Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Residents in some small, nearly all-white towns in Southeast Texas are slated to reap far more recovery funds than those in larger cities nearby with large minority populations.
Taylor Landing is a string of tidy taupe ranch homes bordered by the Taylor Bayou and Texas State Highway 73. It’s barely a dot on the map in Southeast Texas. With just 228 residents, it’s one of the smaller towns that was hit by flooding when Hurricane Harvey dropped torrential sheets of rain last year. And, with a median household income of about $69,000 and a poverty rate of 0 percent, it’s also among the wealthier ones.
It’s whiter, too: According to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey in 2016, none of Taylor Landing’s residents is African American.
For the purposes of divvying up Hurricane Harvey recovery funds, officials from the region estimated that the storm affected 22 residents of Taylor Landing—about 1 in 10. The town stands to receive $1.3 million in funds designated to help residents relocate from homes destroyed by Harvey. That works out to about $60,000 per affected resident.
Just 15 miles east of Taylor Landing lies the city of Port Arthur, home to 54,000 residents. When Harvey struck, the city was inundated. The nearby regional airport recorded more than 26 inches of rain in a single day. (“Our whole city is underwater right now but we are coming!” Port Arthur Mayor Derrick Freeman declared on Facebook as Harvey made landfall.) Few residents were left untouched. And even before the storm, Port Arthur was more vulnerable than other cities in the region, with a low median household income ($32,000) and a high poverty rate (29 percent). More than one-third of the population is black. Texas Observer has reported in depth on the city’s struggles since Harvey.
Officials in Texas estimate that nearly 50,000 residents of Port Arthur were affected by the storm—virtually the entire city. Yet Port Arthur is slated to receive just $4.1 million from the same set-aside funds for the owners of damaged homes or businesses. That’s about $84 per affected person.
Hurricane Harvey killed 107 people across Texas and destroyed billions of dollars in property. And the state is still reeling from its effects: More than a year after the storm struck the Gulf Coast, nearly 10 percent of Texans displaced by Harvey have yet to return home. Many affected Texas cities were still awaiting recovery aid by the start of this year’s hurricane season. And the amount of money that homeowners are eligible to receive varies dramatically from town to town.
Across Southeast Texas, residents in a handful of small, white, affluent towns stand to reap far more Harvey recovery funds than those just a few miles away, in far more populous but poorer majority-minority cities—resulting in huge racial disparities in the distribution of recovery funds.
According to experts, the gap reflects the process by which the state and region divvy up disaster recovery dollars, a formula that puts place before people.
“The Southeast Texas [method of distribution] is by far the most problematic of all the methods of distribution,” says Amelia Adams, a fair housing and disaster-recovery researcher and community planner for the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service.
The Texas General Land Office’s Harvey Action Plan describes the storm as a three-stage event. Harvey made landfall near Rockport on August 25, 2017, as a Category 4 hurricane, with disastrous 150-mile-per-hour winds. After it weakened and slowed, the storm stalled over Houston for the next four days. Finally, downgraded to a tropical storm, Harvey made landfall a second time on August 30, just across the border with Louisiana.
Harvey dropped a record-shattering 34 trillion gallons of rainfall on Southeast Texas—more than a year’s worth of rain for an area roughly the size of Kentucky. Floodwaters that struck the Golden Triangle (the region bound by Port Arthur, Beaumont, and Orange) hit after Harvey made its second landfall. Beaumont received nearly 50 inches of rainfall, slightly more than Houston.
Altogether, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban assigned more than $5 billion in Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) funds for Texas. Southeast Texas will get $157 million through that program for two specific purposes: to pay for buyouts and acquisitions of properties destroyed by the storm (namely homes), and to build infrastructure developments to remediate future disasters (such as flood-mitigation projects). “HUD is the ultimate arbiter of how it’s administered,” says Ginny Lewis, executive director for the Texas Association of Regional Councils.
But, at the local level, HUD doesn’t say who gets what. That job falls to the General Land Office (GLO), a state land management agency that will be responsible for allocating these Harvey recovery funds to local governments. Regional boards known as Councils of Governments draw up the plans for distributing CDBG-DR funds for housing. There are 24 Councils of Government across Texas, each one representing multiple counties. Every Council of Government (or COG) has an appointed board of directors, two-thirds of whose members must be elected officials from cities or counties within that body’s jurisdiction. So the money trickles down from HUD to GLO to the COGs, although it’s the state agency’s job to make sure that the money gets spent fairly.
“Some of [the Councils of Governments] are extremely powerful and large, with great capacity,” Adams says. “Down in South Texas, their capacity is much less. Some have said, ‘We don’t have the capacity to deal with disaster funding. We’re not Houston–Galveston. We’re not one of these big COGs that can do that.’”
The Southeast Texas Regional Planning Commission—the Council of Governments representing Hardin, Jefferson, and Orange Counties—drafted the plan for distributing aid in the Golden Triangle. Ostensibly, planning decisions here ought to reflect the interests of Beaumont and Port Arthur, the region’s largest cities: More than half of the three counties’ 337,000 residents live in these two cities. But the structure of the council gives unrepresentative weight to leaders from much smaller towns, from Bridge City to Bevil Oaks. (Shanna Burke, interim executive director for the commission, did not respond to multiple requests for comment; the General Land Office did not return a call for comment.)
Most conversations about the devastation of Harvey have centered on the flooding in Houston and wind damage in Rockport, with relatively less attention given to the destruction in Beaumont and Port Arthur. The National Hurricane Center reports that peak rainfall in Southeast Texas, near Port Arthur, may have eclipsed 70 inches, although it’s impossible to say for sure, since rain gauges aren’t built to measure this kind of extraordinary weather event. “By almost any statistic, either number of FEMA applicants or the amount of real property lost that FEMA has seen, areas like Port Arthur are really, really high up on that list,” Adams says.
Beaumont and Port Arthur are also poorer cities than Houston, with far less resources than Harris County. (Houston and Harris County elected to develop their own local recovery programs, independent from the state’s action plan.) Federal recovery funds have to account for unmet housing need, and in the Golden Triangle, it’s greatest in the cities that were already struggling. Despite that, the scheme drafted by the Southeast Texas Regional Planning Commission shows that CDBG-DR funds would instead flow disproportionately to towns with fewer, whiter, and wealthier residents.
Many of the decisions about disaster recovery aren’t up to the Southeast Texas Regional Planning Commission. For example, the state’s General Land Office set a floor of $1 million for CDBG-DR disbursements, a standard that benefits smaller jurisdictions. (That’s a big purse for a tiny Texas town where only a couple dozen residents experienced flooding.) But several decisions about how to weigh different factors in distributing aid are the council’s alone.
For example, in drafting its Method of Distribution (or MOD) plan, the commission weighted a community’s need solely on the grounds of storm impact. “All communities within the Southeast Texas region received the same type of damage (rising water) that is comparable,” the draft states. “[T]herefore, impact was the only factor selected for use.”
The commission identified homes and properties that saw more than six inches of flooding, without considering whether a home was merely flooded or entirely destroyed. And while the commission applied a factor for population size, it’s based on population percentages, which doesn’t account for the difference between a town of hundreds and a city of many thousands.
“SETRPC has allocated funds based solely on level of inundation and total population in the inundated area without considering unmet need, ability to recover, or the relative population of the impacted area. This distribution is blatantly inequitable and inconsistent with damage data,” reads a July letter submitted to the agency by Madison Sloan, director of disaster recovery and fair housing for Texas Appleseed, a social justice nonprofit. “Port Arthur will receive only about twice as much funding as cities with less than 1% of its population. Beaumont will receive less than twice the funding of cities that are 0.5% of its size.”
The problems with the formula for distributing recovery dollars for buying out properties destroyed by Harvey are manyfold. There’s simply too little money ($52 million altogether). The state’s requirements that disbursements start at $1 million does not suit the Golden Triangle: It assigns too much aid to small towns, and too little to vastly larger cities. Instead of designating aid by geographical or political subdivision, a more equitable recovery scheme would allow funds to flow to where the most people live—and especially to locations with the greatest need.
By failing to account for population size or the extent of the damage, the council’s plan for Harvey recovery funds created three huge outliers. Besides Taylor Landing, there’s China, Texas, where 27 of the town’s 908 residents were affected by the storm; they’ll receive more than $1 million for relocation and other expenses, or $40,000 per storm-struck resident. (China is 86 percent white.) In Nome (population 588), the 23 residents hit by Harvey stand to get even more, $49,000 per resident. (Nome is 89 percent white.)
Meanwhile, Beaumont has 92,000 storm-affected residents—a share that represents more than three-quarters of the city’s population. They’ll receive $3.7 million in government funds for buying up destroyed properties. That’s $40 per resident. The city’s population is half black.
The commission also determined that in four cities, every resident was affected by the storm. These four towns (Bevil Oaks, Pine Forest, Rose City, and Rose Hill Acres) will each get a maximum benefit of $2 million under the plan, despite the fact that only one of them has a population of more than 1,000. The towns are relatively well-to-do for the region, with median household incomes ranging from $54,000 to $77,000. The 2,700 residents of these four towns will get $8 million in Harvey housing funds, or $3,000 per household. By comparison, the 142,000 storm-affected residents of Port Arthur and Beaumont combined will receive just slightly less ($7.9 million).
“The three cities with the highest black populations are also the three cities with the very lowest funding,” Adams says. “And we know that those cities had a lot of people who were impacted who were extremely low income.”
She adds, “The median income of people who applied for [Federal Emergency Management Agency aid] in Port Arthur was $24,000 per year.”
The Southeast Texas Regional Planning Commission’s draft plan for distributing $52 million in funds for buyouts is just one component in the region’s broader $157 million allocation of CDBG-DR funds. And the region represents only 3 of the 16 counties most impacted by Harvey. So it would be wrong to say that all Harvey recovery funds are subject to such extreme racial disparities.
But all recipients of federal recovery funds are obligated to abide by the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing standard. Accordingly, the state’s General Land Office will review the commission’s plan to ensure that it works to promote desegregation and reduce racial concentration of poverty. The fair housing standard was designed to prevent deep racial disparities—like the divergence in aid between Taylor Landing and Port Arthur.
The commission has heard from advocates and residents of Port Arthur, including Mayor Derrick Freeman, who noted in public comments that 5,000 of the 7,000 homes damaged by the storm in his city were uninsured. John Beard Jr., a former city councilor and member of the Port Arthur Community Action Network, submitted comments noting that the thousands of displaced residents had created “pockets of no man’s land.”
So far, however, the commission revised only one element in its plan after receiving public feedback. It did not act on comments from Port Arthur or Beaumont. But it did respond to a letter submitted in July by the city of Vidor, Texas—a notorious “sundown town,” where African Americans were once not permitted after dark. The letter claimed that officials had undercounted Vidor properties damaged by Harvey. In response, the commission increased Vidor’s share of Harvey buyout funds from 4 to 5 percent. To accommodate that boost, other cities’ funds all fell a little. Just 24 of Vidor’s 10,579 residents are African American, according to census figures.
“Cities that can advocate for themselves and have the most administrative assistants and things like that, they actually get what they want,” Adams says. “[Vidor] is not a powerful city. They were just able to be the squeakiest wheel.”