Flood Relocation Disproportionately Affects Non-White Houston Neighborhoods, Study Says

The study from professors at Rice and Temple universities shows the adverse affects displacement methods used to help flooding have on residents who do not live in white or affluent neighborhoods.


An aerial view of the flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas, Aug. 31, 2017.

People in non-white and low-income Houston neighborhoods were more likely to be displaced after a flooding event than those in whiter, more affluent areas, according to a new joint study from researchers at Rice and Temple universties.

According to the publication, Houston is one of the nation's leaders in managed retreat, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s approach to buy flooded homes through its Hazard Mitigation Grant Program.

"Spurred by growing numbers of buyouts now underway, we wanted to see if the same federally funded policy leads to different types of relocation from different types of flood-prone neighborhoods," read a statement from researcher James Elliott, Rice University professor and chair of sociology. "We weren’t just interested in how far people move, we also wanted to know how far they end up from each other, two key indicators of community attachment that aid social resilience to future disasters."

Out of all the homes in the 22 distinct watersheds who experienced flooding, about 1,500 Houstonians voluntarily sold their homes from the years 2000 to 2017, according to the study, published in the journal Social Problems.

While home buyouts are often a way for people whose homes were devastated by flooding to recoup costs and relocate safely, that relocation can still exacerbate environmental justice issues, the study said.

"These findings give us a better…understanding of how people are affected by these types of relocation," Elliott said. "Although current policy is grounded in good intentions and can potentially save money when it comes to disaster recovery, there's substantial social cost passed on to historically marginalized communities."

Longtime neighbors can provide social support systems, researchers said. The authors found that those who were displaced and came from a predominantly white area resettled in an area with not only higher home prices but also a higher proportion of white residents — with neighbors that they recently lived near.

Those in Harris County who are either Hispanic, Black, Asian, or Native American resettled three times farther from their home on average, displacing them from neighbors and family and affecting them in ways beyond the move.

"This ‘social capital' is an important part of the non-economic value of home," read a statement from Phylicia Lee Brown, a graduate fellow at Rice University. "Neighborly bonds built over time can help with daily needs such as errands and child care; they can also help with community resilience when residents have to prepare for and rebound from the next disaster."

Houston has been hit with a total of 12 floods since 2001. But researchers noted that issues beyond flooding have contributed to health and environmental inequities across the region.

Cancer clusters have been found in Houston's Fifth Ward, a historically Black community where residents say the Kashmere Gardens railyard owned by Union Pacific Railroad Co. contaminated properties and groundwater with carcinogens including creosote, a wood preservative. More than 80 people have since filed a lawsuit against the company, seeking more than $100 million in damages.

Mayor Sylvester Turner released a statement in February, asking Union Pacific to help relocate those residents.

Earlier this year, the Texas Department of Transportation was asked to halt a controversial I-45 expansion, after residents raised civil rights and environmental concerns, saying the project would cause increased air pollution and the displacement of largely Black and brown residents.

TxDOT was later found to have moved forward with the expansion, and local activists say the state had already begun offering buyouts to those in the neighborhood.

But flooding remains among Houston's biggest issues, and will continue to lead to the largest displacement of residents, researchers said.

"Of all natural hazards, flooding exerts the greatest economic and social impacts on the US population," the publication said. "Especially in urban areas where a recent report by the National Academy of Sciences indicates that associated risks are severe and getting worse."