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Six Low-Income Watersheds Receive One Billion Dollars More than Six High-Income Watersheds

Second in a Series of Eight Articles on Flood-Mitigation Funding in Harris County

If the charges of racial and income bias in flood-mitigation funding in Harris County were true, you would expect the poorest neighborhoods to get less funding than the most affluent. But the opposite is true. They get a billion dollars more

Contrary to the “equity” narrative repeated ad nauseum in Harris County political circles, an analysis of flood-mitigation spending shows that JUST SIX low-income watersheds already:

  • Received a billion dollars more than six high-income watersheds since 2000
  • Averaged three times more funding per watershed
Data obtained from HCFCD via FOIA Request compares six highest and lowest income watersheds. These numbers include only capital improvement projects, not maintenance.

Data obtained via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request debunks the narrative that falsely claims high-income watersheds get more funding because they have higher home values. Higher home values theoretically create higher Benefit/Cost Ratios. And some political leaders claim that causes the Federal government to favor projects in affluent neighborhoods, compared to poor. 

However, that argument ignores dozens of other factors that enter into grant funding

So, look through the other end of the telescope. Examine actual funding instead of the funding process. You will see that, in Harris County at least, actual flood-mitigation funding favors low-to-moderate-income (LMI) watersheds by a wide margin. If the process favors high-income watersheds, why do the low-income get a billion dollars more?

Analysis Reveals Funding Favors Low-Income Neighborhoods

I requested from Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) the following data by watershed – broken up into various time periods:

  • Capital improvement funding (excluding maintenance)
  • Population totals
  • Low-to-moderate income (LMI) population
  • Watershed size in square Miles
  • Damaged structures in major storms

From that, I computed other factors such as $/square mile, population density, LMI %, LMI Rankings, etc. The data goes back to 2000, but also includes “Since Harvey.”

Comparing the quartiles for lowest- and highest-income watersheds since 2000 showed that HCFCD spent more than $1.5 billion dollars in six low-income watersheds, but only $472 million in six high-income watersheds.

The lowest income quartile received a billion dollars more than the highest. There’s just no truth to the “rich-neighborhoods-get-all-the-funding” story.

Terminology and Methodology

Before going further, let’s clarify some terms. LMI means Low-to-Moderate Income. 

  • High LMI means watersheds with a high percentage of low-to-moderate income residents.
  • Low LMI means watersheds with a low percentage of low-to-moderate income residents, which actually means High Income.

Instead of bogging readers down in confusing double negatives, I will simply use the terms “High Income” and “Low Income” for this discussion.

The numbers in the lists below represent the percentages of people with incomes below the average for the region. So, with 16% LMI, Little Cypress has 84% of residents making above the average. That’s why it ranks as “higher income” even though it has a lower LMI percentage.

To create each group of six, I started with seven. That’s because each included a statistical anomaly explained below.

Watersheds with the highest income (lowest LMI ranking) include:

  1. Little Cypress (16%)*
  2. Barker (22%)
  3. Cypress Creek (26%)
  4. Armand (26%)
  5. Willow Creek (27%)
  6. Jackson (30%)
  7. Spring Creek (31%)

The seven with the lowest income (highest LMI ranking) include:

  1. Halls (71%)
  2. Hunting (69%)
  3. Sims (65%)
  4. Vince (62%)*
  5. Brays (58%)
  6. Greens (57%)
  7. White Oak (51%)

*Note: For this analysis I substituted Spring Creek for Little Cypress because Little Cypress is a statistical anomaly. Harris County is buying vacant land there along creeks to prevent future flooding as part of their “frontier program.”  But the small number of people who currently live in the Little Cypress watershed skews most statistical comparisons. I also excluded Vince in the low-income category because it lies almost wholly within the City of Pasadena, which is responsible for it.

Summary of High-Level Findings

The six low-income watersheds received $1.52 billion since 2000. But the six high-income watersheds received $472 million – more than billion dollars less.

Let’s also compare total spending since 2000 per square mile in each group.

  • Low-income watersheds got $2.8 million/sq. mi. 
  • High-income watersheds received $0.9 million/sq. mi.

Again, the 3X advantage for the low-income quartile held up.

Finally, let’s compare average dollars per watershed for all groups since 2000 (not adjusted by square mileage). The 3X advantage held up yet again for the low-income group, which also more than DOUBLED the countywide average. See below.

These comparisons make compelling evidence that the political narrative is misleading! However, these numbers don’t tell the whole truth either.

Low-income watersheds had 7X more damaged structures in four major floods (Allison, Tax Day, Memorial Day and Harvey) – 144,754 vs. 19,677.

If there’s one truth about flood-mitigation funding in Harris County, it’s that “dollars flow to damage.” The following tables show funding, damage and LMI% rankings for both income groups. 

Only one of the watersheds in the high-income group received more funding than Hunting, the lowest in the low-income group. (I will explore this further in article #7 in this series.) 

Reasons for Rankings

If you understand Houston neighborhoods, the reason for these rankings becomes apparent when you look at a watershed map. Here are the high-income watersheds…

High-income watersheds are generally newer and built to higher standards on the periphery of the City. They also generally have fewer developments beyond them to create flooding issues. Not one is predominantly inside the Beltway.

Now, let’s look at the low-income watersheds.

Each low-income watersheds IS predominantly inside the Beltway.
Homes and drainage in these older areas are not built to current standards.

Role of Density in Flooding and Flood-Mitigation Funding

Another huge disparity exists between these two groups of watersheds: population density. 

  • 1,517 per square mile for the high-income group 
  • 3,912 for the low-income – 2.6X more.

Higher density brings with it more impermeable surface; more and faster runoff; more crowding of floodplains; plus, less room for detention facilities, channel expansion and wetlands. Often, wetlands are destroyed to accommodate higher density.

Very high density can also escalate flood-mitigation costs and delay flood-mitigation construction projects. Sometimes, homes or even entire subdivisions must be “bought out” to widen ditches or install detention ponds. For an example, see this post about Halls Bayou.

Also understand that when homes must give way to flood-mitigation projects, the projects often generate significant pushback from people being displaced.

Moving Forward, Let’s Ask the Right Questions

The statistics in this post disprove racial bias in funding. However, inner-city, minority residents are more susceptible to flooding than their suburban counterparts. But it’s largely because of where they choose to live for whatever reason: affordability, proximity to work, transportation, etc. Sometimes people just have no options, despite flooding. (I’ll explore this subject more in #7 of this series.)

To help residents in these low-income areas, HCFCD is already spending 3X more than it does in high-income areas. This raises the question, “Are we underfunding some watersheds?” 

As development pushes past today’s high-income watersheds, they too will come under pressure from even newer developments beyond the Grand Parkway. It’s already starting to happen to the westnorth and northeast. Those along Cypress Creek may first to feel the full brunt on this (see rankings above).

To solve the problems that really plague us, we need to bury the racial rhetoric, realize the true nature of the problems, and work together on solutions. 

The current inflammatory “equity” discourse only seems to distract and divide people. The real question we should ask ourselves is, “How can we upgrade the drainage infrastructure (streets and storm sewers) in neighborhoods that are 60 – 70 years old?” I’ll discuss that more in the seventh article in this series.

If leaders truly want to reduce flood risk, then the discussion needs to focus on how best to support the professionals and organizations toiling to protect all residents from the next flood. 

If the conversation does not change, then that will prove flood prevention is not really a priority for Harris County leadership. 

For More Information on Flood-Mitigation Funding

For more information, see: 

Posted by Bob Rehak on 6/22/2021 based on data received from a FOIA request

1393 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.