Houston flooding plan fails to provide needed investment or protect civil rights

On August 18, 2016, I provided testimony at a public hearing over the City of Houston’s draft Action Plan for Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery funding (CDBG-DR) appropriated for unmet needs related to the 2015 floods. The testimony was co-written with Madison Sloan of Texas Appleseed, and the following excerpt has been condensed and edited. Read the full testimony here.

Texas Housers and Texas Appleseed have worked on CDBG-DR programs since Hurricane Rita in 2005. Since Hurricane Ike in 2008, we have worked with grassroots community organizations of people of color seeking equal and fair treatment from the State of Texas and the City of Houston in federally-funded disaster recovery programs. We also actively work with community leaders to assess the adequacy of public services, public infrastructure, public safety and public facilities provided by the City of Houston in low income neighborhoods of color.

In the course of this work, we have documented the historical and ongoing concerns of residents of these communities suffering from systemic neglect and underinvestment by the City of Houston – specifically, complaints that the City has withheld public funds for basic and essential public infrastructure. Many of these concerns are related to the frequent and repeated flooding in these historically disinvested neighborhoods. Residents of these communities have requested adequate stormwater drainage protection from the City at CDBG-DR Action Plan public hearings and City Council meetings for almost eight years.

In response to these demands, in 2014 the City used CDBG-DR funds from Hurricane Ike to undertake a citywide engineering study of the open ditch drainage system that is the main method for dispersing stormwater and providing flood protection in Houston’s low income communities of color. The study documented the inadequacy of the open ditch system even in routine annual rainfall events, which contributes to disproportionate and repeated flooding in African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods.

Open Drainage Ditches Houston

Inequitable public investment in drainage infrastructure has a clear disparate impact on the basis of race, color and national origin. The failure of the City to provide equal levels of flood protection to African-American- and Hispanic-segregated neighborhoods harms people of color directly, by depressing the economic value of their homes and subjecting them to disproportional exposures to hazards from flooding. These hazards now include disproportionate exposure to the Zika virus transmitted by mosquitos that breed in standing water in open drainage ditches, which local elected officials, including the City’s mayor, have rightly described as a public health emergency.

The City can unequivocally use CDBG-DR funds to address these problems. The City’s drainage study documents that low-moderate income neighborhoods (LMI) flood frequently, most severely during natural disasters including the 2015 floods. The CDBG-DR funds for recovery from the 2015 floods, and potential additional allocations of CDBG-DR for the 2016 floods, present the City of Houston with an opportunity to address systemic flooding and infrastructure issues, not only to redress historical discrimination and meet its fair housing obligations, but also to target the most severely disaster-affected areas, rebuild more resilient communities and reduce the damage from future disasters.

LMI Drainage Houston

But the current draft Action Plan is substantively incomplete. It fails to clearly state data-supported disaster-related needs or to detail the activities the City proposes to undertake with the available funds. Particularly troubling is the draft Plan’s failure to adequately assess the impact of the disaster on low and moderate income communities of color.

At most, the City can treat its current plan as a rough framework for developing a compliant Action Plan that will be amended until it reaches the regulatory standard. The federal requirements for Action Plans are clear: Recipients must “submit a plan detailing the proposed use of all funds, including criteria for eligibility and how the use of those funds will address long-term recovery, restoration of infrastructure, and housing and economic revitalization in the most impacted and distressed areas.” The U.S. Department of Justice also recently issued guidance on Title VI of the Civil Rights Act for federal recipients of disaster funding, which states that the civil rights requirements of the CDBG-DR program include “information about the race, color, national origin…and other demographic information of communities served by a federally assisted program, activity, or service.”

The draft Action Plan’s reliance on 311 data to assess flooding is flawed and racially biased, because of systemic underreporting in low income communities of color resulting from the City’s failure to equitably address 311 complaints from those communities. Many residents have simply “given up” on the 311 system as a vehicle for obtaining action from the City to deal with local infrastructure problems. The City must collect objective data on the impact of the flooding based on professional assessments. 311 call data should be considered, but, as has been the practice in past, this data should be corrected for bias through the use of objective, professional, supplemental damage assessments – including the City’s own 2014 study.

Correcting the substantially inadequate stormwater drainage protection provided to low income communities of color, in contrast to infrastructure provided and maintained by the City in higher income and majority white neighborhoods, would not only address disaster-related impacts but align with the federal directive to “leave communities sustainably positioned to meet the needs of their post-disaster population, economic, and environmental conditions.” However, despite the fact that the City’s open ditch flood engineering study provides the best available data to estimate and assess the adequacy of the City’s stormwater protection system at the neighborhood level, and demographic data on which communities are most affected by that infrastructure’s failure to function in an emergency, the draft Action Plan does not cite it.

As a CDBG entitlement community and a recipient of CDBG-DR funds, the City of Houston has an obligation, and as a condition of its eligibility for these funds must certify, that it will affirmatively further fair housing (AFFH). A failure to comply with fair housing obligations affects the City’s eligibility for housing, community development and other federal funds. The City’s failure to provide low income families of color a choice of housing in areas outside of high poverty, minority-segregated areas – where assisted housing has historically been over-concentrated in a manner that creates a disparate impact on persons protected by the Fair Housing Act – is one of the issues that may render the City unable to truthfully certify that it is affirmatively furthering fair housing, and places its eligibility to receive CDBG-DR 2015 funds at risk.

The Fair Housing Act of 1968, and the obligation to AFFH, apply to all activities conducted with housing and community development funds – housing, infrastructure and economic development. Recipients are not only required to refrain from discrimination, but must also take proactive steps to redress the legacy of segregation and further the creation of more integrated and diverse communities with free and fair access to housing opportunities and equal access to key community assets. The AFFH goal cannot be accomplished solely by focusing on funding allocated to housing or on the geographic location of housing: Jurisdictions must also ensure non-discrimination and address the effects of segregation in the provision of public services.

Housing segregation does not produce “separate but equal” neighborhoods (as illegal as that would be in and of itself), it paints a target on minority neighborhoods that makes other forms of discrimination easier to perpetrate and maintain – including the failure to provide adequate infrastructure and public services.

Low income and historically disinvested minority communities are the prioritized recipients of CDBG funds by statute. They are also more likely to be located in disaster-vulnerable areas, and to suffer disproportionately severe housing and infrastructure damage in a disaster. Both the income-targeting provisions of the CDBG program and the requirements of the Fair Housing Act mandate prioritizing low income and historically underserved neighborhoods for infrastructure and economic development disaster recovery spending.

Long-term disaster recovery must look beyond the rebuilding of individual structures to rebuilding distressed communities in a way that supports their ability to become more diverse, higher opportunity neighborhoods offering decent infrastructure, safe and affordable homes and access to important community services. Investment in affordable housing alone in high poverty neighborhoods of color has not historically, and cannot be expected, by itself to catalyze community revitalization and “remove the walls of discrimination which enclose other minority groups” or foster “truly integrated and balanced living patterns” as required by the Fair Housing Act. The pattern of limiting “investment” in low income neighborhoods of color to housing funds has too often been replicated in disaster recovery programs, denying those neighborhoods comprehensive recovery and perpetuating segregation and its harms.

When natural disasters like the recent recurring floods strike cities, public infrastructure must be in place to protect citizens. We have seen in flooding events, most recently in the Greenspoint area, that low income Houstonians, both homeowners and renters who lack insurance and the private economic resources to recover from disaster, are often the ones who end up paying the cost of residential segregation, living in neighborhoods where the City has not provided essential infrastructure. The City’s proposed focus on root causes of flooding is promising, but these investments must be made in a way that specifically targets the hardest-hit neighborhoods and redresses historical inequities in low income neighborhoods where people of color were compelled by government action to live.

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