The nation’s fourth-largest city, whose residents are 23.5 percent Black and 43.1 percent Latinx, does not have zoning regulations. And though it sits barely above sea level, flood-protection rules for building codes were put into affect just over two decades ago. The result is that many homes are vulnerable to damage from storms and hurricanes.
Hurricane Harvey hit the city in August and was a slow-moving storm that dumped more than four feet of water on the region. Sixty-five people died as a result and damage is estimated at $120 billion. Thousands of Houston residents remain in temporary housing.
As Colorlines previously reported, Hurricane Harvey was most catastrophic for Houston’s communities of color. The neighborhoods where they typically live are located in low-lying areas that are prone to flooding and near petrochemical plants that tend to overflow during storms.
In addition to figuring out how to protect residents from future storms, Houston must also contend with how to best hurricane-proof new structures as the city faces a growth spurt. Forecasts predict that an estimated four million people will move to Houston in the next 30 years.
In response, Mayor Turner and other Houston officials are seeking more flexibility in spending federal emergency funds. Per The Washington Post:
As the regulations stand, any [damaged] home bought out with federal money cannot be rebuilt. The lot must remain green space. The problem for city planners, not to mention neighbors, is that the policy creates checkerboard neighborhoods where houses stand next to vacant lots along once well-planned streets. Property values for those who remain tend to plummet, as does the tax base.
[Director of Public Works Carol Ellinger] Haddock and [Chief Resilence Officer Stephen] Costello are working with federal and state agencies to have that rule waived. They instead would like to allow the federal money to be used to tear down and rebuild houses—perhaps as many as 10,000 in Houston—to new standards.
On April 4, the city council approved a rule that new construction (and existing homes that are expanded by more than one-third of their current size) must be elevated by two feet to minimize water damage. A public works department analysis found that would have saved 84 percent of the homes flooded by Harvey from damage.
These proposed and existing changes are being heralded by Houston officials as progress, but environmentalists and community groups find them insufficient. Environmental activists argue that any new home construction is dangerous if it takes place in Houston’s flood plain.
Jim Blackburn, an environmental lawyer, told The Post that “the [April] vote reflected the old way of thinking. It did not take into consideration the lessons we have come to learn about flood-prone areas.”
And the Greater Houston Builders Association estimates that the elevation rule passed in April will add more than $32,000 to the average cost of a home in the area—making homeownership cost prohibitive for many Houstonians.
These arguments did not deter the Houston City Council from also approving the construction of the 900-home Spring Brook Village in April. It is the first new residential development to be built in the flood plain.
Said Costello to The Post, “The city is going to continue to grow, and we just have to figure out how to regulate that.”