Eco-Equity? Houston Finally Prioritizes People of Color When Building Flood Protections

By Ayana Byrd Jul 27, 2020

After Hurricane Harvey hit the Houston area, causing catastrophic flooding, the city realized the way it prioritized which neighborhoods got upgrades for flood protection had to change. And now, instead of prioritizing wealthy areas—which is how it happened in the past—resources are going to lower-income earning areas that are most often inhabited by people of color.

“And for flood-prone cities nationwide, the controversial plan has become a test case for grappling with the overlapping challenges of racial inequity and climate change,” writes The New York Times.

Traditionally, governments spend flood protection money on the areas with the highest property value. This old formula resulted in wealthier Houston neighborhoods getting underground drainage as well as gutters added to sidewalks and curbs. Meanwhile, other, less affluent areas had open ditches in front of their homes, reports The Times.

“The status quo wasn’t working,” Lina Hidalgo, a county judge in Harris County, which manages flood control in and around Houston, told The Times in an interview.

After a 2018 election put Harris Country under Democrat control, the Times reports the following change:

After Democrats took control of the commission, they eventually decided to rank projects based in part on the “social vulnerability” of the communities they protected—an index created by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that reflects what share of residents are minorities, can’t speak English, lack a job, are older, live in mobile homes, don’t have cars or face other challenges.

The goal, according to Ms. Hidalgo, was to reflect how hard it would be for a neighborhood to recover from the next disaster, and prioritize flood-control projects in those areas—what she described as a more comprehensive version of the worst-first approach. “That means elevating some of the communities that had gone overlooked,” she said.

The change has led to a lot of support from various groups. Environmentalists say giving flood protection based on property value exacerbates racial discrimination, as people of color tend to have lower property values. Community groups see the change as “necessary and humane,” reports The Times.

Yet Republicans, as well as homeowners in areas that were once prioritized but are not now, disagree with the new policy.

“This is the same public investment that’s been going to whiter and more prominent areas for decades,” Chrishelle Palay, who leads the Houston Organizing Movement for Equity, told The Times. “They just call it their ‘tax dollars hard at work.’”