Houston, the only major American city without zoning regulations, took an unprecedented step this week by voting to institute a new rule to minimize flood damage for buildings.
On Wednesday (April 4), the city council approved a rule that homes and other buildings in the city’s flood zones must be elevated higher than current levels to avoid water damage. Per The Associated Press:
City officials say that of the homes in Houston’s flood plains that were damaged by [Hurricane] Harvey, more than 80 percent could have been protected had they been built at the height required in the new regulation. Such homes would typically be built on pier and beam foundations that put them above ground.
The Texas Tribune reports: “Currently, homeowners in the 100-year floodplain are required to have flood insurance and build new homes one foot above the floodplain. Turner’s proposal will increase that to two feet and expand it to homes in the 500-year floodplain.”
In addition, new construction and existing homes that are expanded by more than one-third of their current size will have to be elevated by two feet. Existing homes that are not expanded do not have to be raised.
While Mayor Sylvester Turner called the vote a “defining moment” for the city—which was hit with nearly 50 inches of rain during Hurricane Harvey in August—others believe it will be detrimental to many of Houston’s 2.3 million residents, of whom 23.5 percent are Black and 43.1 percent are Latinx.
“It will hurt the city as a whole. We have not taken the time to find out what the ramifications will be,” Councilman Greg Travis told The AP. In addition, The Greater Houston Builders Association estimates that the new rule will add more than $32,000 to the average cost of a home in the area.
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 of superfund sites that tend to overflow during storms.
As The Washington Post reported at the time of Harvey, the city is particulary vulnerable to floods, as it “is barely above sea level, sits next to the stormy Gulf of Mexico, and has grown into a sprawling, heavily paved metropolis notorious for flooding.”
Though the new rule is intended to protect construction in the event of flooding, it does not go into effect until September 1. This is midway through the 2018 hurricane season, which runs from June through November. According to a preliminary forecast released yesterday (April 5) by Colorado State University, this upcoming hurricane season is expected to be a particularly busy one.
“Forecasters expect a slightly above-average season, with 14 named storms,” reports CNN. “Seven of those are expected to become hurricanes and three are expected to be major hurricanes.” The university predicts a 63 percent chance that at least one of these storms will make landfall in the United States.
In addition to Harvey, Houston also experienced severe flooding from storms that hit the city in 2015 and 2016. “To do nothing is not an option, and this is one time that we must rise above the voices that say do nothing and do what is in the best interest of the people who placed us here,” the mayor said during the City Council vote. “Because frankly, I think the public is no longer tolerant of us not doing anything.”