HOUSTON — Lawrence Hester worries every time it rains.
During heavy storms, water overflows the dirt drainage ditch fronting his yard and the bayou at the end of his block — flooding the street, creeping up his front steps, pooling beneath the house, and trapping his family inside.
“We are always underwater here,” said Hester, 61.
And yet, the state of Texas allocated none of the $1 billion in federal funds it received to protect communities from future disasters to neighborhoods in Houston that flood regularly, according to an investigation by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
HUD has now found the exclusion of those majority Black and Hispanic urban communities to be discriminatory. The state “shifted money away from the areas and people that needed it the most,” disproportionately benefiting White residents living in smaller towns, the agency concluded.
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Houston has faced seven federally declared disasters in the last seven years and suffered an estimated $2 billion in damage from Hurricane Harvey in 2017. That storm devastated Kashmere Gardens, where Hester has lived his entire life. The floodwaters from Harvey deposited black mold throughout Hester’s home and left his daughter chronically short of breath.
The state, which is appealing HUD’s findings, denied discriminating, saying the Texas General Land Office administered the federal grant program based on HUD approval.
The situation in Texas illustrates the challenge facing the Biden administration, which has pledged to focus on racial equity but is struggling to protect low-income communities of color from the growing threat of climate change. Even after HUD’s finding of discrimination, the agency said it does not have the power at this time to suspend the rest of the $4.3 billion in disaster mitigation money awarded to the state under criteria approved by the Trump administration.
“What is happening here with these federal dollars going through the state and not one dime coming to the City of Houston post-Hurricane Harvey is absolutely crazy, and it cannot be justified,” said Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner. “What do I say to the people in Kashmere Gardens when these storms keep coming, and we are not putting in the infrastructure that they desperately need to mitigate the risk of future flooding?”
Black and Hispanic communities in northeast Houston, including Kashmere Gardens, are especially vulnerable to the more frequent storms and catastrophic flooding expected due to climate change, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Many of the residential streets lack curbs and gutters — common storm drainage infrastructure in predominantly White neighborhoods in Houston — and rely instead on open ditches dating back to the 1930s.
“Sometimes we can’t get out because the water is so high,” said Jackie Spradley, Hester’s wife. “You’re literally trapped until the water starts to subside.” She can’t get to work. Their 12-year-old daughter can’t get to school.
The whoosh of traffic and trains permeates the triangular neighborhood of modest single-family homes penned between two highways and two sets of railroad tracks. During large storms, runoff from impervious highway surfaces flows onto residential streets.
Piles of trash — old tires, mattresses, furniture, home insulation — accumulate for weeks in the drainage ditches along many streets, blocking water from flowing through the ditches to the bayou. Silt and other debris clog many of the culverts beneath narrow driveways and footpaths spanning the ditches. In the summers, standing water breeds mosquitoes.
The city of Houston had hoped to use $95 million in federal grants to upgrade Kashmere Gardens’ storm drainage infrastructure. The proposed improvements, including converting some of the ditches to a curb and gutter system, would have removed the flood risk to nearly 1,400 properties.
But without the money, the city shelved those plans.
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Hester’s daughter Ashlei was 7 years old in 2017 when Harvey floodwaters breached their family room, lapping at the legs of the card table on which the family played dominoes. Her cough worsened, and doctors prescribed four different medications for asthma. She was hospitalized in 2018 for more than a week. But doctors still did not know what was causing her illness.
It wasn’t until December 2019, more than two years after Harvey, when Hester and his wife discovered the black mold that was making their daughter so sick. A city inspector recommended that the house be condemned.
“I was so ashamed,” Hester said. “We didn’t have nowhere else to go.”
His mother had purchased the home in 1960, paying the mortgage with wages from her job flipping burgers 16 hours a day. Hester was born in the house months later.
He had stayed in the house after Hurricane Alicia flooded the home in 1983. And after Ike in 2008. Even after Harvey, Hester stayed, hoping to someday pass the three-bedroom ranch-style home onto his daughter.
But Hester, who is on disability for herniated disks in his back and neck from his years as a long-haul truck driver, and his wife, who sells insurance, never had the money to adequately repair the storm-ravaged roof and mold-covered walls.
Hester said the city informed him after Harvey that he was ineligible for funding to fix the home because of unpaid property taxes.
“It’s not just about the storm drainage,” Hester said. “It’s about everything.”
Hester said that the rainbow-hued oily waters he had splashed in while playing in the drainage ditches as a child had been polluted with cancer-causing creosote used to treat wooden railroad ties and utility poles. A 2019 state health department investigation confirmed elevated cancer rates among residents in the southern end of Kashmere Gardens, located near two Superfund sites. Residents fear that flooding will carry toxic deposits into their yards.
Hester’s mother had died of cancer. So had his father. And one of his brothers. “Cancer is killing the whole neighborhood,” said Hester, who is too afraid to visit the doctor about his own health problems.
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Federal disaster mitigation grants are supposed to improve the inferior flood infrastructure in lower income communities. But the HUD investigation found that competition rules set by the Texas General Land Office unfairly favored smaller towns with less urgent needs and where residents are more likely to be White and less likely to be lower income.
The state knowingly adopted scoring criteria that prioritized lower-density areas and excluded communities that HUD designated as the most impacted by disasters from half the grants, HUD said.
“Because the criteria had these unjustified discriminatory effects, their use failed to comply with HUD’s regulations,” the agency found.
No other state adopted Texas’ method of distributing the funds, according to HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity. The agency concluded that without Texas’s discriminatory criteria, nearly four times as many Black residents and more than twice as many Hispanic residents would have benefited from the grants.
The General Land Office said in its April 1 appeal that the state “does not discriminate, and the projects it has funded help minority beneficiaries across Texas.” The state said more than two-thirds of residents in communities that received awards are Black, Hispanic or Asian. The state pointed out that its plan was approved two years ago and characterized HUD’s new objections as “politically motivated.”
In addition to Houston and surrounding Harris County, the General Land Office denied grants to the predominantly Black and Hispanic cities of Port Arthur, Beaumont and Corpus Christi as well as Jefferson and Nueces counties — all of which experienced significant flooding from Harvey, according to the civil rights complaint. Texas Housers, a nonprofit focused on housing in low-income communities, and Northeast Action Collective, a grassroots advocacy group of Houston residents, filed the complaint with HUD last year.
Instead, funds were steered toward inland, Whiter communities that were far less severely impacted by hurricanes and used to fund routine infrastructure, the complaint said. That includes $17.5 million for a new community center in Caldwell County that is supposed to double as an evacuation center; $10.8 million to install a sewage system in the 379-person town of Iola; $6 million for a new sheriff’s department radio tower and radios for Gonzales County; and $4.2 million for a 2,000-foot-long road in Bastrop County to connect a Walmart parking lot and a Home Depot, justified as an alternate path for emergency vehicles in case the adjacent freeway is clogged with hurricane evacuees from the Gulf Coast 161 miles away.
“These mitigation funds are a strategy to undo the systemic racism of the past, but that’s not what we’re seeing Texas interested in at all,” said John Henneberger, co-director of Texas Housers. “This is a test of how serious HUD and the Biden administration are in enforcing civil rights.”
HUD’s Office of Community Planning and Development, which oversees disaster mitigation aid, wrote to the Texas General Land Office in March expressing “grave concerns” over the distribution of the first round of grants. “The State has not identified a plan to protect communities while guarding against competition criteria that could disadvantage minority residents,” HUD wrote. If a voluntary resolution cannot be reached, HUD said it could refer the matter to the Department of Justice for enforcement.
But advocates worry that could come too late for communities like Kashmere Gardens.
While HUD said it cannot stop the state from awarding the rest of the grants “due to prior decisions,” it would begin monitoring how the money is distributed and warned it could claw back the funds if necessary.
“Texas has a history of sending money to those who are politically connected,” said Shannon Van Zandt, a professor of urban planning at Texas A&M University whose research focuses on hazard reduction and housing. She noted that racial disparities occurred with the distribution of disaster funds after Hurricane Ike in 2008.
Civil rights advocates say HUD has the authority to suspend Texas’s ability to spend federal grant money; it has done so under previous administrations. But Sara Pratt, former deputy assistant secretary in HUD’s fair housing office who is now representing Texas Housers as an attorney, said there is long-standing division among HUD staff over enforcing civil rights violations when making funding decisions.
“There is deep disagreement internally,” Pratt said. “The secretary’s job is to resolve disputes like this.”
HUD Secretary Marcia L. Fudge declined to comment because the Texas investigation remains open, HUD spokesman Michael Burns said.
“Her commitment to civil rights and fair housing is well documented and unwavering, and she is committed to ensuring that all HUD funds are used in compliance with all relevant laws and program requirements,” Burns said.
In response to widespread criticism over how the first $1 billion in Harvey disaster grants was distributed, Texas now plans to allocate $750 million to Harris County. Houston is due to receive an additional $9 million out of $488 million that the state plans to send to the Houston-Galveston region.
City officials point out that the $9 million amounts to less than one tenth of the cost of its proposed improvements to Kashmere Gardens.
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In Kashmere Gardens on a recent morning after a thunderstorm inundated streetside drainage ditches, bulldozers and dump trucks worked to widen and deepen Hunting Bayou to absorb runoff from future storms.
The work is a small portion of a $2.5 billion flood protection bond that Harris County passed in 2018. The bulk of the bond money was directed to wealthier neighborhoods because the county expected to receive federal disaster funds for poorer ones, according to county commissioner Rodney Ellis.
But without money to upgrade the ditch system to drain storm water from neighborhood streets, it’s unclear if the bayou expansion will be effective.
“This is the Texas two-step in Houston. You have to get the water from the neighborhoods to the bayous. And then you have to get the water from the bayous to the Gulf of Mexico,” said Ellis, who represents the area.
Residents, too, remain skeptical.
“It’s a wait and see situation,” said Dorothy Wanza, another Kashmere Gardens resident whose street turned into a river during Harvey and flooded her home with more than a foot of water. The experience left the 80-year-old so traumatized that “every time it rains, I get the hell out of dodge.”
She spent the previous night fully dressed, prepared to evacuate to one of her children’s homes. “The ditches overflow, and once they are full, the water comes back on you,” Wanza said.
On the other side of the bayou, Hester said the city had recently cleaned out part of a ditch lining his street for the first time he could recall in more than a decade. Dirt and bricks still block some of the culverts.
“Right up under there, look,” he said, pointing beneath the concrete walkway leading from the street to his front yard. “It’s stopped up on both sides.”
He nodded farther down the street to another culvert: “That whole drain hole was flooded.” He and his next door neighbor had removed as many bricks as they could to move the water through. “If we don’t do things around here, ain’t nothing going to get done. I have to go around here and try to help, and I’m in bad shape myself.”
Hester limped around the perimeter of his home and pointed two feet up the siding where Harvey floodwaters had reached — a reminder of the catastrophe he says he failed to protect his daughter from.
A nonprofit had removed the mold inside when it fixed up the house in 2020, installing new cabinets, a new roof and laminate flooring.
But the entryway still slopes. The floor joists need to be repaired. The porch is lopsided, its wood rotted.
Hester is stooped from years of pain. Yet he remains intent on doing what he can to make things right.
“It’s not my life I’m worried about. It’s my daughter’s,” Hester said. “I’m half dead.”