What “equity” in Hurricane Harvey drainage recovery means

The Houston Bayou Initiative invited me to present my views on what equity would look like in the allocation of Harris County bond funds to address the flooding from Hurricane Harvey. Here are my remarks.

My organization, Texas Housers, is focused on racial and economic justice.

In assessing equity in disaster recovery programs for housing Texas Housers looks at three things:

  1. Does the government’s proposed method of distributing funds comply with the law — especially equal protection laws;
  2. Is the program administered fairly and efficiently; and
  3. Are the outcomes and people assisted what was intended.

The questions we ask about the design of disaster housing programs are:

  • Does the program meet federal statutory targets (70% Low- to Moderate-Income).
  • Who has suffered harm and are they being targeted?
  • Can folks in need access the funds or are there barriers that deny them help?
  • Do any of the criterial guidelines, targeting, etc. have a disparate impact on a class of persons protected under civil rights law (race, national origin, disability, etc.)?
  • Is the program adequately monitored to track who gets help and who doesn’t in order to provide a baseline of benefits proportionate to damage across racial and economic lines?

Proportionality in fund allocation and households assisted by race and income is only a baseline.

It is not enough to ensure equity however because equity is about about more than just creating equal shares of the available resources.

Flood control equity requires we consider more than we do in determining housing equity however. With drainage infrastructure we have to factor in the level of flood protection that is present now.

Further, we must find out who can afford to bear what level of financial burden to pay for flood protection.

All poor households can bear less financial burden on their own and all poor neighborhoods start at a deficit in terms of the adequacy of their existing public infrastructure.

In both housing and infrastructure, we also need to take into account all the funds available – not just county drainage bond funds – but federal funds the county and city has received, FEMA mitigation funds, Corps of Engineers funds, etc.

This is a critical point. Flood control is different from housing repair and reconstruction in that it requires not just assessing an individual’s personal assets and then determining assistance but also requires assessing the adequacy of prior public investment in the neighborhood flood control infrastructure.

I’m no expert in flood control projects, but it seems to me there are several steps in designing post disaster drainage programs for equity:

  1. Determine the desired region-wide flood protection standard and apply it to all neighborhoods. This doesn’t mean always funding structural flood control to reach this standard should be the solution in every neighborhood. But the right flood control solution must be found for individuals, perhaps offering buy-outs instead of structural controls.
  2. Determine who needs individual assistance (elevation or buyout), who needs community level solutions (public drainage infrastructure or stormwater detention) and who needs both.
  3. Based on this data, design an allocation plan that gets the right help to those in need in an equitable manner.

This brings us to the question: What is equity and why it is necessary?

Equity is not some squishy, undefined concept nor is it discretionary.

Equity is equal protection and non-discrimination which is a legal requirement guaranteed in the Constitution.

Equity is not something Harris County is doing for flood survivors just to be nice. Equal protection and non-discrimination is required in the 14th Amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Equity has not been historically practiced. It does not exist in public services today. Everyone and every neighborhood is not on a level playing field. Long practiced discrimination has produced a widespread absence of public infrastructure that will require disproportionate expenditures to remedy.

One needs only to consider the City of Houston’s provision of drainage and sidewalks to white neighborhoods vs neighborhoods of color to appreciate this inequity. Despite a huge starting deficit in this type of infrastructure in neighborhoods of color in the city, Houston continues to devote more tax revenue to improvements to public infrastructure in white neighborhoods. If disaster recovery programs are administered through current policies and practices they will continue to be inequitable.

We must not delude ourselves into believing any disaster recovery process will be a win-win for everyone. There are costs involved and they will be substantial.

Past disaster recoveries have not been equitable and this inequity has been borne most by poor people of color.

Over many decades our patterns of local public infrastructure expenditures have made a mess that cannot be easily or cheaply undone.

Modifying our approach to ensuring equity in housing recovery to apply to flood protection, I propose a starting point for designing for equity in flood protection:

  1. Equity means public funds are used to either take people to an agreed, county-wide, standard of flood protection or help residents (owners and renters) voluntarily move away from flooding.
  2. Start with a county standard of flood protection (a 25 year storm event protection standard would be a good start).
  3. Next, examine the adequacy of the flood control system serving each neighborhood in meeting the standard.
  4. Then, figure out what it would cost the public and the residents to achieve this agreed upon level of protection (flood control systems, buyouts, structure elevation, etc.).
  5. Determine the resources required to offer this protection to each individual. Keep in mind, equity is not just dividing money up equally. Develop guidelines and set goals for awarding this assistance.
  6. Affirmatively market the assistance to get it to the person’s targeted.
  7. Constantly monitor and publicly report who is getting assistance and the equity in terms of populations based on income, race, national origin and disability.

In housing and infrastructure disaster recovery, the federal government recognizes poor people are less financially able to recover on their own than wealthier households. For this reason the federal government directs a minimum of 70 percent of federal disaster recovery funds go to low-and moderate-income households. Texas politicians fought against this minimum target and they (fortunately) lost. So this federal law is a rough starting point to assess equity.

And 70% is a bare minimum, not a cap on assistance to the poor.

Inexcusably the City of Houston has sought to burden shift flood control costs to individuals who cannot afford to bear that burden.

The City of Houston’s changes to it’s Chapter 19 building standards is an example of inequitable burden shifting. (Texas Housers recently issued a policy brief on this topic that contains a full analysis). Here’s a summary of how the City’s approach is unfair:

  1. It shifts the focus away from the government’s responsibility to provide infrastructure and onto people who, regardless of their financial ability, are forced to elevate their homes in place of the City providing adequate structural flood control infrastructure. The problem with the City’s approach is that it is not means tested and condemns poor neighborhoods to perpetually flood.
  2. Chapter 19 asks poor homeowners and low-income housing providers — many who do not have the means to handle the six figure price tag on elevating a home — to bear the burden.
  3. the City fails in it’s legal obligation to remedy the civil rights violations of existing neighborhood infrastructure inequity that has been practiced by the City in violation of federal law.
  4. Low income neighborhoods of color have suffered from both public and private disinvestment over many decades. This has contributed to high concentrations of households in poverty and high degrees of residential racial segregation. These neighborhoods are in desperate need of reinvestment. But reinvestment will not occur if residents cannot afford to elevate their homes and businesses cannot afford to elevate their businesses. Chronic flooding in these distressed neighborhoods will lead to further blight and deterioration which in turn will continue the pattern of disinvestment.

An equitable approach would require people who can afford to elevate to do so while providing:

  1. Public flood control in low-income neighborhoods.
  2. Grants to poor homeowners and low-income landlords to elevate.
  3. Grants providing enough money to permit homeowners and affordable rental housing to move to better, safer neighborhoods.

One final thing to keep in mind.

Equity must be for everyone, renters as well as homeowners.

We must provide for the needs of renters who depend on low cost rental housing by:

  1. Offering incentives that permit landlords to rebuild or elevate affordable rental housing while keeping rents affordable.
  2. Ensuring disaster recovery offers incentives that do not continue to trap poor families of color in flood prone, low opportunity neighborhoods but instead provide landlords incentives to increase housing options in safe, high opportunity neighborhoods in order to break down the walls of residential racial segregation.
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