Houston official: Federal disaster aid widens racial inequities

County commissioner urges revisions to federal aid formula

Federal aid to help Houston recover from a 2017 hurricane favored wealthier neighborhoods at the expense of poorer ones, a Harris County official told members of Congress.  (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Federal aid to help Houston recover from a 2017 hurricane favored wealthier neighborhoods at the expense of poorer ones, a Harris County official told members of Congress. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Posted May 4, 2021 at 3:56pm

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. 

Amending the cost-benefit analysis the federal funding relies on would make the distribution of recovery aid more equitable, Ellis said. 

Republicans on the panel said the increased federal role in funding disaster recovery removes incentives for communities to invest in resilience against future catastrophes.

“It seems to me that there's little incentive for mitigation efforts because the federal share of these disasters has gone up,” Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Ohio, said. “Back in 1955 during Hurricane Diane, the federal government only covered about 6 percent of the disaster, total costs. As part of a Superstorm Sandy, the federal government's exposure was 77 percent.”

Superstorm Sandy struck in 2012.

National Flood Insurance Program

Lawmakers also pushed to reauthorize the federal flood insurance program ahead of its looming expiration.

Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., said Congress needs to reauthorize the program sooner rather than later. The program established in 1968 has been reauthorized on a short-term basis 16 times since fiscal 2017, according to a memo released by the committee. The program expires on Sept. 30.

“You can argue for this kind of flood insurance program or that kind of insurance program, but what you can’t argue is doing it before the last minute is better for the country,” he said. “We don’t want to take people into July or August not knowing what their situation is, especially if they’re trying to sell their home.”

The panel discussed draft legislation that would reauthorize the program for five years and cap premium increases at 9 percent during that period. 

That limit would unfairly shift the cost of high-risk coastal properties onto taxpayers in the middle of the country, Rep. Bryan Steil, R-Wis., said.

“My concern is that someone in Janesville, Wisconsin, is going to be on the hook to subsidize somebody's second home on the ocean or some fancy-pants vacation home, and we're putting taxpayers in Kenosha, Janesville, or Racine on the hook for this,” he said.