The neoliberal hurricane rages on in Houston

August 23, 2018

One year after Hurricane Harvey struck, Seth Uzman explains how business and political leaders tried to impose disaster capitalism — and how residents fought back.

HURRICANE HARVEY made landfall on the Gulf Coast one year ago this week. Stretching from Guyana to Beaumont, Texas, the massive Category 4 storm left over 100 dead, displaced tens of thousands and destroyed $125 billion worth of public and private infrastructure.

The brunt of Harvey’s impact was felt in Houston, where the causes of the disaster were anything but natural.

Houston’s historically unique zoning-free regime of growth-from-above, inflated with liquidity from neoliberal deregulation and a strong U.S. dollar, fueled the ambitions of the city’s local ruling class of lawless developers, who replaced the city’s natural absorbers of floodwater with the concrete of endless new projects.

Developers reclassified the region’s floodwater collection basins as areas suitable for residential housing. The petrochemical industry — the anchor of Houston’s growth coalition for over a century — concentrated waste disposal, treatment and polluting sites toward the south and east, closer to the port and in the city’s historically Black and Latino working class districts with lower property values.

“Houston is the fourth-largest city, but it’s the only city that does not have zoning,” explained Dr. Robert Bullard on Democracy Now! during the storm last year. “[As a result], communities of color and poor communities have been unofficially zoned as compatible with pollution...

“We call that environmental injustice and environmental racism. It is that plain, and it’s just that simple.”

As a result, when the storm hit, the contents of the floodwater were as dangerous as the amount of it. It was a thoroughly late-capitalist storm, swelled by oceans with rising surface temperatures, and inundating neighborhoods with toxic chemicals heedlessly stored in a hurricane zone.

HALFWAY THROUGH this year’s hurricane season, the recovery from the previous one remains far from complete, run aground on the contradictions of Houston’s zoning-free version of neoliberalism.

While the flooding that gave us last year’s frightening images of water-tanked freeways and neighborhoods has subsided, 25,000 households remain displaced across the state, with an estimated 11,500 displaced in Houston.

Billions of dollars in aid at the federal and state level has failed to trickle down to local authorities.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) requirement that local authorities match one-fourth of federal aid with local funds has clashed with the city’s and the state’s low-tax regime — which reflects the interests of the local employers in the petrochemical, port and real-estate industries who have hollowed the city’s tax base for local revenue collection.

Last week, the Houston Chronicle reported that FEMA will count volunteer hours and donations towards the city’s matching requirements, which is expected to “save local governments tens of millions of dollars.”

While some who are hoping to receive more federal funds have celebrated FEMA’s announcement, the policy change says everything about the approach of the state at every level to disaster relief under the norms of neoliberalism.

Working-class families, particularly women, will bear the costs of the policy’s new incentives for cities to place a greater burden on unpaid, or “volunteer,” socially reproductive labor, rather than taxes on the city’s wealthy to secure recovery funds.

While the city’s $2.5 billion bond proposal for funding mitigation infrastructure, home buyouts and other relief measures is less regressive than it could be, Houston officials have failed to include suggested community oversight structures to control how raised funds are used and distributed throughout the gentrifying and racially segregated city.

NONE OF the city’s efforts break with the cyclical traumas imposed by artificial business cycles and unnatural disasters. On the contrary, the city’s profit-steered strategy of growth-from-above has demanded deepening them both.

In the wake of the storm, the dictatorship of developers over the city’s growth has only been fortified and expanded.

As recently as April, for example, less than a month before the official arrival of hurricane season in May, the City Council voted on a proposal from developers to build 900 residential housing units in a formerly decommissioned golf course. The development was situated in one of Houston’s “500-year” floodplains, which, despite their name, have flooded continuously for three years in a row.

Instead of purchasing the land as public municipal property, repurposing it as a flash flood absorber — which golf courses, decommissioned or not, are perfect for — and avoiding the development’s damaging effects downstream, the council unanimously approved the demands of the developers.

The council sanctioned not only the planned development, but also the expansion of the juridical and fiscal authority of the developers in the form of a municipal utility district (MUD).

MUDs have been a vanguard force for the spatial expansion of neoliberal cities, as the decline of federal funds has forced municipalities to auction with the private sector.

Sometimes described as “mini-governments”, MUDs allow real-estate capitalists to raise funds for utilities by selling tax-free bonds while imposing taxes of their own, circulating working class wages back to employers to pay for the bills of the local ruling class.

None of this ensures actual service provision from the developer. If MUDs are challenged in court, their wealthy backers have the advantage of having greater resources than either workers or even many cash-strapped local governments. Failing that, they can declare bankruptcy and leave taxpayers with the bill.

There are over 1,750 MUDs in Texas, and over 600 in Houston alone, and in the months following Harvey their failures were repeatedly exposed.

In some cases, MUDs directly lied to residents about whether their housing units were located in the region’s floodplains. In others, they directly disfigured water flow patterns of the land, opening it to more hazardous flooding against the complaints of residents.

And yet Houston developers have continued to push this privatized model, arguing that without MUDs, developers would have to pay for utilities with their own capital, likely resulting in poor service provision — if not cuts altogether.

The local debate about MUDs reflects the confidence of Houston’s developers and the weakness of the opposition, both in the council and outside of it. This balance of forces allowed real-estate capitalists to transform a statement about privatization’s fundamental insolvency into an argument for its acceleration.

OTHER LOCAL grievances lie squarely at the feet of the locally powerful petrochemical industry. The Houston Chronicle reported on a recent town hall on climate change, where former nurse Sarahy Garcia spoke about the post-storm impact of environmental racism. According to the Chronicle, Garcia:

has seen children with rashes and sores that do not heal, parents with unexplained breathing problems, people with odd neurological symptoms — all since the storm. Even those whose homes did not flood are struggling with health problems, she said, simply because the air is so contaminated from debris, some of which is still not been picked up nearly a year later.

There were over 100 releases of toxic chemicals during the storm — most of them without warning before or after.

While some local bosses now face indictment, their industries remain, and are in fact undergoing expansion as liquidity for local industry continues to increase.

While the personnel at the top of industry may change, justice for the Black and Latino communities surrounding the ship channel — which a recent study shows have experienced massive increases to toxic exposure following Harvey — remains illusive.

ATTEMPTS BY the private sector to advance in Houston have continued beyond real estate and fossil fuels. Many feared that the arrival of post-Harvey disaster capitalism in Houston would herald a new wave of initiatives to privatize the city’s remaining public school infrastructure. Regrettably, they weren’t wrong.

In the spring, the Houston Independent School District (HISD) initiated procedures for a charter school coup, replacing 10 predominantly Black and Latino public schools with charters run by the national non-profit, Energized for STEM Academy Inc.

This would have entailed firing the schools’ existing workers and restructuring their curriculums, if not closing the 10 schools altogether. The district claimed to operate under the terms of legislation passed in 2015, HB1842, which stipulates that five years of unmet “standards” on the testing industry’s STAAR examinations by the schools left the entire district vulnerable to state takeover.

While the district had logged only four years, not “five,” of unmet industry standards by the schools in question, HISD insisted on anticipating state intervention, regardless of whether the Texas Education Association granted the 10 schools a probable reprieve in light of Harvey’s aftermath.

Instead, HISD officials saw Harvey’s arrival as a crucial opportunity, claiming by their own admission that they weren’t even aware of the 2015 law until September 2017 — just weeks after Harvey made landfall.

Fortunately, leaders of Black Lives Matter Houston, students and community members of the targeted schools recognized the privatization scheme for what it was and intervened with raucous protests at heavily policed HISD board meetings. HISD has since retreated from its charter plans for now.

The district has moved ahead in other areas of its privatization schemes, however, including a recent $8 million contract to bring Dominos Pizza to school cafeterias.

WHILE OFFICIALS claim to be short of funds, the summer’s fight over the most recent $4.9 billion budget unveiled the city’s true priorities.

In May, immediately before the start of hurricane season in June, Democratic Mayor Sylvester Turner drew a red line around cutting funds to the Houston Police Department (HPD), while pushing for reductions for every other city agency.

The HPD is struggling with a recruitment crisis as the ideological advance of Black Lives Matter and rising wages in the private sector have drawn potential recruits away from the storm trooper market and into the labor market.

In some ways, Houston’s zoning-free structure seems to be working even against ruling class interests as local cops struggle to patrol and oversee surveillance of a city with two times the area of Chicago, but half of the number of cops.

But Houston’s business and political elite will continue to prioritize policing as the top urban social program, and if they succeed, it will undermine the wages and working conditions of the city’s nurses, EMTs, day laborers, firefighters, teachers and all the other workers who actually make this city safe — and who, as the recent teachers strike wave showed, have the potential to fight for a society with a different, humane set of priorities.

Indeed, workers’ organizations — whether in workplaces or outside them — have played a crucial role in disaster recovery, from the neighborhood committees that formed in the aftermath of the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City, to the ongoing and heroic efforts of the Puerto Rico teachers union to rebuild schools and resist privatization schemes following Hurricane María.

In the wake of Harvey, the most inspiring efforts came from the regular mobilizations following Harvey’s landfall — week after week, month after month — from local Black Lives Matter and Democratic Socialists of America chapters to agitate for better municipal resources and organize recovery, not from above, but collectively from the grassroots.

But we should also understand disaster recovery in a broader and borderless sense. Climate change is as global as capitalism. While the damage in Houston pales next to the havoc wreaked by imperialism’s imposed disasters in the Global South, the conditions of the south have and will continue to march north, no matter how many border walls are erected.

There are no borders in the natural world, which is why the struggle of workers against the deportation and war machines today is as much a part of disaster relief as emergency crews, planned public infrastructure and a fossil-free economy.

The struggle for socialism today is disaster relief — not only from the effects of the past, but also from a disastrous future that it’s our duty to prevent.

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