Reflections from Houston: Ads, gift cards, and glimmers of hope

Residents near Mission Bend view water at Brays Bayou after several days of Harvey-related rains in Houston on Aug. 31, 2017. Photo by Pu Ying huang for The Texas Tribune

Driving home to Austin from Houston nearly three weeks after the largest rainfall event in American history, I noticed the radio advertisements had a consistent refrain. “After Hurricane Harvey, Houstonians are just now getting back on their feet, and we can help with our now lower prices than ever/lowest interest rate of all time/zero down furniture/free box spring with a purchase of a mattress/car loan with no credit check.”

While people come together to muck houses, serve meals, distribute supplies and even provide counseling and legal services at no charge, companies are seeking to cash in on a 500-year flood marketing opportunity.

As is often the case in corporate shenanigans, Walmart takes the cake. In the aftermath of the flooding, Walmart offered Houstonians $400 gift cards via a program administered by the Red Cross. The material benefit of $400 shouldn’t be scoffed at, and poor people recovering from disastrous flooding shouldn’t be asked to deny free money for political reasons. If I believed companies had souls, I would argue that Walmart was trying to clear its conscience. But companies don't have souls, they have profit motives. Walmart owes Houstonians much more than $400 gift cards, but you can bet a microeconomic model somewhere shows that these gift cards, at that exact amount, will optimize profits.

Doing relief work in America’s fourth-largest and most diverse city, it is clear that Harvey was a sociopolitical disaster, even if the rain was a force of nature. In wealthy districts, Houstonians are saying, “We were just lucky, I guess.” But the neighborhoods that were truly devastated by this hurricane are where structural poverty and racism show their effects most baldly.

Despite fantasies of free markets, housing choices are limited by income, and thanks to the political power of corporate landlords, tenants have virtually no rights in Texas. But while normal people have limited rights to ensure proper housing in Houston, developers and landowners are free to build as they please. Famously, Houston has no zoning laws.

At 672 square miles, the geographic area of the city proper is bigger than NYC or LA but has far fewer people. Much of this area, which was previously swampland and marsh, is paved over. Where bogs could have absorbed rain waters, impervious cover funnels water into bayous — themselves often sealed with cement. This style of growth reduces costs for investors and leaves the citizens of Houston who are “less fortunate” in the lowest flood plains and at the highest risk.

Deregulated urban growth also means that the petrochemical facilities that riddle the east side of Houston can be located wherever profit is maximized, exposing their low-income neighbors to toxins in the air — and, in the case of a flood, in the water.

It is not just deteriorated housing stock that puts poorer people at risk, but also the well-documented chronic health consequences of living in a city whose land use codes are shaped by oil interests. These costs, not shared collectively by the city, state or country that supposedly benefits from the economic contribution of the petrochemical industry, represent a cruel and hidden tax on East Houston residents, effectively limiting their ability to leave their neighborhoods or apply political pressure on governments who could improve environmental protections.

The beginnings of state contributions to Houston’s recovery, perhaps best epitomized by the appointment of former Shell CEO Marvin Odum the city's Harvey recovery czar, are terribly worrisome. It is hard to believe that the contradiction here, between the interests of oil and the health of Houstonians, is not apparent to the man who appointed Odum, Mayor Sylvester Turner.

While citizens may have little power to intervene and simultaneously rebuild their lives, they can reject the idea that an alliance between companies and the state will save us now or protect us in future disasters. Walmart — with its iconic standing in contemporary political economy, its poverty wages, anti-labor lobbying and environmentally disastrous transnational shipping system — is an appropriate target in the effort to say another way is possible. A Walmart employee paid the entry-level minimum wage of $7.25 per hour earns only $14,500 annually. If that employee is a single parent with two children, their household lives $4,837 below the federal poverty line. Even if they are one of the lucky few who get the $400 credit, their family still lives in deep poverty.

Houstonians, Texans and people writ large should grab those gift cards if they can, but collectively we can scoff at the idea that Walmart cares to help. The poverty that made people’s lives so vulnerable to flood waters is actively produced by Walmart, Shell, and the other companies who enjoy producing those feel-good advertising campaigns claiming they want to help Houston get back on its feet.

Houston’s recovery effort has been led not by companies but by people willing to work collectively and help each other. This cooperation and mutual aid offers a glimpse of a new way of organizing our cities to be more humane, more equal and more resilient. The immense generosity seen in this process shows us that another world is possible. But to realize this promise, we must reject the logic of the companies that put people at risk in the first place.

Ben Hirsch

Relief worker, West Street Recovery