Part 2: In a segregated Houston unequal neighborhoods mean unequal flood protection

This is the second part of a two-part blog on Texas Housers turning to the courts to direct the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to enforce civil rights and fair housing law. Read the first part here. 

In this country, we believe separate but equal schools, services, or public facilities are not only unfair, they are discriminatory. And in Houston they may be life threatening.

This is evident in segregated Houston, where the city continues to neglect Latino and African American neighborhoods in the provision of drainage infrastructure. This puts people of color at a higher risk of flooding and danger during storms compared with white fellow Houstonians.

In our complaint filed in the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia this week, we contend that Houston “has created and maintains a separate and unequal storm water system that results in disproportionate and preventable flooding of African-American and Latino neighborhoods.”

This is something that Houston has known definitively since at least 2014. That year, the City’s Department of Public Works and Engineering commissioned a study to examine the performance of all open ditch drainage (such as what is shown in the photo above). This type of primitive infrastructure is not nearly as effective as the engineered underground drainage systems that most big cities employ that can keep streets and neighborhoods from flooding in moderate storms. A Texas Housers analysis of the city’s data found that 88 percent of this open ditch drainage is in African American neighborhoods and, according to the City’s own report, nearly half of these ditches couldn’t provide storm water protection of homes they serve in even modest storms.

Texas Housers shared this information with city officials when Houston was considering a plan to spend Hurricane Ike-related disaster recovery funds. Still the City continued to further exacerbate unequal treatment of Houstonians of color and allocated the funding to maintain the discriminatory effects of the status quo.

You can visualize the location of the open ditch drainage and see that much of it is concentrated in the green and yellow areas, where the majority of residents are people of color.

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Texas Housers again sounded the alarm about the danger of such unfair investment, in public comments to Houston officials when we wrote that “[m]inority neighborhoods in Houston disproportionately lack access to standard city infrastructure, especially storm water drainage” in public comments on Houston’s required reporting to the federal housing agency. We repeated the same warning in 2016, this time in comments about Houston’s plans to spend federal disaster recovery dollars from the 2015-2016 floods.

Hurricane Harvey struck a year later in August 2017, and while the storm inundated some affluent mostly-white neighborhoods as well as low-income neighborhoods of color, areas with inadequate storm protection were hit harder and remain more vulnerable.

This past fall, Texas Housers filed an administrative complaint with HUD about this very issue. In it, we state that Houston’s “failure to provide equal levels of flood protection to African-American and Latino-segregated neighborhoods harms people of color directly, by depressing the economic value of their homes and subjecting them to disproportionate physical hazards and property damage resulting from flooding.” This practice is a violation of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

We presented HUD evidence of this disparate treatment of people of color by the City of Houston and asked HUD to investigate. HUD not only conducted no investigation, they did not even acknowledge our complaint.

In our complaint filed in court this week, we ask the court to compel HUD to investigate the discriminatory impact of Houston’s unequal drainage. In our court advocacy, Texas Housers is calling on Houston officials to allocate federal disaster recovery funds to begin to remedy this history.

It’s only a matter of time before another flood overwhelms the City of Houston again. We know that the magnitude of storms continues to grow and the city’s infrastructure is hardly ready. But how much longer will city officials neglect the needs of people of color and people in low-income areas and offer little but inferior protection from floods?

Texas Housers and the community leaders we work with will not stand for a separate and unequal Houston any longer. We don’t think HUD should either.

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