Flood damaged areas in Harris County from 1999 to the month before Harvey

Livable Places Initiative Would Create Higher Density in Flood-Prone Areas

First in a series on the Houston Planning Commission’s Livable Places Initiative, and updated on 6/18/2023

On 6/8/23, the City of Houston Planning Commission approved an initiative called Livable Places that it has worked on since early 2020.

Goals include creating a more affordable, walkable and equitable City.

Planning Commission Website

All laudable goals! However, the goals do not include reducing flood risk. Both the City and Harris County agreed to do that after Hurricane Harvey.

But the changes recommended in the Livable Places initiative could actually put more people in harm’s way during the next big flood.

Encouraging Higher Density in Flood-Prone Areas

They would do that by encouraging more housing density – and potentially more impervious cover – in neighborhoods already prone to flooding.

While regulation changes would apply to the whole city, they would primarily increase housing density in “public-transit-rich” areas inside the Beltway. There, the new regs would even let developers avoid building parking so they could increase housing density more.

Compare the three maps below. The first shows flood damage in all storms from 1999 to the month before Hurricane Harvey.

From a 2018 Rebuild Houston presentation. Note the preponderance of damage inside the Beltway.

The second shows damage during Hurricane Harvey.

From 2019 HCFCD Federal Briefing. Again, note the preponderance of damage inside the Beltway.

Compare those maps to this one created by the Planning Department for the Livable Places Initiative. It shows transit-rich areas where parking requirements would be optional for developers, allowing even more housing density – inside the Beltway.

Screen capture from the Livable Places presentation to the Planning Commission on 6/8/23.

Preamble to City Council Resolution Clarifies Targeted Area

If that weren’t clear enough, the preamble to the ordinance changes proposed by the planning department clarifies the purpose(s) of the new regulations. Among other things, they strive to:

  • Encourage more compact development patterns and small-scale, multi-unit housing options
  • Make better use of land closer to existing infrastructure
  • Promote responsible, affordable housing development “within the inner city.”

The graphic below shows the housing types that Livable Places will encourage. Each involves putting more people on any given lot, acre, or square mile.

Screen capture from presentation to Planning Commission on 6/8/23

In summary, the Planning Commission hopes to increase density in areas with the worst history of flooding in Harris County – in the name of equity. And they do that even as Harris County struggles to mitigate flooding in those same areasalso in the name of equity.

My head is spinning. Where is Daniel Webster when you need him!

Learn More During “Livable-Places” Week

The City Council still needs to adopt these regulations before they become effective. The Planning Commission hopes to bring them before Council later this month or early next. Before then, I will cover:

  • More details of the plan and attempts to offset increases in impervious cover
  • The unknown, cumulative impact of recommended changes on impervious cover
  • The City’s Drainage Fee which penalizes impervious cover by increasing residents water bills
  • Whether proposed changes will really make housing more affordable
  • Migration patterns within the city and region, and the demographic changes affecting them.

Livable Places does have the potential to provide some benefits to some market segments. So to make sure we get this right, I encourage comment from members of the planning commission, local governments, affected citizens, and flood experts. To submit a guest editorial, reach out to me through the Contact page of this website.

Posted by Bob Rehak 6/13/2023 and updated on 6/16/23 with minor changes to the approved regulations.

2114 Days since Hurricane Harvey

The thoughts expressed in this post represent opinions on matters of public concern and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.