In 2017, Hurricane Harvey killed 68 Texans, 36 of them in hard-hit Harris County, which includes Houston. The storm displaced 30,000 people and destroyed more than 200,000 homes and businesses. Despite congressional approval for $4.3 billion in Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds to rebuild, low-income Texans of color received significantly less than their wealthy white neighbors. Because FEMA’s assessments used a cost-benefit analysis that tends to prioritize areas with higher property values, white, wealthy neighborhoods with more expensive homes received the most funding. The average Black resident of a low-income Houston neighborhood received $84 in FEMA funds, while while the average white resident of a high-income neighborhood received $60,000.
While the federal government provides most of the recovery funding, state and local governments have considerable power in determining how to spend it. Organizers from the Texas Organizing Project (TOP), a grassroots non-profit organization in Harris County, have been working to change the balance of power in the county, to more representatives from communities of color to local boards, and to ensure a more equitable distribution of disaster funding, so that the people most impacted by climate change have the most say in how that funding is spent. As Celeste Arrendondo-Peterson, then Housing Justice Director of TOP explained, “we needed to find a way to intervene on the money and organize resistance against the usual way that Harris County spends money, which is in wealthier, whiter communities—places where the houses are worth more money. We wanted to influence the funding, how much money was in those programs, where they spent the money, who they spent the money on, and how they spent the money."
In Harris County, multiple boards and commissions oversee economic development, building standards, public safety, regulation and licensing, the environment, and disaster recovery. These bodies are often made up of wealthy, white residents, who have the time and resources to attend meetings, and make the connections to get on the boards.
Demos’ latest case study, the second of four in a series on economic democracy, highlights TOP’s three-part strategy to change the balance of power in Harris County and establish a more equitable approach to disaster recovery and future resilience.
Immediately after Hurricane Harvey, TOP organizers went door–to-door in their communities to determine the immediate needs and lay the groundwork for their larger strategy to build power and equity. First, they continued building on a foundation they set via the Boards and Commissions Leadership Institute (BCLI), an initiative designed to recruit, train, and campaign for women of color to join local governance bodies, and developed a diverse pipeline of candidates. Unlike the white, wealthy politicians that typically dominate boards and commissions, “our members and leaders have on the ground experience, they know where the problems are, what people overlook, because they’ve been overlooked for so long,” Alpa Sridharan, the director of TOP’s BCLI program explains in the case study. Their lived experience gives BCLI’s members the expertise to achieve tangible gains for their communities.
Second, TOP campaigned for and helped elect a new, equity-minded Harris County Judge, who oversees the county and has considerable power over disaster relief spending. Linda Hidalgo, the candidate who was elected to replace Ed Emmet in 2018, remains in office today. The third step in TOP’s strategy involved developing relationships with elected officials and bureaucrats, including Hidalgo, holding them accountable to their campaign promises and building a co-governance model in which community members and government officials work together to build an equity framework for distributing disaster funding.
These tactics got results. In 2019, Harris County passed the Harris Thrives Resolution, which included an equity-based framework that prioritized post-natural disaster projects for low-income communities that would not be able to rebuild on their own. In 2020, Harris County Flood Control District Task Force became the Harris County Community Flood Resilience Task Force, which focuses on equity, health, safety, community engagement, and increased transparency in flood recovery and resilience.
In 2020 and 2021 Harris County and Houston received $2.3 billion in federal funding for COVID relief through the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan. Government officials used the Social Vulnerability Index, a metric that utilizes variables often left out of traditional cost-benefit analysis to evaluate how to spend this money. Factors considered include the communities’ income, the percentage of residents who are elderly, their English proficiency, and the percentage of residents without a vehicle, among factors that may impact a communities’ ability to recover from a natural disaster. These critical victories would not have happened without TOP’s consistent, targeted focus on building equity and democratic participation into local governance.
But Texas, at both the state and local levels, still has a long way to go to build and preserve equity in the face of climate disasters. In March, a report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) found that the Texas General Land Office, the state agency responsible for distributing the funds, and led by Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, denied Harris County over $1 billion. According to the investigation, Bush’s office “discriminated on the basis of race and national origin” and “substantially and predictably disadvantaged minority residents, with particularly disparate outcomes for Black residents.” Bush is currently running to be Texas attorney general.
Beyond Harvey, extreme weather events are happening more frequently throughout the state. As a result of climate change, storms are becoming more intense, and floods are becoming more severe. Over a year later and Texas’ power grid remains unstable after a 2021 freeze that left 4.5 million customers without power. With millions of dollars of federal funding pouring into cities through the infrastructure bill and future climate disaster relief packages, the case study and TOP’s experiences and strategies offer a blueprint for organizers in other cities aiming to build more equitable, diverse, and representative local governments and meet the challenges of climate change.
This post also appears on Next City's blog as part of its "Hear Us" series.