Earlier this week, Houston’s City Council unanimously voted to give Arizona-based real estate developer Meritage Homes and Houston-based land developer MetroNational the ability to create a Municipal Utility District for a proposed development deep in North Houston’s most-recently ravaged floodplain. Why? Because Harvey apparently taught us nothing, politicians are afraid of losing development dollars, and Houston is a flat, bleak expanse that only beige sprawl-burbia will improve.
The worst part about this whole thing? It was sort of unavoidable. Disapprove and the developers build even more recklessly, approve and it’s reckless anyway. It’s an example of floodplain catch twenty-two. We disapprove, and previously-inundated homes are destroyed once again. Approve, and it’s a subtle dog-whistle to corporate developers Houston’s still a zone-less free-for-all and will allow your McMansion bullshit as long as you keep money in the coffers.
After Harvey, the city bought out destroyed homes in the affected area — a low-bowl swath on the north side of I-10 tangential to that critically damaged reservoir some of you might have heard about — but this development is promised to be more regimented; a “better” build. Structures at the lowest will be 2.78 feet above the 500-year floodplain line (which has been breached multiple times in the past two years) with larger retention ponds, better drainage, and more responsible use of displaced dirt. Sounds square, right? Well, not when you consider the flood plain map is extremely outdated. Even this article, written in 2004, discusses a flood in a Kingwood school from a decade prior — before a large part of the exurbs were blindly and ignorantly constructed over our beneficial prairies — and still expressed shock at how behind the curve our floodplain maps are.
So what’s to be done? Houston’s always been known for its sprawl, for its development, for readily available land, but just like California in the 1970s, we’re at a tipping point. We can keep allowing big developers to act as though everything is fine as long as a few bureaucratic Ps and Qs are minded, and we can keep flooding our citizens’ homes, destroying our native prairieland that only aims to protect us. If we allow this to continue we’ll fail in realizing our true potential as a leading city in the nation.
Or, we can do none of those things. We can fight, maybe fail a little, and turn the tide on how the world sees us and how we see ourselves. Instead of kowtowing to developers, why don’t we work on developing sustainably? On pushing the guidelines for construction even further? On bucking the FEMA floodplain maps and investing in Jim Blackburn, the Flood Control District, and the SSPEED Center to give us the real truth? Why are we still admitting ignorance to the ecological usefulness of what’s around us? Prairies absorb a lot more water than crappy homes and concrete.
I’m not an expert — I am just a really angry and heartbroken citizen. As a lifelong Houstonian, I know we’re special, so why not flip the script on our national reputation? We showed the world what we are made of last year, so let’s show them what we can do for the future.
So now, I am politely asking Mayor Turner and all members of the Houston City Council for an honest, open response on why we keep repeating this traumatic cycle. Yeah, it may be politics, but where’s your pride?