In-Depth

Is Houston’s Floodplain Ordinance Bad for Low-Income Communities?

Some say the ordinance will hurt residents that are already adversely affected by Harvey

One year ago this week was the event we now simply call “Harvey.”

Harvey’s record-breaking rainfall highlighted any and all weaknesses in our ability as a region to survive such catastrophes.

Since then, Harris County and the city of Houston have taken measures to mitigate the impact of future flooding.

But not all of those plans are without controversy.

Take what’s called the floodplain ordinance. The City Council revised it earlier this year and the changes go into effect Sep. 1. It toughens building standards. But might there be unintended consequences?

Keith Downey serves as president of the Kashmere Gardens Super Neighborhood, a majority African-American community just north of the Fifth Ward.

“In our community, this area – I mean – was devastated, it really was,” he said as we drove through the neighborhoods. “You can see some of the people that are back in their homes. Look at this, in some cases you can tell they’re just getting back in.”

A lot of homes here have been raised on cinder blocks.

City officials would like that to be the norm: The city’s floodplain ordinance will require new construction in the 500-year floodplain – that is, land that has a one in 500 chance of flooding – to be elevated by two feet above the floodplain.

Of existing residents, this only applies to those whose homes were more than 50 percent damaged. Downey estimates this is true for about a fifth of houses here.

“They barely can afford – if they can afford – someone, to level their home, and then to raise it up to code,” Downey said. “You’re talking about an underserved community. You cannot ask money from people that you’re trying to help. They don’t have it.”

Bill King, a Houston businessman, who ran for mayor in the last election, thinks “that was a terrible standard to choose to regulate to.”

He wrote a blog arguing that the negative effect on low-income communities will be beyond just those who have to raise their homes.

“I think you’re going to see speculators and developers start to buy up those properties and tear them down,” he said. “And then they’ll go back with properties, with houses, that are much higher scale that you can afford to build up to the higher levels.”

That, King said, will accelerate gentrification in those areas.

He would rather see the regulations apply to the 100-year floodplain plus areas that were flooded by Harvey. He said that would make more sense because the FEMA-designated floodplains aren’t always a good indicator of where flooding occurs.

Jim Blackburn sees it differently. The co-director of Rice University’s SSPEED Center said the floodplains are the bare minimum that should be regulated.

“There’s probably more that should be identified but the floodplain is the starting point,” he said. “And what I know is the floodplain that we have mapped, is the 100-year floodplain, is inaccurate and obsolete and it makes no sense to rebuild to that standard, just knowing you’re going to flood in the future.”

Blackburn said there really shouldn’t be any development in the floodplains along Houston’s bayous. He calls the ordinance a move in the right direction.

The council member for the Kashmere Gardens neighborhood, Jerry Davis, said he gets that many can’t afford raising their homes – but the same people can’t afford to flood again either.

“So it’s in our best interest, not just for this next year but for the generations to come for us to make sure that we have put in an ordinance that’s going to protect them and protect their families,” Davis said.

Either way, poor, minority communities appear to lose the most after disasters such as Harvey.

A recently published study found that while whites on average gain wealth after major disasters, blacks, Hispanics and Asians lose wealth. The study also found that the wealth gap widens more in counties that receive more federal disaster aid.

Whether the city’s floodplain ordinance will contribute to or work against that wealth gap, remains to be seen.

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Florian Martin

Florian Martin

Business Reporter

Florian Martin is currently the News 88.7 business reporter. Florian’s stories can frequently be heard on other public radio stations throughout Texas and on NPR nationwide. Some of them have earned him awards from Texas AP Broadcasters and the Houston Press Club. Florian is a native of Germany. His studies...

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