Houston Flood Protection Funding Prioritizes Disadvantaged Neighbourhoods, Generates Status Quo Pushback
After years of being left without flood protection—with all support earmarked for the coastal properties of the wealthy—Houston’s low-lying neighbourhoods have found champions in policy-makers determined to prioritize the protection of those who would face a more difficult recovery. But not everyone appreciates this application of environmental justice.
After the massive devastation of Hurricane Harvey in 2017, “officials in Harris County, which manages flood control in and around Houston, threw out their old approach for spending billions of dollars on flood defences,” reports the New York Times. “Instead of prioritizing spending to protect the most valuable property, which benefited wealthier and whiter areas, they decided to instead prioritize disadvantaged neighbourhoods that would have the hardest time recovering, including communities of colour.”
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Recovery from Harvey was the first application of this new approach, followed by the approval of a US$2.5-billion bond in the summer of 2018 “to fund more than 500 flood control projects over several years, the largest such initiative in the county’s history.”
A few months later came a surprise win for the Democrats in the county’s legislative elections, creating “the chance to decide just how that $2.5 billion would be spent.” Unlike their predecessors, the new commissioners of Harris County were alert to complaints about the lack of flood protection afforded to low-lying places like Pleasantville—“a few square miles of bungalows and industrial sites stuck between Houston’s railways and freeways”—and began a major overhaul of their recovery and protection investments.
Lauded by many as “long overdue,” the decision has been pilloried by others as a form of social engineering. The news is reverberating far beyond the borders of Harris County, with flood-prone cities around the country using the plan as “a test case for grappling with the overlapping challenges of racial inequity and climate change.”
The Times explains that governments have traditionally used cost-benefit analysis to distribute flood protection funding—fancier language for, “spend it where property values are higher, for the best return on investment.” The trouble with this approach—known as “worst first”—is that it “puts poorer minority areas at a disadvantage. And it feeds a cycle of decline as flooding returns again and again.”
The infrastructure advantages for the wealthy go beyond basic protections, the Times adds, with enclaves like Kingwood receiving “curbs with gutters and underground drainage, while poorer areas still rely on open ditches in front of their houses.”
The idea that flood protection should be based on the value of a homeowner’s property amounts to “a false transparency, a false rigour” that borders on redlining, said Earthea Nance, associate professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University. “Is that really what we want?” she asked the Times.
Some Houston residents, though, are frustrated with such thinking. “I don’t care if your house is a million-dollar house or a $30,000 hovel in the middle of nowhere,” said Beth Guide, a resident of Kingwood. “This literally should be, ‘Whose life is in the most danger?’” Rejecting the belief that priority should go to those whose resilience is lowest, Guide added: “The fact that you decide that you want to have a Netflix account versus whether you want to pay for your flood insurance is not my problem.”
Republican city councillor Greg Travis, who represents a wealthy district where “flood control projects have mostly been pushed to the end of the queue under the new system,” was more circumspect in expressing his hostility to the plan. “We are the goose that lays the golden egg,” he told the Times. “If those falter, then the city falters, because there’s no other district that can pick up the slack. We pay for most of the social programs in our city.”
Such comments, however, sound less like “competing visions of the public good” and more like “complaints about priority going to people with the wrong colour skin” to many proponents of the plan.
“This is the same public investment that’s been going to whiter and more prominent areas for decades,” said fair housing advocate Chrishelle Palay. “They just call it their ‘tax dollars hard at work’.”