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Housing Market Undaunted

At the same time, many economists are forecasting that the price of undamaged homes will rise as demand outstrips supply. Early estimates suggest that tens of thousands of homes were damaged, and developers are worried about labor shortages as repairs get priority over new construction.

But as insurance and government money comes in, developers and real estate agents are betting that the area will quickly clear the backlog and continue along its normal trajectory of adding homes and people.

Throughout Houston proper and the surrounding suburbs, developers sprawl ever outward, paving over pastures and former wetlands and leaving nothing to absorb the water, when it comes.

“It is one of the most affordable housing markets in the country because people were able to build in places where they were likely to get flooded in the future,” said Svenja Gudell, chief economist at Zillow, the real estate data service.

Houstonians lose track of how many times they’ve been flooded. They repeatedly renovate or rebuild on elevated platforms and say they will go higher the next time if they have to.

Stefanie Asin and her husband, Jake Everett, live about a block from Brays Bayou in an area of Houston called Braes Heights, where the flood reached the middle of stop signs. After the storm they sat on their porch watching motorboats go by. Their closest neighbor was pulled from the roof of his house by a helicopter.

Their own home was fine because after the last flood, two years ago, they moved out and built a new one on an elevated platform, returning in March. The storm waters of Harvey rose up six of their seven front steps.

Elevated homes are common in Houston, particularly around Ms. Asin’s neighborhood. In July, the City Council approved construction on the first nine homes in a batch of 42 near Brays Bayou that will be elevated using FEMA funding.

The appeal is particularly obvious right now: Elevated homes sit untouched above devastated houses with massive piles of debris all around them. Across the street from Ms. Asin, Arturo Loza, part of a Mormon volunteer relief effort, was helping gut a flooded house with a sink, cabinets and piles of books heaped in front.

 Ms. Asin had been through three large floods since she moved near the bayou two decades ago. In Harvey, her losses were contained to the garage, which was not elevated, and so her daughters’ cars were ruined, and a refrigerator was left floating. But this was nothing new. She said her family had lost five cars to rain and water damage in the last three years.

Asked why they had bought a home in the neighborhood to begin with, Ms. Asin said: “The house was built in 1955 and it had never flooded. We thought, it hasn’t flooded yet!”

Then Tropical Storm Allison hit in 2001 and left a foot of water on the ground floor of the house. “We got it remodeled,” Ms. Asin said. “They told us it was a 500-year flood.”

But in 2015, the so-called Memorial Day flood almost completely covered their front yard, and Mr. Everett was photographed standing on a little patch of ground surrounded on all sides by water.

That flood left three inches of water in their home, enough that everything had to be torn out — Sheetrock, cabinets, floors.

They’d had enough, and considered moving away, but decided to stay put. “We were looking at how to come up with the mortgage for somewhere we didn’t really want to live versus building our dream house,” Mr. Everett said.

So they put up their dream house – seven feet above the street level.

A builder, Brian Silver of BAS Concepts, said that over the last 15 years, his company had built more than 50 homes around Brays Bayou that were elevated in some way – including Ms. Asin’s – and 10 just in the last year.

“If you elevate your house, you’re out of the floodplain,” Mr. Silver said, adding that it was his practice to build new homes a foot above the elevation that FEMA expected floodwaters to rise or the high-water mark of the last storm — whichever was higher.

He predicted that after Harvey, even more homeowners would decide to demolish their flooded homes and build from scratch, but higher, and that already elevated homes would increase in value. (According to the Insurance Information Institute, homeowners in flood-prone areas are often required to elevate their houses to get flood insurance, and the areas designated can change with storms and development.)