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The Shell Center for Sustainability's mission is to foster an interdisciplinary program of research, outreach, and education to address actions that can be taken to ensure the sustainable development of communities' living standards, interpreted broadly, to encompass all factors affecting the overall quality of life.

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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 

  

Half 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.  

 "Sustainable 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. 

Affordability 

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.  

While 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 costs.  

"The value 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. 

Houston leads the nation in auto sales, and only 5 percent of Houstonians use public transit.  

"Although this is great for car salesmen, it does nothing for our traffic, air pollution or quality of life," King said.  

Since housing 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.  

"Houston 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 country." 

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. 

Graduation 

The study 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. 

"The first 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." 

Unemployment 

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. 

Income 

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. 

Flooding 

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 among districts. 

Overall perspective 

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 said.   

King said that Houston, despite its low performance in sustainability, is still a wealthy city, which commands a $4 billion budget. 

"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." 

Houston 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.