Tag Archive for: SVI

65% of Harris County Flood-Bond Projects that Lost Funding Are in Precinct 3

Harris County has put 37 of 93 subdivision drainage projects associated with the $2.5 billion 2018 Flood Bond on hold.

Reasons include:

  • Lack of funding
  • Inflation
  • Shortfalls in expected partner contributions
  • Constructibility of some projects
  • Social-vulnerability scores within the County’s Equity Prioritization Framework.

Of the 37 projects whose funding was cut, 24 were in Precinct 3 – a whopping 65 percent.

Technically, the projects have not been “cancelled.” The county has just run out of money to do them. But it has set no deadline for revisiting the projects on hold; is diverting HCTRA backstop funding for other uses; has articulated no other plan for raising additional funds; and is submitting projects for HUD funding that weren’t in the flood bond.

Here’s the explanation for the motion approved by Commissioner’s court on 2/21/23.

Did Your Project Get the Funding Ax?

The following three tables show the projects put on hold. (Note: six are duplicated between tables 2 and 3.)

Table One: Cuts based on feasibility and non-co-operating partners. Source: Harris County Commissioners Court.
Table 2: So-called Equity cuts. Source: Harris County Commissioners Court.
Table 3/Part A. More so-called Equity cuts, also approved by Commissioners Court.
Table 3/Part B.

Commissioners court cut funding for projects in all three tables.

Impact of SVI Threshold on Disproportionate Budget Cuts

The deciding factor in many cases was the area’s social vulnerability index (SVI), which measures English language fluency plus minority and ethnic concentrations.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Ramsey argued to lower the SVI requirement for these projects to 50%. That would have met HUD requirements and also meant fewer budget cuts for Precinct 3.

But his Democratic colleagues proceeded to set the threshold at 75%, resulting in the lopsided cuts. The chart below shows how dramatically that affected Equity Prioritization Index rankings in the tables above.

Ramsey Looking for Other Sources of Funding

Ramsey has been beating the bushes to find more money. Recently he got a commitment from Texas General Land Office Commissioner Dawn Buckingham to ensure $825 million in HUD funds going to Harris County Flood Control would be distributed equally among all precincts.

That should help fund several Precinct 3 projects and perhaps free up money for some of the subdivision drainage projects put on hold.

Drowning in the Semantic Wilderness

Ironically, even as others throw roadblocks in the way of Precinct 3 projects, HCFCD insists no projects will be cancelled.

Screen capture on 7/11/2023 from HCFCD webpage about the Equity Prioritization Framework as it applies to subdivision drainage projects.

But according to this motion, they will be paused, put on hold, and have their funding cut.

Harris County Engineering, Flood Control, Daniel Ramos from the Office of Management and Budget and the Harris County Toll Road Authority all recommended the funding cuts on 2/21/23.

Their rationale: It will provide funding certainty for the highest ranked projects using the Equity Prioritization Index and free up the Toll Road Funds for other uses. The toll road funds were backstopping bond funds.

The county made these recommendations even as it was planning to spend HUD dollars on projects NOT in the flood bond.

Unfortunately, six years after Harvey, no large pots of money remain out there dedicated to the storm. Ramsey has his work cut out for him against 4-1 odds.

Is Race-Based Funding Even Constitutional?

To justify the unequal cuts, the other three commissioners and county judge relied on complicated race-based formulas that favor minorities. Then they justified the funding cuts with the usual misleading “worst first” mantra when they aren’t even measuring actual flood damage.

The recent Supreme Court Ruling on Affirmative Action calls into question whether race-based funding is even constitutional.

I’m eager to hear from lawyers on the constitutionality of distributing billions of dollars on the basis of racial discriminators, such as SVI.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 7/11/23

2142 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.

Harris County Changing How It Will Choose Which Flood Projects to Support; Welcome to the “Equity Bias”

Imagine you pull up to a stoplight and two needy people approach you for a handout. You want to help, but have only $1 in your pocket.

Do you give the dollar to the person who has not eaten for the longest time? Or to the person from the zip code with the highest percentage of minorities and lowest average household income?

As you may have guessed, the people at the stoplight are a metaphor for flood victims.

More Needs than Dollars

Harris County doesn’t have enough dollars to build every flood mitigation project that everyone needs. Flood mitigation requires tough choices.

So the County is setting up a supposedly unbiased task force to decide whom to help. But its composition will be biased toward people who believe flood bond money should favor low income, minority neighborhoods, i.e., the constituents of the three politicians pushing the task force (Judge Lina Hidalgo, Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, and Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia).

Stacking the Jury

Look at the proposed overview and bylaws for the Community Resilience Task Force. You will see that they embed the concepts of equity, social justice, and social vulnerability into every recommendation the task force will make. For flood mitigation. Housing. Health. Construction. Urban planning. And more. For the next 30 years!

Proposed bylaws for the task force explicitly state that the members MUST demonstrate:

  • An interest in “equitable” flood mitigation.
  • Interest in socioeconomic and demographic factors that affect resilience.

So they are baking “equitable” into the job descriptions.

Difference Between Equitable and Equal

“Equitable” treatment sounds like “equal” treatment. But it’s not.

Treating people equally means treating them identically. Treating people equitably means treating them differently, but fairly.

For instance, handicapped people get to park closer to the door. That’s fair…based on need.

But what happens when you start making flood mitigation decisions on the basis of race, income, and social vulnerability? Is that fair to more affluent communities destroyed by flooding?

Flood Spending Based on Race and Income?

Ms. Hidalgo, Mr. Ellis, and Mr. Garcia define “equitable” so preference goes to the “socially vulnerable.” Their argument goes like so.

Because poor people have a harder time recovering from floods, they should get more protection from flooding. They can’t afford to flood (…as if anyone can).

Hidalgo, Ellis and Garcia all advocate the use of a CDC social-vulnerability index and LMI (low-to-moderate-income) data to prioritize flood projects.

They argue in meeting after meeting that FEMA bases grant decisions on a benefit/cost ratio (BCR) that favors neighborhoods with more expensive homes. That’s true, but…

Socially Vulnerable Neighborhoods Already Receive Preferential Treatment

They never mention that Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Community Development Block Grants for mitigation (CDBG-MIT) and disaster recovery (CDBG-DR) already favor poorer (LMI) neighborhoods.

Nor do they mention that the County has already received a BILLION dollars in CDBG-DR funds. Or that the Texas General Land Office is sitting on top of approximately $4.2 billion in CDBG-MIT funds that it’s trying to distribute. The vast majority of those funds must go toward LMI/socially vulnerable neighborhoods. (The exact percentages vary by storm and type of grant. But they often range up to 70%.)

Problems With Basing Flood-Mitigation Decisions on LMI Data

There are two more problems with basing flood-mitigation decisions on racial and LMI data.

  • First, it ignores need. Shouldn’t projects that help the largest numbers of people or the worst flooding be mitigated first?
  • Second, LMI data only comes by zip code. Zip codes can mask huge disparities in wealth. So even if you feel poor people deserve more flood protection than the middle class, it’s hard to ensure that result with zip code data. Elm Grove, for instance, is an LMI neighborhood embedded within an affluent zip code.

Mr. Ellis argued that his Precinct One constituents, who are 76% African-American and Hispanic, would not get their projects because money they deserved more was being spent in affluent Kingwood.

He did not mention Army Corps of Engineers grants to HCFCD for work on four bayous in his precinct. Nor did he mention that in the entire history of Harris County Flood Control (which dates back to 1937), not one federal dollar has ever been funneled through HCFCD by the Corps for work in the Lake Houston Area.

4 Out of 5 Flood Bond Projects in SVI Neighborhoods

How much have Ellis, Hidalgo and Garcia skewed flood bond spending to date?

During the Commissioners Court meeting on June 30, 2020, Harris County Flood Control was asked to prepare a report to document the status of flood bond risk reduction projects in socially vulnerable neighborhoods. See Item 2E on Tuesday’s Commissioners Court Agenda. It shows a startling fact.

Out of the 145 active bond projects, 79% are located in high or moderately high SVI areas.

Letter from HCFCD to Commissioners Court

The distribution looks like this.

79% of Flood Bond Projects are located in the most socially vulnerable neighborhoods; only 21% in the least socially vulnerable neighborhoods. Source: Memo to Commissioners Court from HCFCD.

If you live in a “socially vulnerable” neighborhood, you’re 4X more likely to have a flood bond project near you.

And those are just the projects based on Flood Bond money. The Flood Control District is also pursuing additional CDBG grants and Army Corps funding to help fund even more projects in socially vulnerable areas. Those projects are not reflected in these percentages.

Rushing Through Public Comment Period

One measure of how much Ellis, Hidalgo and Garcia want to institutionalize their own definitions of equity is that they’re giving only six more days for public comment with little public warning.

You can bet that the commissioners court meeting on the 28th will be packed with surrogate speakers for Ellis, Hidalgo and Garcia who favor the “equity bias.” They’ve shown up in Commissioners Court for months.

Why wouldn’t they? It’s worked. They now have 4 out of every 5 flood bond projects going into their neighborhoods and they could get even more if this task force goes through in its current form.

Meanwhile, the San Jacinto watershed, says the Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium, received 0% of the mitigation budget prior to Harvey, yet had 14% of the region’s damages during Harvey. 

How Do We Decide What’s Fair?

So, should projects go to neighborhoods that:

  • Had the fewest flood mitigation projects?
  • Flooded the worst?
  • Help the greatest number of people for the dollars invested?
  • Are the poorest?

Or should the money be split equally or on some other basis?

Personally, I think decisions like these should be left in the hands of engineers, not partisan politicians.

Register Your Opinion

The County Judge’s office is inviting the public to share their thoughts and ideas on the proposed draft bylaws of the Task Force. You can register your opinion from now until July 30th, 2020, via one of the following methods:

  • Email CRTF@cjo.hctx.net and submit comments digitally, beginning July 21
  • Join a virtual focus group via Zoom. After registering, participants will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting.
  • Offer input during the July 28th Commissioner’s Court

Posted by Bob Rehak on July 24, 2020

1060 Days since Hurricane Harvey


For more information on the “equity bias,” see this series on “Where Flood Mitigation Dollars Have Really Gone”

Or this series on “The Equity Flap”