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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

HUD Officials Huddle with VMASC Researchers on Vulnerability Project

Two Hampton Roads communities are working with researchers from Old Dominion University's Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center (VMASC) to build models that simulate housing recovery after a major weather event.

Joshua Behr and Rafael Diaz, research associate professors at VMASC, demonstrated their progress to the funding agency for the project, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), during a series of meetings at the Center's Suffolk headquarters in mid-August.

Six months into a two-year, $175,000 project, Behr and Diaz are well into working with stakeholders from both Norfolk and Portsmouth to gather information about the key drivers in housing stock recovery in each of these localities.

"It's important to elicit information from those that truly understand the dynamics of vulnerable neighborhoods," Behr said. "We want this real-world knowledge to inform the model-building process."

Diaz said the process of developing, testing and validating models that can be used by planners is a long-term proposition. "This project, including the model building events we are holding with Norfolk and Portsmouth, are just the first steps towards this broader vision," he said.

As factors that are central to housing recovery are identified through these events, then initial models begin to take form. The models are developed through interactions with planners, and then refined as new information is collected over a period of 18 months.

The HUD officials, who attended a handful of the meetings as part of this visit, hope that the work can be used as a template for other localities, Behr said, adding: "The meeting was as much about the model-building process as it was about the model itself."

VMASC is increasingly being recognized for the quality and accuracy of the models it produces. Conversations will continue over the next 18 months while models are being developed, followed by beta testing.

Kinnard Wright, a grants specialist from HUD who attended the meetings, said the grant awarded to VMASC is a Research Partnership Grant, which is a newer program from HUD, started in an effort to gather critical research from partnering institutions and make informed decisions on problems of interest to the agency.

"It give us an opportunity to test and explore possibilities for creating plans and models that have great promise for replication elsewhere," Wright said.

It also allows universities such as Old Dominion to connect to others doing similar work, Wright said.

Diaz and Behr met with stakeholders from Norfolk and Portsmouth - known as the test-bed cities - earlier this year, to discuss how the cities might react in a post-event housing crisis.

This week's meetings involved the researchers asking scores of questions in areas such as temporary and permanent utilities; building permits; issues facing displaced renters; medically fragile populations; and economic incentives for rebuilding that are currently offered in the respective cities.

Previous studies conducted by VMASC also show differences among the communities in risk perception and evacuation patterns, Behr said. Those who have suffered past losses, or have families that have suffered past loss, are much more concerned with storms than those who have lived through many storms, but have not experienced housing losses.

"Along with material convergence, labor and dollars, these experiential and behavioral data play a role in shaping the level of engagement displaced residents may have in the housing recovery process," Diaz said.

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