Zoe van Dijk

Redlining at the End of the World

In this piece of speculative fiction, Texas officials discriminate against black residents in favor of white ones when deciding which Houston neighborhoods would receive protection from rising oceans.

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Aug 10 2018, 1:00pm

Zoe van Dijk

Archived from the Houston Chron, August 19, 2190.

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Texas officials discriminated against black residents in favor of white ones when deciding which Houston neighborhoods would receive protection from rising oceans, a Houston Chron investigation has found.

The Texas state government and Houston’s mayor prioritized the city’s wealthy white neighborhoods for inclusion in the Sea Ceiling program at the expense of poor black ones, engaging in what activists and community groups say constitutes a novel form of redlining.

Officials made the decisions against the advice of Sea Ceiling scientists, according to a review of zoning records and research documents. Taped conversations between a program administrator and a lobbyist obtained by the Chron reveal plans to help white residents bypass regulations.

When presented with a detailed list of the Chron’s findings, a spokesperson for Texas governor Irving Robertson said in a statement, “The locations receiving dome placement will be the safest for citizens as sea levels rise. The Rising Oceans Relocation Bureau takes the safety of all citizens equally seriously and always has.” The Houston mayor’s office deferred to the same statement.

Pressed for responses to specific points, the governor’s spokesperson continued, “Perhaps if the media were to cover the success of our rapid evacuation efforts instead of dreaming up charges of racism to create controversy and see failure where there is none, we could have a productive conversation and together provide the public with real information. Maybe reporters from the Chron would like to stay outside the Sea Ceiling dome and write about what that’s like?” (The Chron relocated its offices into the domed area in January 2186 in compliance with Sea Ceiling law.)

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The Rising Oceans Defense Act, signed into law in 2184 after the evacuation and abandonment of Miami, mandates that cities with populations above 500,000 residents fully protect themselves from rapidly rising oceans by 2199. Most major US cities have adopted the blue plastic half-spheres manufactured by the DryLands Corporation. The protective structures, designed to keep residents dry even if mean sea levels do climb the predicted hundreds of feet, stand thousands of feet tall with thick yellow rubber bases and utilize “city gills,” which filter oxygen from ocean water. According to broadly accepted climate models, oceans will reach average first-floor height in most urban areas around the world within 20 years.

State governments across the nation have designated cities where tens of millions of people might survive under these domes. The program’s official name in Texas is “Lone Star Sea Ceiling,” but residents have taken to calling the domes “bubbles.” Houston’s will guard the central part of the city, everything within the loop of highway 610.

DryLands, a subsidiary of Amazon,builds the city casings using materials initially designed for submarines and lines the bases with rubber to prevent seepage from the surrounding water. The plastic, which makes up the bulk of each structure, was invented mid-century for deep-sea research vehicles.

Some suburbs and neighborhoods that do not fall under a city’s main safeguard may receive special dispensations for partial domes. These additions are lined at their bases with red rubber, drawing unfortunate literal parallels to redlining, critics say. Activists have said that the placement of subsidiary domes runs afoul of legacies of racial discrimination in housing.

The low-income, predominantly black neighborhoods Sunnyside and South Park will not receive these half-domes, city councilmen said at late July city council meeting, whereas two affluent, majority-white neighborhoods, Piney Point and Uptown, will. Under federal law, property owners receive priority in continuing to live in their houses if they fall under a bubble, giving those in the white neighborhoods a substantial advantage in the fierce competition for housing as Sea Ceiling goes into effect. Though the federal government has mandated that every citizen receive a safe and dry place to live, the laggard pace of construction and high speed of migration has forced many to live in substandard conditions in stadiums, overcrowded homeless shelters, or converted storefronts ill-fitted to be homes.

“My house will be under the sea soon,” Constance Jones, a 38-year-old Sunnyside resident, told the Chron through tears. “It’s the same neighborhood my great-grandparents lived in. They couldn’t get a bank loan because they were black. Now I can’t save their house for the same reason.”

Jones said she initially refused to move into the safe area because she believed she could convince the government to preserve her neighborhood. Now, however, she has made plans to relocate into the city within three months to escape the waves already hitting her front door.

The unprecedented inrush of people into Sea Ceiling cities has brought with it radical changes to governance. Under a patchwork of emergency martial law and eminent domain rules, state governments have largely declared the right to seize any necessary land and annexed massive swaths of property from citizens and businesses to build permanent emergency housing.

These powers have sometimes come at the expense of the democratic process. Neither the Houston mayor nor the Texas governor solicited input from constituents before decreeing to safeguard the high-income white neighborhoods from rising seas, a sharp departure from how both officials promised they would handle Sea Ceiling decisions.

In a possible breach of ethics, a lobbyist for a neighborhood group representing the high-income white neighborhoods also discussed how to circumvent the government’s scientific analysis and secure a Ceiling in recorded conversations with a public official. Sea Ceiling administrator Dinesh Parbu told lobbyist Marta Smith he would create shortcuts for the white neighborhoods in a June 2189 meeting.

“I’ll try to open some back doors for Piney Point and Uptown,” Long said. “They deserve saving. Such beautiful neighborhoods. The best in the city.”

Parbu and Smith declined multiple requests for comment but were placed on leave after the Chron inquired about their remarks.

It was already well-known that Sunnyside and South Park would not fit within Houston’s main bubble; Piney Point and Uptown do not either.

“The plans to encase Piney Point follow long-standing designs to secure it as a historic district,” a spokesperson for the Texas governor said in a statement. “In addition, Sunnyside and South Park’s irregular geographic shapes do not fit within the circular structure intended for Houston’s dome.” The governor’s office did not answer follow-up questions about the reasons for denying the two black neighborhoods protection.

“These actions don’t appear to meet the legal definition of Overreach as outlined in the Supreme Court’s decisions on Sea Ceiling and other programs.” said University Of Texas Law School professor Emmaline Liu, who argued the earliest legal challenge to Sea Ceiling before the Supreme Court. “It does, however, seem to run afoul of the Fair Housing Act, a far older statute.”

One sectional bubble abutting Houston’s could protect both the black neighborhoods, according to architectural models commissioned by the Houston Zoning Committee. Piney Point, six miles from the highway that marks the city’s new border, will need a complete and separate dome with a tunnel to the main one to stay intact. The separation means that the housing for Piney Point alone will require more material to complete than a protection encasing both Sunnyside and South Park.

“There is no discernible reason to protect two of these neighborhoods and not the others,” said an Amazon construction engineer who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of professional retaliation. “The separate dome will surely collapse. Houston is one of the only cities in the country to even request detached domes. We think of them as unnecessary and a waste of time.”

Houston is not the first US city to encounter ethical questions about whom Sea Ceiling will protect. In September 2189, The New York Times reported that the government of New York City had prioritized Manhattan over the city’s other four boroughs during construction of New York’s version of Sea Ceiling, the Metropolitan Dome Program, delaying other projects and disproportionately affecting minority residents.

Georgia’s Sea Safeguard program, the first clear example of prejudicial dome placement to be revealed, drew outrage across the country. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in 2187 that the Atlanta city government was more likely to grant partial protection to majority-white neighborhoods outside the city’s main dome than majority-black ones. Documents published by the website showed that the government based the Sea Safeguard decisions on a report asserting that the white neighborhoods would add significantly more economic value to the city in the future, which was itself based on contested government classifications of residents’ finances. Prominent university statisticians disputed the report.

“Black people have been the target of the same animus of segregation and degradation throughout American history. Now governments are letting black neighborhoods be swallowed by the sea!” said Jerome Woods, professor of African-American Studies at Stanford University and author of A House But Not A Home: A History Of America’s Segregation Policies.

A Chron review of zoning records showed that city commissioners have assigned other minority neighborhoods the same classification as Sunnyside and South Park — “Unlikely viable” — indicating the other neighborhoods may not receive protection. By contrast, a dozen white neighborhoods along the Highway 610 Loop have been zoned favorably — “Viable” — for safekeeping. In addition, the Chron found seven mostly white neighborhoods miles from the 610 whose zoning made them more likely to be covered than any minority neighborhood along the city’s border. These white neighborhoods would require completely separate domes like Piney Point.

Documents from the labs of the Sea Ceiling Research Unit (SCRU) show that scientists disagree with conserving Uptown and Piney Point. A previously unreported study by six state climate researchers in the group, housed in the upper chambers of the state Capitol building, concluded that just 35 years from now, sea levels would be so high that they would crush a standalone structure preserving Piney Point. A similar report on Sunnyside and South Park found that the two neighborhoods would survive at least 100 years because Houston’s Ceiling would support their bubble. Uptown would likely survive as long under a half-dome, the analysis said.

“We provide the scientific underpinnings for the Sea Ceiling program,” Clarissa Long, the lead scientist on the study of South Park and Sunnyside, told the Chron. “When the governor or other agencies involved ignore our findings or follow our recommendations, they’re abandoning proven best outcomes for the sake of politics. What that means in practical terms is that people will lose their homes and maybe their lives for no reason.”

All 50 SCRU scientists voted down the idea of a separate bubble for Piney Point in a June all-hands meeting, according to official meeting minutes obtained by the Chron . The researchers elected separately to give a bubble to Uptown, a proposition that received a majority of votes. Protection for Sunnyside and South Park was not on any ballot presented to the scientists. When asked why the two black neighborhoods did not appear, Long said she did not know.

Concerned citizens have packed Houston’s city hall, where all but one of the front steps is submerged, for the past year as councilmen and state legislators debated what neighborhoods would be housed within Houston’s future bulwark against the sea. Many of them feel powerless and outraged.

Interviewed as she was leaving a meeting, Constance Jones said, “I didn’t say anything to the council. I realized it was pointless; they had already decided they were saving other places. White places. The ocean will destroy my home no matter what I do. I have to pack. I can’t believe this is happening,”

Update, August 26, 2190: After the publication of this story, the mayor of Houston and the Texas governor jointly announced that their offices would conduct a review of the placement of all secondary domes in January 2191.