A taxing aftermath to Hurricane Harvey

Debris from Barker Reservoir neighborhood, post-Harvey Photo by Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune

There seems to be no end to the stories of Houstonians left devastated by Hurricane Harvey.

And those of us grateful that we were not swamped by the storm are shaking our heads in disbelief, wondering how our friends and neighbors will possibly afford to pay for so much clean up and repair.

It’s not a rhetorical question: Most of Houston’s flooded homes are not covered by flood insurance. And the sheer volume of debris piled up in front of homes and businesses across the city is already staggering — and still growing fast.

Amid the misery, Mayor Sylvester Turner proposed an 8.9 percent increase in property taxes to help offset some of the recovery costs.  After the federal government decision to increase its financial commitment to Houston’s recovery, Turner said he could cut his tax hike proposal in half.  Better, but still a bad idea.

It was hard to wrap our heads around Harvey’s 50-inch rain total and unprecedented scale of flooding. It’s even harder to understand the mayor’s thinking on this. But let’s lay it out.

First, rewind several months to this year’s property tax bills, which continued a string of year-over-year increases for most property owners. In fact, this year’s state legislative session included plenty of debate over the unsustainable burden of ever-increasing property taxes across Texas, including Houston.

Second, with many Houstonians struggling to pay their property taxes, throw in a hurricane of staggering proportions and inundate tens of thousands of homes and businesses with floodwater.

Now, imagine slogging through the debris-littered yard of a home you can see through because all the waterlogged sheetrock has been removed. The owner has no flood insurance and is in very serious financial peril, with no idea where the money will come from to repair the home. Go ahead and tell him that you now want to hit him with a property tax increase on top of the financial stress he is already experiencing.

No question, Harvey’s damage presents the mayor and other public officials with a monumental problem. Their jobs are exponentially more difficult post-Harvey, as demands for money and resources outstrip available funding no matter how those demands are prioritized.

Turner certainly isn’t wrong when he says, “If this is not an emergency, I don’t know what is.” He’s right to say the city’s leadership must find a way to pay for the costs of the cleanup.

But it’s just as true that thousands of property owners are experiencing a crisis of their own. For many, holding onto their homes and businesses was already extremely difficult before Harvey, largely due to their spiraling property tax bills.

Hitting them with a property tax hike now seems a lot like kicking them while they’re down. It could be the ultimate tipping point that forces many to try to sell. Selling a severely distressed property after a huge flood — how’s that likely to work out?

If anything, Houston’s property owners need a temporary break on their property taxes to help them recover, which in turn would help the city as a whole recover.

Houston has long been a powerful engine in the American economy. The city has paid its dues to the nation and the state. The mayor and other civic leaders should press hard on federal and state officials – not battered property owners – to fund the cleanup of a city that contributes massively to America’s and Texas’ economic vitality.  

The feds have stepped up. The state could also help immensely by tapping into Texas’ roughly $10 billion rainy day fund.

Disclosure: The University of Houston has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Rahul Patel

Managing partner, Patel Gaines

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