Give Har­vey vic­tims a choice on re­cov­ery aid

The Register Citizen (Torrington, CT) - - OPINION - Vir­ginia Postrel

After Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina dev­as­tated New Or­leans, Har­vard econ­o­mist Ed­ward Glaeser made a provoca­tive pro­posal: In­stead of spend­ing bil­lions in fed­eral dol­lars to re­build the city, why not give the money to res­i­dents to re­build their lives?

“Imag­ine that we were to spend $100 bil­lion on in­fra­struc­ture for the res­i­dents of the city,” he wrote. “An al­ter­na­tive to this spend­ing is to give each one of the city of New Or­leans’ res­i­dents a check for more than $200,000,” or $75,000 if ex­panded to in­clude the res­i­dents of the en­tire metro area. In an im­pov­er­ished city, that money would be life-chang­ing.

It didn’t hap­pen, of course. In the end, the fed­eral aid to­taled more than $120 bil­lion. The $8.9 bil­lion “Road Home” pro­gram gave about 130,000 home­own­ers money for re­build­ing, through a con­fus­ing and of­ten­frus­trat­ing process. Tax­pay­ers spent a for­tune on New Or­leans, but the money wasn’t life-chang­ing, or even life-restor­ing.

Hous­ton is no New Or­leans. When the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion ranked the pros­per­ity growth of the 100 largest U.S. met­ro­pol­i­tan ar­eas, New Or­leans came in dead last. (The rank­ing tracked changes in pro­duc­tiv­ity, av­er­age an­nual wage, and liv­ing stan­dards from 2010 to 2015.) Hous­ton, by con­trast, was sec­ond only to Sil­i­con Val­ley. Hous­to­ni­ans don’t need to es­cape the area to build bet­ter lives. Theirs is a city of hope where or­di­nary peo­ple come to find jobs, buy houses, and live the mid­dle-class dream.

But Glaeser’s ba­sic idea still makes sense there.

Only 17 per­cent of Hous­ton area home­own­ers have flood in­sur­ance, and fed­eral dis­as­ter re­lief pays a pit­tance — capped at $33,000 and often much less — com­pared with the cost of re­build­ing. Nearly 60 per­cent of city res­i­dents are renters, and they, too, have lost not only their homes but many of their pos­ses­sions. Once the ini­tial fight for sur­vival is over, many Hous­to­ni­ans face fi­nan­cial dis­as­ter.

At the same time, Har­vey has height­ened aware­ness that the city needs to adapt to limit fu­ture flood­ing. Hous­ton is on a flat coastal plain with clay soil that doesn’t ab­sorb wa­ter eas­ily. Pave­ment ex­ac­er­bates the prob­lem. The glib re­sponse is to de­cry “de­vel­op­ment” and ad­vo­cate stricter reg­u­la­tions — to call for Hous­ton to mimic the un­af­ford­able, anti-growth cities of the West Coast and North­east.

But de­stroy­ing the dy­namic hous­ing mar­ket that has made Hous­ton a mid­dle-class mecca would cre­ate a dif­fer­ent kind of dis­as­ter.

Be­sides, most parts of the U.S. are vul­ner­a­ble to nat­u­ral catas­tro­phes. We South­ern Cal­i­for­ni­ans re­ceive end­less mock­ery for our droughts, wild­fires and earth­quakes, often from peo­ple liv­ing in hur­ri­cane or tor­nado zones. If Amer­i­cans can live only where there’s no risk, we wind up with the sce­nario a friend sug­gested on Face­book: “We can have all 320 mil­lion Amer­i­cans move to the At­lanta-Char­lotte-Mem­phis tri­an­gle. Well, un­til tor­na­does hit and de­stroy large amounts of hous­ing.”

As they re­cover from Har­vey, Hous­to­ni­ans will have to de­cide where they will live. That’s where Glaeser’s idea comes in. Keep aid to dis­placed res­i­dents sim­ple. Don’t dis­tin­guish be­tween re­lo­ca­tion and re­build­ing. Don’t de­mand ex­ten­sive doc­u­men­ta­tion. Sim­ply is­sue checks based on where peo­ple lived when Har­vey hit and let them de­cide how best to re­cover.

Some peo­ple may want to leave town al­to­gether, mak­ing their way to less hur­ri­cane-prone places such as Dal­las, Den­ver, or At­lanta. Oth­ers may choose area neigh­bor­hoods less vul­ner­a­ble to fu­ture floods. Thanks to an on­line tool cre­ated by Sam Brody, di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Texas Beaches and Shores at the Galve­ston cam­pus of Texas A&M, you can now type in an ad­dress in Har­ris (Hous­ton) or Galve­ston County and see scores for its risk of hur­ri­canes, floods, wild­fire, air pol­lu­tion and earth­quakes.

Don’t ac­tively en­cour­age peo­ple to stay in the riski­est places. Fos­ter not “re­build­ing” but re­cov­ery.

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