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Acres Homes

Who gets displaced by I-45?

Worth keeping in mind, the cost of expanding I-45 is more than just dollars.

The I-45 project’s toll on local property owners would be unprecedented for TxDOT in Houston, potentially relocating hundreds of families and businesses. Estimated to cost at least $7 billion, the project will rebuild I-45 from downtown Houston north to Beltway 8, and change how it connects with other downtown freeways.

That means rebuilding — by removing — pieces of Fifth Ward, the Northside, Acres Homes and Aldine. Spots south of North Main where third-generation Latino residents help neighbors work on cars in their driveway. Or Tidwell, which bustles with activity as the commercial center and is the only place within walking distance of her apartment where Shondrae McBride, 26, can get her nails done, pick up marinated carne asada and drop off her husband’s cell phone for repair across from a Pho restaurant.

“Not everybody has a car to get around,” McBride said.

Removing some of those businesses, she said, would “add hours” to her typical errands.

The latest estimates show the rebuild would impact — the catchword for any structure or dwelling directly touched by the changing road boundary — 158 houses, 433 apartments or condos, 486 public housing units, 340 businesses, five churches and two schools. The Houston Police Department would need to relocate its south central police station and the Mexican Consulate in the Museum District, adjacent to I-69, will move to a Westchase-area location.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has called the project “transformative” but also called on TxDOT to revise the designs north of downtown to impact fewer homes and businesses while remaining on track to start construction downtown in a matter of months. Work is slated to begin north of Interstate 10 by 2024.

When the work actually begins will depend on decisions made this year and next that some, including Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, worry will displace a historic number of people before getting a full public review despite more than 15 years of planning. Hidalgo and others have called on TxDOT to delay final decisions, which could push back the start of construction for months as more public meetings are planned.

“Given the impacts of the COVID-19 disaster, this delay would give the county and its residents more time to engage with and offer feedback,” Hidalgo wrote in May.

TxDOT officials have said they welcome the city and county’s input, with state Transportation Commissioner Laura Ryan, of Houston, saying the goal is a project that “will work, for the most part, for as many people as possible.”

That still leaves the question of how many people will have to get out of the way.

There’s an illustration in the story that shows what the effects would be for the project as now planned. The city’s alternative would do a lot to mitigate that. The best thing you can do is take advantage of every opportunity to let your elected officials know what you do and don’t want to happen. I know there’s a lot going on, but stuff like this doesn’t go away when there’s too much to pay attention to.

Complete Communities

Mayor Turner makes an announcement about a new program for revitalizing some core neighborhoods.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner plans to focus Houston’s community development efforts on five low-income neighborhoods as part of his Complete Communities initiative announced Monday.

The program comes without a price tag or implementation timeline, and the mayor has committed no additional money for housing and community development.

Instead, Turner said the city will redirect 60 percent of its local and federal housing dollars to the five pilot neighborhoods: Acres Homes, Gulfton, Second Ward, Northside Village and Third Ward.

That amounts to roughly $34 million annually, if federal funding remains steady, on top of $28 million in available local housing funds.

“We recognize that this effort will not transform neighborhoods immediately, nor will it be a panacea that eliminates challenges neighborhoods face,” Turner said. “But they will see an intense, concentrated effort by many partners to enhance their quality of life and improve their living conditions.”

The city intends to finalize development plans for each of the five neighborhoods in January, after several months of community engagement. Turner said programs could include additional heavy trash pickup, weed abatement, sidewalk construction or single family home repair – things the city already does in neighborhoods across Houston.

“These short-term projects will generate enthusiasm and serve as a catalyst for support from outside organizations and the local community,” the mayor said.

Asked how he would respond to other disadvantaged neighborhoods eager for investment, Turner said, “We see you and hear you, but when you look at what we will do in these respective pilot communities, I think communities will be willing to wait for the transformation that will take place.”

See here for the Mayor’s press release. Leah Binkovitz the The Urban Edge adds some more detail.

Turner cited a slew of private entities involved in the effort including the Greater Houston Builders Association, Commonwealth Funding, Wulfe & Co. and Midway Companies. He didn’t elaborate on the exact nature of those partnerships.

Though the city’s investment period was open-ended, the mayor said his administration will focus on short-term projects, like heavy trash sweeps, park and community center repairs, enhanced weed abatement and improved sidewalks and street lighting, as well as home repairs and public art to highlight the transformations underway.

Turner also promised longer-term gains like improved educational outcomes, access to quality grocery stores, better drainage and the creation and preservation of affordable housing.

“I’m not placing any limit on it,” said Turner. “We stay until we reach that benchmark.” Specific benchmarks for each neighborhoods have not yet been identified.

The city will finalize its plans for each neighborhood by January 2018, after a community engagement process, according to the city. “This not a one-size fits all approach,” the mayor said.

[…]

Monday’s announcement came after Turner faced criticism earlier this year for city decisions that effectively barred low-income housing from wealthy Houston neighborhoods, according to a federal investigation. Citing his decision to table the low-income housing tax credit project proposed at 2640 Fountain View in a census tract that was almost 90 percent white, the federal housing department said that decision and others were based, in part, on racially-motivated opposition from community groups. But instead of crafting a corrective plan, the city has vehemently denied the findings, and Turner has asked the agency to rescind it.

Simultaneously, Turner has moved forward on his Complete Communities initiative, arguing that low-income Houstonians should not have to move from largely low-income communities to reap the benefits often associated with wealthier neighborhoods, often labeled as “high opportunity” communities.

“I vowed that we cannot allow Houston to be two cities in one, a city of haves and have-nots,” Turner said.

There are still a lot of details to work out, and a number of similar neighborhoods that would presumably be next on the list after these five. The goal here is to upgrade the infrastructure in these neighborhoods, making them better for existing residents, who haven’t seen a lot of investment from the city, while also making them more attractive to the kind of businesses that thriving neighborhoods need, all while (hopefully) not causing appraisals to soar or the kind of developers who would raze everything in order to build luxury condos to swoop in. Easier said than done, but the goal is a good one. All parts of the city need maintenance and new investments, and there’s a lot of room for infill development to ensure the city remains a vibrant alternative to outward sprawl. I look forward to seeing how this goes.

First test for flex zones

This is worth watching.

Though many Acres Homes dwellings and shops are in disrepair, a community still thrives here. Churches and some well-kept homes anchor corners and dot small, residential streets, all of which dead-end or loop back to Sweetwater.

Bus service in Acres Homes has been lackluster for years, some riders said, and the Metropolitan Transit Authority has struggled to match services with need. Large, empty buses lumber past unoccupied bus stops before folks hop aboard at more popular nearby stops.

Metro is about to try something different. Pending board approval Thursday, officials in February will roll out a three-month test of door-to-door service in an area of Acres Homes around Interstate 45 in northwest Houston. Dubbed “community connector service,” the plan is identical to the “flex zones” concept included in a systemwide overhaul of Houston-area bus service.

The results of this test will be important not just for area bus riders, but perhaps to the transit agency’s broader efforts to revamp its bus system.

“We are kind of putting our reputation and everything we do there,” Metro board member Diann Lewter said of the new service.

[…]

Residents needing a ride within the area must call at least an hour before they need to be picked up, said Michael Andrade, Metro’s director of paratransit service. Recurring rides can also be set up by calling ahead, he said. Phone operators will be bilingual.

The flex zone approach is similar in some ways to the MetroLift program for disabled riders, which has experienced ups and downs as users complained about poor service. The difference is that with the connector service, the buses will stay within the zone, reducing the potential for delays, while MetroLift goes wherever the passenger needs to go. For trips outside the zone, connector riders will transfer from the flex zone buses to fixed routes.

Board member Christof Spieler, a supporter of the plan to restructure bus service, said once riders use the service, “they will absolutely love it.”

The zones enable Metro to deliver service without tying up too many resources. Two 24-foot buses can provide service in the area, with a third held in reserve to handle high demand. That’s more efficient than using 40-foot buses when ridership is low.

The Route 9 North Main bus, which uses Sweetwater in the proposed flex zone area, averages 887 riders on a weekday, according to Metro’s figures for the last quarter of 2014. That’s an 8.7 percent decline from 2013.

Andrade said the measure of success for the zone will not be comparing its ridership to that of the previous service, but judging how people use it to connect to other Metro routes and how they move inside the zone.

See here and here for some background. Technically, this isn’t the flex zone plan that’s part of the still-being-worked-on bus reimagining project, but it’s the same basic idea and is more or less a beta test for it. I do think that judging this three-month pilot program at least in part by ridership numbers is valid, though we should keep in mind that three months is an awfully short period of time in which to draw conclusions. But ultimately, increasing ridership has to be the goal, because if we believe that better service leads to more riders and we believe that this is better service, then we should follow through on those beliefs. The Highwayman and Write On Metro have more.

Ike rebuilding funds finally coming

About time.

More than 3½ years after Hurricane Ike, a high-ranking federal housing official and Mayor Annise Parker announced Wednesday that $151 million in federal disaster relief money is on the way to four areas of Houston to rebuild or repair homes and apartments.

“It’s about time we get this taken care of,” Parker said. “Because of the enormous devastation caused by Hurricane Ike, there’s still too many Houstonians and whole neighborhoods that are reeling from the impact.”

Houston housing officials scattered the previous $87 million in Ike housing money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development across the city. This time, they have chosen to channel the money to Acres Homes, Independence Heights, a northeast Houston crescent centered around the Fifth Ward, and Sunnyside/South Park/South Union in hopes of contributing to neighborhood redevelopment, as well as fixing individual homes.

Residents of those neighborhoods, assembled under the aegis of the Texas Organizing Project (TOP), which advocates for low-income people, have protested at City Hall about the pace of relief.

The federal money was allocated to the state.

“The state has been slow on that (passing the money to Houston) in the past,” said Mercedes Marquez, a HUD assistant secretary who attended the announcement. She said, though, that since last summer, when the state put the General Land Office in charge of Ike funding, the pace has “dramatically improved.”

Here’s the Mayor’s press release about this. The way that federal funds for Ike recovery have been disbursed has been controversial from the beginning. Here’s a Houston Tomorrow story from January 2010 that gives some of the details. I don’t want to look back at all that, I want to look forward, and when I do what I see is a tremendous opportunity for the city to help revitalize some historic neighborhoods that really need the help. I hope infrastructure improvements, whether through these funds or through the startup of Rebuild Houston, are a major component. In addition to contributing to the real estate recovery in Houston, if we do this right we can make some low-cost and underpopulated parts of town more attractive to developers, and thus draw people looking for housing closer in and inside city limits instead of the far-flung suburbs. There’s so much potential for good here, but job one is helping out the residents in these neighborhoods who have waited far too long for the assistance they’ve been owed. Let’s take care of them and go from there.