Even after Harvey, Houston keeps adding new homes in floodplains

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One in five new homes permitted in Houston in the year after Hurricane Harvey is in a flood plain — some on prairie developed for the first time after the storm — even as new rainfall data showed existing flood maps understate the risk posed by strengthening storms.

The city Planning Commission also approved 260 plats in Houston’s floodplains during the same period, signing off on developers’ requests to redraw property lines to create hundreds more parcels awaiting development in flood-prone areas, a Houston Chronicle analysis found.

About 615 of the home construction permits were issued in the 100-year floodplain, the area deemed to have a 1 percent chance of being inundated in any given year, city data show. Another 600 were approved in the 500-year floodplain, the area deemed to have an annual 0.2% chance of inundation, according to the Chronicle analysis.

Many of these permits were issued to homeowners razing and elevating their flooded homes; more than 300 of the homes were approved on lots for which a demolition permit was issued after the storm. Others were issued to builders, many of whom tore down existing bungalows and replaced them with clumps of townhomes, packing more families into the floodplain. Still others were issued to developers building brand new subdivisions in areas that previously were open fields.

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In many cases, the homes complied with new city regulations designed to better protect life and property only when builders did so voluntarily. That’s because the rules the city council approved in April — which extended regulations from the 100-year floodplain to the broader 500-year floodplain and required new homes built in those areas to sit higher off the ground — didn’t take effect until Sept. 1, more than a year after Harvey came ashore.

Residents in southern Timbergrove, dozens of whom flooded during Harvey, have rallied against one new development in the 100-year floodplain at the edge of their neighborhood near 11th Street at T.C. Jester along White Oak Bayou.

Lovett Homes, which is owned by prolific local developer Frank Liu, has planned a 77-townhome community called Stanley Park along a creek that neighbors said was overwhelmed during Harvey.

“We always knew that land had been platted for development. I think the outrage was all of this development is pushing to start not even a year after Harvey,” said Andrew Schaefer, whose home borders the site. “You have this neighborhood devastated and you’re just going to come put more townhomes in the immediately affected area. … And they’re going to get away with it. The city just lets it happen over and over again.”

Residents’ website, yard signs and pressuring of local officials have worked, to a point — the Harris County Flood Control District in August told Liu he must build a detention basin on the site, triggering a new round of permitting.

As a result, Liu, who declined to comment, must now re-engineer aspects of the development but may still build dozens of townhomes on the site as long as he satisfies all city and county regulations.

The same is true for the scores of townhomes Liu and other builders are adding in the floodplain a few miles upstream along White Oak Bayou in Shady Acres, and for a 900-home subdivision that MetroNational and Meritage Homes are developing along Brickhouse Gully.

When the city council unanimously approved last spring the developers’ plan to build that west Houston neighborhood a few miles upstream of areas where houses have been bought out after repeated flooding, many citizens reacted with confusion or outrage. Council members defended the vote by saying that rejecting the measure would only have blocked the developers from their preferred method of financing the project, not from building the subdivision.

Lost amid the poor optics of the vote, however, was that the council had, just three weeks earlier, tightened the city’s floodplain development rules by the tally of 9-7, an extreme rarity for a council that sees few close votes.

The new rules set more stringent standards for building in floodplains, but do not ban development there — that idea was never considered. Most of Houston, after all, was already built by the time the first floodplain maps were published in the 1980s. Today, there are roughly 165,000 buildings in the 235 square miles of mapped floodplains that cover the Bayou City.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said the way forward is to build homes higher and improve the region’s drainage infrastructure, such as by adding more stormwater detention basins.

“Houston cannot and should not abandon a third of the city to avoid flooding any more than San Francisco should abandon numerous established neighborhoods that could be affected by earthquakes,” Turner said. “Houston was founded on a system of bayous and the huge majority of existing development took place before floodplain maps existed. Now the maps are being redone, for good reason, meaning the lines will move — while residences will not.”

Still, some civic leaders have called for the region to begin charting a path toward abandoning its floodplains, perhaps by pouring billions of dollars into buying out tens of thousands of at-risk homes.

Among them is Jim Blackburn, of Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center. Blackburn said what most concerns him is that local officials seem no closer to a longterm plan to manage Houston’s flood risk.

Setting aside sufficient funds to do widespread buyouts when the next flood hits would help empty the floodplains, he said, by giving flooded homeowners an option other than perpetuating the cycle of rebuilding only to flood again.

“No one is talking about floodplain development being dangerous — that it’s unsafe, it’s unwise,” Blackburn said. “We basically talk about it on the one hand like it’s red tape to be avoided and at worst it’s an elevation to be met, and it’s more than that. And what you hear from the city is there’s a minimum requirement and you have to meet it. That’s not leadership on this issue.”

Julie Moore knows it sounds crazy: She and her husband spotted the house in Timbergrove when it hit the market before Hurricane Harvey, then watched as it flooded, was repaired at ground level, and went back on the market again.

She knows Houston floods — her father was the guy who used his boat to rescue flooded neighbors during storms when she was a kid. She knows her new home is nestled between White Oak Bayou and a small tributary, deep in the floodplain.

But Moore is due with her first child in November, their old house in the Heights was tiny, and her husband loved the home. They bought it and are still unpacking boxes. Her parents plan to rebuild the gutted house next door with a second story, providing a refuge when the rains come.

“The unfamiliar thing for me now is that it’s my reality, because it never was — we were always the house in the front of the neighborhood that never floods and now I’m in the house that will flood again,” Moore said. “I imagine it’s going to be devastating, and I’m probably going to be attached to all of our things because I have a baby. Like, ‘Oh she crawled right there for the first time,’ and we have to rip up all the floors.”

Often overlooked in the debate over where and how to build in floodplains is that developers would go broke if no one bought the homes they built.

Houston real estate agent Alex McCauley was shocked when a house she listed on the west side — repaired after being inundated by the dam release in the aftermath of Harvey — got six offers within 24 hours, all over the asking price. The year since the storm has taught her that builders and homebuyers alike see opportunity in devastation.

“Some of my clients tell me, ‘Don’t show me anything that flooded,’ but the majority, if they see something that’s pretty, they don’t care,” she said. “I have some people who are looking in the 100-year floodplain, homes that got six feet of water, and they’re like, ‘I don’t care, my insurance will cover it and I’m getting a great deal on this house.’ It makes me really nervous.”

Jake Cover takes a practical view of the risk he faces in the home he bought in March in an Independence Heights floodplain.

Cover was told his block didn’t flood during Harvey, he bought flood insurance, and his home is raised on a thick foundation. He’s not concerned that city rules would require the home to sit higher if it were built today — many houses in floodplains were spared and others were not, he said.

With Harvey on his mind, however, Cover did push the builder to add drains to the backyard and improve his front culvert along the street before he moved in.

“I’m just comfortable with the risk involved,” he said. “My parents’ house flooded and, having flood insurance, it hasn’t set them back very far. It wasn’t something that worried me very much.”

Yet there are concerns that not all buyers understand the risk they are taking on.

In Shady Acres, much of which is in the floodplain near the confluence of White Oak Bayou and Turkey Creek, clumps of townhomes are squeezed onto parcels between vacant lots and the original homes, nearly all of them sporting for sale signs.

Matt Zeve, director of operations for the county Flood Control District, says his staff hears regularly from buyers of new Shady Acres townhomes upset that their garages have repeatedly flooded, ruining their cars and possessions. Even the new city regulations apply only to living quarters, he noted, meaning garages need not be elevated.

“If developers and their customers are willing to live in homes that look different than how homes typically look in Houston-Harris County, and take the risk of not being able to leave their homes and possibly have their vehicles damaged when there’s a major flood event, then that’s OK to have development in the floodplain,” Zeve said. “But a lot of people are uncomfortable with that situation. I wouldn’t want to live that way.”

Greater Houston Builders Association past president Mike Dishberger has always been reticent to build in floodplains, but he said there is no practical way to prevent development in flood zones through regulation without undermining established neighborhoods.

Dishberger, who owns Sandcastle Homes, opposed the city’s new regulations, which he felt were unjustified and too costly. The last year of development aside, however, he said those regulations likely will limit future development in floodplains once all Harvey-related work is done.

“You’ll see a rash of rebuilding happening for another year but as far as new construction I think you’re going to start seeing fewer and fewer,” he said. “Builders aren’t going to be buying that kind of property just because of the rules and the cost of building the homes higher. There’s a lot of land in Houston. There’s no need to build in the 100-year floodplain that much.”

Homebuilder Johnny Hollins is among the busiest builders in Independence Heights, much of which is in the 100-year floodplain. Harvey has shifted his thinking, however.

Hollins said all seven homes he has pending in the area will now meet the city’s new height standard, though they were approved before the new rules took effect.

“I don’t really want to build in the 100-year anymore — there’s too much that goes with it,” said Hollins, of J.G. Hollins Builders. “It’s the concern about flood risk, and it slows us down on the regulatory side.”

Marcel Coley told his real estate agent he didn’t want to consider homes in flood zones, but in April he bought a brand new home in Skyview Forest, a subdivision built on undeveloped land that partially sits in a 500-year floodplain south of Sims Bayou in south Houston.

Even though the bayou runs about 800 feet beyond his back fence, Coley said he did not know he had purchased in a flood zone. He wasn’t required to buy flood insurance, which typically is required only for homes in the riskier 100-year floodplain.

Coley’s home sits a bit above the street, its slab foundation laid on a pad of extra dirt. Neighbors say that was enough during Harvey, and that the floodwaters were mostly contained in the streets.

Coley’s house would sit higher off the ground, likely on a pier-and-beam foundation, if it had been built only a few months later.

Still, he feels good about his choice. The area is developing quickly, and he expects his home value will rise.

“If it’s going to flood it’s going to flood, you just have to take precautions when the weather says something may potentially happen,” he said. “I don’t want to live scared of that. I want to live my life.”

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