people who belong to formal and informal social networks and who trust their community members can leverage those connections to recover quickly from a disaster.
The Larimer Community Resiliency Framework demonstrates that integrating resilience into routine planning efforts is possible. Doing so ensures that disaster preparedness is always a focus and officials embed resilience in the policy-making process.
Larimer’s approach offers an accessible alternative that makes building resiliency more achievable for resource-constrained localities. Larimer County frontloaded its investment in resilience by spending the most time and money on the Framework’s initial development and gradually incorporating it into other planning activities. This ensured that all planning efforts included a resiliency-building lens without requiring the county to take on separate, resilience-specific work.
Other localities can use Larimer’s Resiliency Framework process as a guide for their own resilience efforts. Analyzing a locality’s unique needs and resources can identify planning priorities where policymakers can incorporate disaster preparedness elements. For localities that want to formalize these ideas into a framework, Larimer’s Steering Committee can model how to lead the framework development. The challenges that Larimer County faced in producing its framework, such as a short timeline and a need for diverse stakeholders, can also inform localities’ approaches when designing their own framework development processes. For localities not interested in creating a formal framework, embedding disaster preparedness into routine planning can nonetheless be a guiding principle in their efforts to build resilience.
Enhancing Resilience to Flooding and Other Climate-Related Threats. Local Housing Solutions brief on incorporating resilience into local housing strategies and policies.
Larimer Resiliency Framework. The full text of the Larimer Community Resiliency Framework.
National Disaster Resilience. More information about HUD’s 2014 Community Development Block Grant National Disaster Resilience Competition.
Resiliency and Recovery | Larimer County: The county’s official page for its disaster recovery efforts.
 Interview with Lori Hodges, Larimer County Director of Emergency Management, April 17, 2023