Residents and local leaders continue to debate what equity looks like in Harris County when it comes to prioritizing $2.5 billion worth of flood mitigation projects in a county with a population of more than 4.6 million people from all levels of the socioeconomic spectrum.
Following the approval of a $2.5 billion bond referendum last August—a process that could take 10 years—officials are now working to come up with a plan for which flood mitigation projects will take priority and which Harris County communities will see relief first.
“The draft guidelines are in the process through the [Harris County] Flood Control District and they’re planning engagement and consultation,” County Judge Lina Hidalgo said. “I appreciate everyone’s commitment to work through that process and listen to the comments that come into court to make sure that it reflects the spirit of the language that was passed.”
During the Feb. 26 Harris County Commissioners Court meeting, the conversation began with several commissioners and public speakers calling on the county to focus first on areas that have been hit hardest as opposed to areas with higher valued property. That conversation continued at the March 12 meeting, with several speakers urging the court to prioritize low-income areas of the county.
“This is a unique and amazing opportunity we have in front of us. There have been many stories and headlines in the news lately about how we as a country get equity wrong,” said Iris Gonzalez, director for the Coalition for Environment, Equity and Resilience. “We have a chance to not repeat those same patterns here in Harris County; we have the power to get it right.”
Zoe Middleton, the southeast deputy communications director for Texas Housers, a low-income housing information service, echoed Gonzalez’s sentiment during the meeting, stating that as an equity provision was previously agreed upon by the court to be included in the bond language and was approved by voters in August, the court is obligated to uphold that equity throughout the entire process.
“Families who live in [low-income] neighborhoods are no more, no less deserving of flood protection than anyone else and yet, insufficient infrastructure means that their cars and homes are flooding during intense rains … like the deluges of [Hurricane] Harvey,” Middleton said. “The wage earners of these families are less able than their higher-earning counterparts to recover from such incidents. There is enough money from the bond and other funding sources to pursue projects that will protect all types of families in all types of neighborhoods. The equity language in the bond and this historic opportunity should not be ignored.”
Gonzalez said that while much of the Buffalo Bayou channel, Addicks and Barker reservoirs are already capable of handling one percent storm events, other bayous including Brays, Clear Creek, Hunting, White Oak and Greens have been left behind, according to a report from the Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium.
“Today the level of flood protection across watersheds is not equitable,” Gonzalez said. “I encourage you to analyze these disparities and to define equity as a Harris County where there are no pockets where we have a lower level of flood protection.”
However, Tom Ramsey, the mayor of Spring Valley—a Harris County city with a population of approximately 4,000 people, none of who classify as low-income, said that prioritizing low-income areas of the county would mean neglecting the homes that flooded in higher-income areas.
“What was communicated [previously]… was that they county would focus on addressing flooded homes as a priority,” Ramsey said. “Using [the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development]low-to-moderate income census blocks now to reprioritize bonds will not ensure equitable distribution of the bond projects … and is a guarantee that flooded homes will not be a priority.”
Ramsey is also a board member on the Harris County Mayor Council Association, which includes 33 other Harris County cities.
With 80 bond projects already underway—either because they started prior to the bond or because matching funds were available from partner sources—Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said so far, approximately seven percent of those projects are in Precinct 1, three percent are in Precinct 2, and about five percent are in Precincts 3 and 4.
With the majority of projects left to prioritize, Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said he hopes Harris County will continue to work together during this process as it did in Hurricane Harvey’s aftermath.
“It’s amazing the way this community came together,” Ellis said. “People didn’t care about income, color, religion—all of that went away with the flood. And I hope as we go through this process—particularly the five of us—will be cognizant of that as well. So I’m going to do my part to try to set the tone and hope we don’t engage in class warfare… but if we have to, I’m quite capable.”