Affordable housing, graduation rates,
flooding among sustainability issues to address in Houston
Rice's Shell Center releases findings on
the sustainability of city's neighborhoods
BY AMY HODGES
Rice News staff
of Houston's City Council districts do not meet the conventional standards for
affordable housing, according to a new report from Rice University's Shell
Center for Sustainability. Other issues addressed in the report include the
disparity in graduation rates across council districts, the nearly 400,000
Houstonians at risk for flooding from severe storms and unemployment in the city.
Development of Houston Districts: The Health of the City," was released Sept.
23 and offers a widespread look at 24 social, economic and environmental
indicators of sustainability in 11 council districts in Houston. The
report’s recommendations are based on 2010 data collected from the U.S. Census
Bureau and other national and state data sets, as well as input from city
government officials, academic institutions and nonprofits.
"One of the major
sustainability challenges for the city of Houston is getting the right data to
comprehensively characterize development trends," said Lester King, author
of the report and a sustainability fellow for the Shell Center. "Analyzing
cities from sustainability performance metrics began in the 1990s. My hope is
that although Houston is behind the curve in terms of adopting comprehensive
sustainability performance metrics, this report will help reduce this gap by
using comprehensive intelligence to influence policy decisions and making this information
available to citizens to better understand their city and neighborhoods.”
King said five
of the sustainability indicators highlight dramatic findings and could prove
particularly useful in policymaking to improve the quality of life in Houston
over the next decade.
Half of all
districts in Houston meet the standard affordability threshold, which
stipulates that the average household should not spend more than 30 percent of its
income on housing costs. The average person in District E spends 24 percent on housing.
The average person in District F, which includes the Eldridge, Alief and
Westchase neighborhoods, spends 33 percent on housing.
affordability in District F is not terribly bad, King said, the problem arises
when factoring in transportation costs. On average, Houstonians spend 16
percent of their income on transportation costs; the average household in
District F spends nearly half of its income on housing and transportation
of the type of research we are doing on sustainability is that we can help with
understanding the complexity of running a major city like Houston with a $4
billion budget," King said.
the nation in auto sales, and only 5 percent of Houstonians use public transit.
this is great for car salesmen, it does nothing for our traffic, air pollution
or quality of life," King said.
prices in Houston are already relatively low, King said, policy aimed at
reducing transportation costs to the average Houstonian would help make it a
truly affordable city. That would take a major reimagining of the transit
system, he said.
is the fourth-largest city in the country behind New York, Los Angeles and
Chicago," King said. "Of the top three, Los Angeles has the lowest
percentage of people using transit, with 11 percent. New York has the highest
with 55. Houston has 5.5 percent of people using transit, so we will have to at
least double our transit usage to be comparable to the large cities in the
King said that
while the extension of rail lines in the city and the new METRO reimagining
project are positive steps, he is not sure that these efforts are capable of
doubling transit usage in Houston. He recommends more diversification of the
transit options to include jitney services (buses or vehicles transporting people
for a low fare) as well as more rail development.
captured graduation results from all 26 independent school districts operating
schools within the city boundaries. Graduation rates ranged from 47.4 percent
in District J, which includes Sharpstown, Gulfton and Westwood, to 95.6 percent
in District E, comprising neighborhoods in Lake Houston and Clear Lake.
King noted at
least two major opportunities to reduce the gap and improve the rates overall.
is a targeted focus on low-achievement schools, which everyone is already
working tirelessly on, with varying success rates," he said. "The
second, less obvious option is the opportunity for city leadership to establish
a precedent to improve the areas surrounding these poorly performing schools,
since studies show that visual blight can be linked to poor attitudes toward
both learning and teaching."
According to the 2010 Houston Area Survey conducted by Rice
sociologist Stephen Klineberg, 30 percent of area residents said the biggest
problems facing the city were unemployment, poverty and the cost of living. Houston's
2010 unemployment rate of 10 percent, the 18th highest in the U.S., is
detrimental to accessing quality health care, shelter and quality of living,
King said. Poverty among Houston districts ranges from 7 percent in District G
to above 30 percent in Districts J and B. District B is composed of the
neighborhoods of East Little York, Houston Gardens, Fifth Ward, Kashmere
Gardens and Pleasantville.
"Houston is projected to add 404,007 jobs by 2015,
based on the projected performance trend developed between 1990 and 2010, and
it is hoped that this increase in job numbers will significantly reduce the
unemployment rate," King said. "However, educational training to meet
the specialized needs for the Houston job market is essential to reducing the
unemployment rate in the city."
King noted that most Houston high schools do not have
curricula to facilitate blue-collar careers, and most potential employees must
matriculate through the community college system or learn on the job.
"This scenario creates a disadvantage for high-school
dropouts who are prevented from enrollment in community colleges due to lack of
high-school diplomas," King said.
Although the Houston region is now the sixth-largest metro
region in the country in terms of personal income, the median household income
was $44,001 in 2010, slightly below 2007 levels of $44,872; this suggests that
the 2008 economic recession set the city back approximately three years. "In
historical comparison, the per-capita income increased by 70 percent between
1990 and 2000," King said. "Between 2000 and 2010, the economy slowed
by half from the previous decade."
Median household income among Houston districts ranges from
$28,735 in District B to $72,421 in District G. The lack of housing types
across neighborhoods in Houston is one contributing factor to this clear
difference in median household incomes among districts. Most communities have
exclusively single-family, ranch-style housing.
King noted that large numbers of unskilled new immigrants
will further lower the overall per-capita income in the near future unless
major intervention is undertaken to develop policy reflective of the demographic
mix in Houston of 44 percent Hispanic, 26 percent White, 23 percent African-American
and 7 percent of all other races and ethnicities.
Almost 400,000 people live in an area that is at risk of
flooding in Houston, which may include catastrophic flooding due to severe
storms. The estimated value of housing in this area is $18 billion.
King said that the delineation of the 100-year flood plain
is the first step in targeting areas for flood mitigation strategies. He said
that development restrictions in the flood plain must be increased to
significantly combat flooding in Houston. In addition, he said that the city of
Houston should accelerate buyout for flood-prone properties. District G has
9,270 people living in the flood plain, and Districts F and J have more than
50,000 people each living in the flood plain. King said this research could be
used by the city to target scarce funds to those areas that have the greatest
concentration of people living in the flood plain.
One flooding solution is capital improvement for drainage.
Per-capita capital improvement spending per district ranged from $602 per
person in District A to $1,359 per person in District D. King said further
research is needed on why there is such a wide discrepancy in public spending
Because the districts in this study are made up of several
smaller neighborhoods, the range from lowest to highest performers among
districts was expected to be much smaller than what was found, King said.
Traditionally, most cities have different development in areas
comparable to Houston's Inner Loop and Outer Loop or development on prime
scenic property compared with not-so-scenic vistas, he said. However, neither
of these occurrences explains the variation among districts in Houston.
King thinks that the answer may be that most deed-restricted
subdivisions are exclusively regulated for single-family, ranch-style housing,
with the exclusion of any other type.
"This means that if an area is wealthy, it will
continue to attract other wealthy people in and around that area," he
said. "The converse is also true: If an area is poor, there is little
opportunity or incentive benefits currently available to attract either
economic development or improved residential development."
King noted that there are few
examples of distressed neighborhoods being improved in the city of Houston, but
there are several areas moving in the opposite direction.
"There's a real need for greater
incentives and new tools to tackle persistent development problems," he
King said that Houston, despite its
low performance in sustainability, is still a wealthy city, which commands a $4
"This is good news, since a
wealthy city has the necessary resources to become more sustainable," King
said. "The problem in Houston is not one of scarce funds; it is a problem
of making the right choices among competing interests."
Sustainability Indicators Project
The report was created as
part of the Houston Sustainability Indicators Project, which measured
development among districts in Houston based on identified sustainable
development indicators. It is a follow-up to "Houston Sustainability
Indicators: A Comprehensive Development Review for Citizens, Analysts and
Decision Makers," a study based on development performance at the city
level using data collected for 1990, 2000 and 2010. The first document in the
series was "Measuring City Sustainability: Project Houston."
The reports were funded by
Rice’s Shell Center for Sustainability and are available online at Houston Sustainability Indicators. The report findings will be discussed at the Shell Center's Sustainable Development Town Hall Meeting October 8 & 9 on the Rice campus. Find more information or register to attend this free event.