Pleasantville, a few square miles of bungalows and industrial sites stuck between Houston’s railways and freeways, resembles a shallow bowl — quick to flood, like much of the city. But like other neighborhoods with large Black and Hispanic populations and low property values, it never qualified for the pricey flood-control projects that protect wealthier parts of Houston.
Projects here “would be put on a list, and that’s where they would go to die,” said Bridgette Murray, who is president of the Pleasantville neighborhood association and whose house got five feet of water during Hurricane Harvey.
Faced with countless complaints like these, officials in Harris County, which manages flood control in and around Houston, threw out their old approach for spending billions of dollars on flood defenses after Harvey. Instead of prioritizing spending to protect the most valuable property, which benefited wealthier and whiter areas, they decided to instead prioritize disadvantaged neighborhoods that would have the hardest time recovering, including communities of color.
Opponents have criticized the program as social engineering. Advocates have lauded it as long overdue. And for flood-prone cities nationwide, the controversial plan has become a test case for grappling with the overlapping challenges of racial inequity and climate change.
Governments have long used a simple concept, cost-benefit analysis, to decide where to focus money on flood protection: Spend it where property values are higher, for the best return on investment. However, that puts poorer minority areas at a disadvantage. And it feeds a cycle of decline as flooding returns again and again.
“The status quo wasn’t working,” said Lina Hidalgo, who in 2018 became the first Latina to win the position of county judge, Harris County’s top elected official.
But the county’s year-old experiment is more than a possible model for other communities. It is also a warning about the political resistance that can result.
Democrats’ plan thrust into plain view the wealth and racial divides that long influenced which communities received flood assistance.
Community groups supporting the changes call them both necessary and humane. Opponents see the new program as simply as a way for Democrats to channel public funds to Democratic leaning voters, rather than using an approach they prefer, called “worst first” — the idea that the first priority for spending should be places facing the worst flood risk.
“They want the money for their neighborhoods. They don’t care about ours,” said Dave Martin, who is Houston’s mayor pro tem and represents the wealthy community of Kingwood on the City Council. “Using any mechanism other than worst first is ludicrous.”
In Harris County, like elsewhere, the emphasis on prioritizing higher-value property led to different levels of protection not just from big federally funded flood projects, but also basic infrastructure.
Wealthy neighborhoods got sidewalks and curbs with gutters and underground drainage, while poorer areas still rely on open ditches in front of their houses, according to Tracy Stephens, a former project inspector for Houston’s public works department who now works with Ms. Murray at a community development group called Achieving Community Tasks Successfully.
Mr. Stephens recalled crews being sent to upgrade gutters in upscale neighborhoods simply to accommodate the extra runoff as more people installed backyard swimming pools. “That money could have been spent doing jobs everywhere else,” he said.
Environmental policy experts say it makes no sense to decide which people get protection based on which property is more valuable. That approach reinforces historical discrimination, which contributed to minority neighborhoods having lower property values in the first place. And it doesn’t address the deeper question of who needs the most help, or why.
“The benefit-cost approach has a false transparency, a false rigor,” said Earthea Nance, an associate professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University. That approach has a similar effect to redlining, she said, referring to the practice in decades past whereby governments and banks would deny mortgages to Black home buyers. “Is that really what we want?”
A sequence of unlikely events pushed Harris County to reconsider its approach. First, in 2017, Hurricane Harvey dropped more rain than any storm in U.S. history, flooding more than 166,000 homes countywide. The following summer, voters approved a $2.5 billion bond to fund more than 500 flood-control projects over several years, the largest such initiative in the county’s history.
A few months later, in November 2018, came a third surprise. For the first time in three decades, Democrats, buoyed by the county’s changing demographics and their party’s midterm wave, won control of the Harris County commission, called the Commissioners Court, and with it, the chance to decide just how that $2.5 billion would be spent.
They vowed the focus would be on fairness. The problem was, nobody knew exactly what that meant.
Rodney Ellis, who until the election of 2018 had been the sole Democrat on the county’s five-member commission, had said the bond measure must include a commitment to the “equitable expenditure” of the money in return for his support. At the time, he avoided talking about how that provision should be interpreted, for fear Republicans would reject it.
“Everybody’s for equity, until they’re against it,” Mr. Ellis said. “Everybody’s for fairness, until they find out everybody won’t get what they want.”
After Democrats took control of the commission, they eventually decided to rank projects based in part on the “social vulnerability” of the communities they protected — an index created by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that reflects what share of residents are minorities, can’t speak English, lack a job, are older, live in mobile homes, don’t have cars or face other challenges.
The goal, according to Ms. Hidalgo, was to reflect how hard it would be for a neighborhood to recover from the next disaster, and prioritize flood-control projects in those areas — what she described as a more comprehensive version of the worst-first approach. “That means elevating some of the communities that had gone overlooked,” she said.
The commission passed that new approach along party lines, which in Harris County also means racial lines. The three Democrats who voted in favor are African-American or Hispanic, while the two Republicans who voted against it are white.
Jack Cagle, one of the Republican commissioners who voted against the measure, praised the county’s flood-control department for working quickly on all the bond-funded projects over the past year, blunting the effect of the new prioritization. But he said his voters feel misled, after supporting a bond that they thought would focus on physical risk.
“If you voted on a premise of worst first, and now you’re being told, look, go to the end of the line, you could be unworthy — you’re going to get some pushback from that,” Mr. Cagle said.
Twenty-five miles north of Pleasantville, in the wealthy neighborhood of Kingwood at the edge of Lake Houston, Beth Guide’s house flooded last year. When the county said it would prioritize flood-control projects based in part on social vulnerability, she objected. The only criteria, she said, should be who faces the greatest flood risk.
“I don’t care if your house is a million-dollar house or a $30,000 hovel in the middle of nowhere,” said Ms. Guide, who runs a digital-marketing agency. “This literally should be, ‘Whose life is in the most danger?’”
She rejected the idea that priority should go to people who would have the hardest time bouncing back from a disaster. “The fact that you decide that you want to have a Netflix account versus whether you want to pay for your flood insurance is not my problem,” Ms. Guide said.
Greg Travis is a Republican member of Houston’s city council for a wealthy district that straddles Buffalo Bayou, a waterway whose flood-control projects have mostly been pushed to the end of the queue under the new system. He said the Democrats’ approach endangers the region’s tax revenues by letting flooding continue to threaten the values of his constituents’ homes.
“We are the goose that lays the golden egg,” Mr. Travis said. “If those falter, then the city falters, because there’s no other district that can pick up the slack. We pay for most of the social programs in our city.”
When some community groups listened to those arguments, they heard something other than competing visions of the public good. They heard complaints about priority going to people with the wrong color skin.
“This is the same public investment that’s been going to whiter and more prominent areas for decades,” said Chrishelle Palay, who leads the Houston Organizing Movement for Equity, a group that sought the change. “They just call it their ‘tax dollars hard at work.’”
Some supporters and opponents of the new approach agree on one thing: If Harris County voters had known that the bond money would be prioritized this way, they might not have passed it.
“It would have failed miserably,” said Mr. Martin, Houston’s mayor pro tem.
“I actually agree” with Mr. Martin, said Ms. Palay. “His constituents who supported this measure would likely vote differently if they knew the current equity framework.”
Dr. Nance, of Texas Southern University, said that until recently, the white and wealthier residents of Harris County had what she called “the privilege of not knowing” about the disparity of flood protection. Now that the flood bond has forced people to confront that disparity, and the benefits they derive from it, she said pushback was inevitable. “When they have to face that,” Dr. Nance added, “they’re not going to be hugging you.”