In Houston, new flood control projects are being called 'social engineering' for helping the poor

edited August 2 in US Political Debate

The New York Times brings us a look at a current controversy in Harris County, Texas, where a recent Democratic majority of county commissioners is bringing with it new flood control priorities after the 2017 devastation of Hurricane Harvey.

Short version: After longstanding Houston policies prioritized flood control projects according to the value of the properties being threatened (meaning the wealthiest neighborhoods always got top priority), the new policy prioritizes projects according to neighborhood abilities to recover from flooding (meaning poorer neighborhoods are for the first time getting higher priority). As you can imagine, wealthy communities don't like that. They don't like that one bit.

The debate centers on how you define "worst first," which is the widespread practice of prioritizing disaster abatement projects according to their relative risk and relative damage. One of the most common ways of doing so—because of who tends to hold political power in this country—has been as monetary calculation: How much property damage would be done if this neighborhood flooded? There's your cash number. Every other decision can flow from that.

If you weight by risk-dollars, as many federally funded programs flat-out demand, upper class and wealthy communities always come out on top. If a wealthy person's house floods, it will cause more monetary damage (at least, to an insurance company) than if a poor person's house floods because the wealthy person's house is bigger. More lavish. In a better neighborhood.

By this metric, flood control and other disaster abatement measures are commonly prioritized for wealthier neighborhoods, just as sidewalk repairs, sewers, fire departments, school construction, and everything else already is. And that, in turn, is yet another reason poor neighborhoods remain poor. Because their properties are lower in value, they are de-prioritized for every fundable project. The gap between neighborhoods widens every year according to whose homes have the most square footage and who can hire the most effective local consultants to grease local government gears and whose property taxes are how much.

In Harris County, the Times portrays the county's richer (and you can use the word whiter near-interchangeably here, as you can in most of the country) communities as angry that "worst first" is not being implemented by the new Democratic plan, because it is in part prioritizing poorer (and therefore less-white, ibid) communities that have faced decades of neglect.

On the other hand, when the new Harris County plan was first adopted it was indeed called "worst first" by the very people adopting it; it just included more encompassing measurements of "worst."

New metrics include the poverty and education level, car ownership, and similar measures of overall community stability. Poorer communities may lose "less" financially, per household, when flooding happens, but the neighborhood and its families may be far, far less able to recover from that flooding. The new criteria also specifically prioritizes existing drainage issues and neighborhoods that have been left out of previous flood control projects.

That's the part that's being called "social engineering" and "unfair" by wealthier communities. And there's something else afoot here that nobody in the Times' collection of outraged citizens is quite talking about: In Texas, due to both development and climate change, new places are flooding. New record rainfall amounts are falling in places with more paving than they ever had before, which is resulting in places being flooded that were never considered flood risks before.

Because they were never considered flood risks before, the property values are naturally higher there than in places with known, long-term risks.

The privilege of not living somewhere that floods was previously built into neighborhood planning and pricing. Now it's changing out from under homeowners. The climate change leopards are eating the wrong faces.

Yeah. It stands to reason that those newer communities want anti-leopard measures posthaste.

In the end this all boils down to a very simple argument. There's never going to be enough money to protect every community from flooding, so choices have to be made. The people with the most access to lawmakers and the press are being presented with a scenario in which money that could be spent on them is being spent on someone else, and because people are people they find this confusing and irritating. For all the talk of "social engineering," we have been socially engineering upper class communities to be safer, healthier places in a self-perpetuating cycle for a very long time now, to the point where the suggestion of spending even some money in historically shoved-to-the-back-of-the-line communities in an effort to close the gap just a tiny bit is seen as offensive.

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