The site of a future housing development in Houston. (Photo for The Washington Post by Ilana Panich-Linsman)
HOUSTON – There was a golf course across from the house on Kemp Forest Drive that Andrew Taylor recently bought with his girlfriend. Hilly and dotted with ponds, Pine Crest Country Club was shabby around the edges, but in this city of floods and footloose building rules, it was a welcome sponge for the seasonal rains.
Now Taylor is watching work crews cement over the former fairways for homes – 900 of them – marking the first new residential development to rise in a flood plain since Hurricane Harvey swept through this city late last summer. Along with the construction comes anxiety, not only along Kemp Forest Drive, but also across the nation’s fourth-largest city, a flat expanse of tree-lined neighborhoods and towering urban enclaves that is always one major storm away from inundation.
"We had some questions about how we would fare flood-wise," said Taylor, who is 32 and works in an escape room, a real-life game in which groups solve puzzles to leave the locked space. "But this has never really flooded before, so we feel pretty safe. And we’re hopeful it might raise our property values." Houston is building again, gingerly.
A city chastened by disastrous flooding just months ago is trying to balance the need for new construction in a region short of housing with the civic fear that Houston is returning to its freewheeling ways.
The construction in northwest Houston, which serves as something of a post-Harvey starting gun, is being built to new, stricter standards. Planners say those rules reflect both the local government’s commitment to avoid repeating mistakes and new federal weather predictions that anticipate even more severe periods of rain here for decades to come. In the short term, forecasters say this year’s hurricane season, which begins June 1, could be even worse than last year’s.
As planners take the new cautious spirit and future weather into account, Houston officials are seeking more flexibility from the federal government over how billions of dollars in emergency funds can be used to empty out or retool residential areas that have flooded repeatedly.
"What are we going to do in these neighborhoods that people just don’t want to leave?" said Stephen Costello, Houston’s chief resilience officer, whose task is to balance development and flood protection as the city recovers.
Despite its size, Houston has never had zoning regulations and, despite its flood-prone topography, it added flood-protection standards to building codes just a little more than two decades ago.
The need to build even in flood-susceptible areas is the result of the region’s projected growth rate. Under even modest population forecasts, the Houston metro area is expecting to add 4 million residents – a two-thirds increase – in the next three decades. The housing stock, even before the storm, was struggling to keep up.
In late August, when the slow-moving Hurricane Harvey dumped more than four feet of rain across much of southeast Texas, all 22 of the Bayou City’s bayous flooded. The waters left more than 65 people dead and caused an estimated $120 billion in damage.
The debris piles are gone. But thousands of people remain in temporary housing, and a school district that had nearly 300 campuses damaged by floodwaters is still improvising to get children who are accustomed to neighborhood schools to be comfortable in more-distant classrooms.
The ubiquitous billboards and radio ads for real estate speculators – offering cash for flood-damaged homes – have helped keep the storm and its aftermath at the center of Houston’s civic culture.
"Harvey was a wake-up call," Mayor Sylvester Turner, D, told a packed downtown ballroom of Houston’s business, political and civic leaders during his annual State of the City address this month. "And we’re still not where we need to be."
Turner has been the driving force behind new building regulations that take into effect the revised weather predictions, which come as little surprise to people here. As the mayor told his audience of mostly longtime Houstonians, "We have had three 500-year storms in the last three years."
A 500-year storm is one that has a .02 percent chance of occurring in any given year. That something is shifting in Houston’s weather has been obvious to those paid to think about how the city should redevelop and grow in Harvey’s aftermath.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration signaled recently that it is revising the rainfall totals for Houston that once defined a 100-year storm, one that has a 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year. In a draft analysis that takes into account Houston’s rainfall in recent decades, NOAA has added three to five inches of rain to what constitutes a 100-year storm, meaning that daily rainfall in such cases would equal 15 to 18 inches.
That revision, still to receive final approval, extends the threat of major flooding to many more neighborhoods.
"So much of Houston was built before we knew what we know today," said Carol Ellinger Haddock, Houston’s director of public works. "And the weather is changing."
Haddock has been with the department for 13 years and, at this moment in her career, has subscribed to the "challenge provides opportunity" ethos as she helps chart what the city will look like decades from now. She highlighted one local characteristic that makes rethinking the city even more complex, a trait she calls the desire "to age in place."
"I don’t know if this is a Houston thing or a Texas thing, but people here want to live out their lives in the house they grew up in," said Haddock, who lives in a 50-year-old home she has no intention of leaving.
But many of these old family homes are particularly prone to flooding, even those built to the pre-Harvey regulations that required houses to sit one foot above the 100-year flood level. City planners would like to ensure that, as those homes are renovated after flood damage, they meet stricter standards. Or, barring that, that they are not lived in again.
To achieve those goals, Houston officials are seeking changes to federal emergency funding rules. About 2 percent of Houston’s housing stock sits in areas that flood repeatedly, and city planners would like to use federal money to buy out, tear down and rebuild those homes as part of their "resiliency" program.
As the regulations stand, any home bought out with federal money cannot be rebuilt. The lot must remain green space. The problem for city planners, not to mention neighbors, is that the policy creates checkerboard neighborhoods where houses stand next to vacant lots along once well-planned streets. Property values for those who remain tend to plummet, as does the tax base.
Haddock and Costello are working with federal and state agencies to have that rule waived. They instead would like to allow the federal money to be used to tear down and rebuild houses – perhaps as many as 10,000 in Houston – to new standards.
At Turner’s urging, a narrowly divided city council approved in April new flood plain building regulations. Now, any new construction in flood zones must be two feet above the 500-year storm level, rules that a public works department analysis found would have spared 84 percent of the homes flooded by Harvey.
Builders and their council advocates argued that the new rules were an overreach, a too-severe reaction to the hurricane. Environmental groups argued that any new home construction in Houston’s flood plain, especially on land not previously developed, is dangerous and another example of the city ignoring history.
"Some will see these changes as too aggressive, and to others they will not seem aggressive enough," Turner said in his State of the City address.
Within days of adopting the new building regulations, the same council voted unanimously to endorse the development known as Spring Brook Village on the nearly 200-acre Pine Crest Country Club grounds. New building on an open tract of land in the flood plain is the kind of development that environmentalists here had never wanted to see again.
"The vote reflected the old way of thinking," said Jim Blackburn, an environmental lawyer and founder of the Bayou City Initiative, formed after Harvey to help influence decisions about the city’s growth. "It did not take into consideration the lessons we have come to learn about flood-prone areas."
But city planners defend the decision. For one, the development had been approved in principle before Harvey, which put any new construction on hold. To restart it, the developers had to agree to build the homes to the new, stricter standards.
The council also approved the creation of a municipal utilities district around the development. That allows the city to issue bonds and reimburse the developer for 70 percent of the road and sewer costs. In exchange, the developer will build fewer houses on the site with far fewer costs to cover.
"It is not better simply to build a higher version of what we did in the past," Blackburn said. "Yes, that’s a step. But that does not mean it is the kind of building the city taxpayers should subsidize."
Costello, the resilience officer, said he understands the argument. But, he said, it ignores the reality that Houston will continue to attract newcomers, making new construction inevitable.
"The city is going to continue to grow, and we just have to figure out how to regulate that," he said.
The sales office for Spring Brook Village will open soon, even though there are no signs of the houses. The development has rudimentary roads, a line of brick pillars that will hold a fence, and street signs for Presentation Lane and Teague Drive. Homes will run in the $300,000 range.
"We’re watching it very closely," said Buddy Hancock, a retired technical writer who has lived in the adjacent neighborhood of Willow Walk for three years.
His house and others around it watched Harvey’s floodwaters creep up over the sidewalk and touch front lawns. But no homes flooded. How the new construction next door will influence rising water is a concern.
"I can’t imagine it can handle water the way the golf course did," Hancock said. "On this side of it, in particular, I worry we’ll have more water than we ever did before."
Housing in Houston that sits in areas that flood repeatedly. City planners would like to use federal money to buy, tear down and rebuild those homes.
Scott Wilson is a senior national correspondent for The Washington Post, covering California and the west. He has previously served as The Post’s national editor, chief White House correspondent, deputy assistant managing editor for foreign news, and as a correspondent in Latin America and in the Middle East.
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