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Hurricane Harvey Changed Construction Rules, But The Permitting Flood Is Giving Developers Headaches

When Hurricane Harvey devastated the Texas Gulf Coast five years ago this week, swaths of buildings along the coast were damaged and images of a waterlogged Buffalo Bayou made national headlines. 

Now both the city and its developers are bogged down by the permitting process intended to forestall future widespread property damage.

Military rescue after Hurricane Harvey in Houston

Even before Harvey, there were years of repeat record-breaking floods. But the storm, which walloped the city beginning on Aug. 26, 2017, caused 68 deaths and damage totaling $125B, according to the National Hurricane Center — the second-most-costly hurricane to hit the U.S. mainland since 1900. Houston alone took a property hit of as much as $65B.

The following year, the city of Houston implemented new ordinances for both commercial and residential development. The ordinances, known as the Chapter 19 Floodplain Guidelines, require raised elevation for new structures and additions.

Among the provisions, new structures must be 2 feet higher off the ground, whether they're in a 100-year flood plain — where they have a 1% chance of higher flood waters each year — or a 500-year flood plain, where they have a 0.2% chance of higher flood waters each year. Additionally, nonresidential building additions must be 2 feet higher, and parking structures need flood openings if they're below 500-year flood elevations.

When the new rules took effect in 2019, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner called them a "defining, signature moment” for the city.

Yet with large portions of Houston, mostly in the southern end of the city, within either the 100-year or 500-year flood plain, the city permitting office is backed up, and commercial architects and engineers are seeing long delays and larger costs and fees from permitting — so much so that some are eschewing building in the city altogether.

Jeanette Shaw is a project manager at Powers Brown Architecture, which has projects throughout the area, including in Houston. Shaw said the requirements make building in the city a challenge, with longer, costlier wait times for plans to get through to review.

And, she said, those reviews tend to be filled with unhelpful stock comments, not thoughtful commentary aimed at ensuring buildings are sufficiently safe, a system she credits to lack of trained engineers in the permitting department and a crunch for time.

"It used to be ... that you could get a permit in the city of Houston in two months, which is really actually very good for a big city," Shaw said. "Right now, we are planning four to six months for projects."

The city stated that it had 3,453 plans in its system on June 17, 2021, in the review process; it had 4,109 as of June 17, 2022. Flood and storm plans had some of the city's longest turnarounds for review at 25 and 24 days, respectively, on par for general-use planning reviews as well as traffic. 

Houston Permitting Center Deputy Director Christon Butler said in a June presentation that the center is experiencing a staffing shortage.

U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency map showing the Houston flood plain. Orange sections show flood hazard, while blue show special flood hazard areas, which do not have base flood elevation.

"Before the end of August, it's not unlikely for us to have 5,000 plans in the system," Butler said, adding there is typically a spike in plans before the end of the summer. "Still, with the 81 vacancies, you unfortunately will see our numbers continue to rise on the amount of turnaround time."

Shaw said those long turnarounds in permitting have forced her firm to submit plans far ahead of time, before they have been fully formed. That results in the city needing to turn them back for edits, which delays the process further. But Shaw feels like they have little choice.

"The problem is, they've created this system with developers, where the developers are like, 'I just need to get in the queue. I got to get in the queue," she said. "They're willing to just submit half-baked information to get in the queue because it takes too long. That's one of the challenges [the city] doesn't realize they have."

Houston Public Works declined to comment and directed Bisnow to Butler's presentation and online Chapter 19 Floodplain Guidelines.

In June, the city said it plans permitting improvements by the end of the year, including automating some online systems and upgrading project and customer management systems.

Though more population growth and development is happening in Houston metro areas outside of the city proper anyway, the permitting issue isn't helping keep them here. Shaw says clients still want to be nearby, where business is, but they don't want to build in the city, if possible.

"If it's too difficult to do, it's going to make [clients] hesitate," she said. "And it could make developers that aren't as [open to risks] go, 'I'm just going to go out to Harris County, because there's things that are permitted in Harris County, [but] not in the city of Houston.'"