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Houston official: Federal disaster aid widens racial inequities

Caitlin Reilly, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in News & Features

Federal disaster relief funding that prioritizes property value over need exacerbates existing racial inequalities, leaving poor neighborhoods and communities of color more vulnerable to extreme weather events, a Houston area official told lawmakers.

Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis said Tuesday that equity principles implemented to guide the county’s response following Hurricane Harvey in 2017 made it harder to secure federal dollars for the recovery.

“The poorest neighborhoods in Harris County are the hardest hit during storms, floods and other natural disasters, but they received the least amount of resources to recover, rebuild and build resiliency against the next load,” Ellis told lawmakers. Poor and minority families are more likely to live in neighborhoods vulnerable to climate-related disasters because of redlining, he said.

Ellis, a Democrat, urged lawmakers to revise cost-benefit calculations attached to federal disaster relief that rely on property value.

He testified to the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Housing, Community Development and Insurance about housing and resilience against climate change. Lawmakers also previewed policy differences that may hinder reauthorization of the National Flood Insurance Program, set to expire in September.

Harris County in 2018 approved a $2.5 billion bond to fund recovery from the 2017 storm and attached guidelines to ensure money was distributed equitably.

 

That made it harder to secure federal dollars for flood control that typically rely on a cost-benefit analysis that prioritizes funding for higher-value properties despite the concentration of damage in the lowest-income neighborhoods, Ellis said.

“This creates a cycle where those in higher income neighborhoods get access to funding for new projects, while certain neighborhoods continue to suffer from disinvestment,” he said. “By prioritizing property over people, areas of high-income values and fewer people are often selected over areas with larger populations, living in inexpensive homes, even if they are at higher risk of flooding.”

Climate resiliency is one of the goals of the $213 billion housing component of President Joe Biden’s infrastructure proposal. The administration says it would create 1 million rental units to make them resilient to climate change and energy efficient, as part of a plan to build and rehabilitate more than 2 million affordable and “sustainable” housing units.

Climate disasters coupled with a federal response that prioritizes property value, rather than need, end up exacerbating racial disparities, Ellis said. He cited a study by Rice University and the University of Pittsburgh that found the racial wealth gap grew by $87,000 in Houston from 1999 to 2013 because of natural disasters.

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