Houston neighborhoods program gets top honors
In just four years, the neighborhoods to Standards program has galvanized Houston’s inner-city neighborhoods, improving the quality of life by concentrating on simple infrastructure maintenance.
Houston is using a program of infrastructure improvements and community involvement to bring new life to its declining, “Inside-the-Loop” neighborhoods. The program, which concentrates on simple infrastructure maintenance, proves that inner-city neighborhood revitalization does not have to be a huge – or expensive – undertaking. And it has earned Houston American City B County’s 1996 Infrastructure Award.
Like most other cities with oil-dependent economies, Houston suffered in the 1980s, while the nation as a whole experienced unprecedented economic growth.
The population began migrating out of the older neighborhoods closer to downtown, which, during the past decade, lost 100,000 residents to suburban communities.
In a cycle repeated in many of the nation’s downtown areas, tax revenues dropped, and maintenance budgets were the first areas to be cut.
Streets deteriorated, buildings were abandoned, vacant lots were not maintained, ditches were not cleaned, and parks were not kept up. The neglect began to show because basic infrastructure needs were not being addressed.
To correct the problem, Mayor Bob Lanier, now serving his third term, has led the implementation of a program to shake Houston proper out of its doldrums. Making Houston’s neighborhoods safe, clean and attractive to residents was – and still is – one of the program’s priorities. A residential reinvestment program called Neighborhoods to Standard (NTS) was the starting point.
After four “tiers,” 57 or years in existence, NTS has made a tremendous difference in the 57 neighborhoods selected for its implementation. To date:
* Nearly 800 land miles of roadway have been resurfaced;
* More than 17,000 street lights have been installed or converted;
* More than 500,000 cubic yards of heavy trash have been removed; and
* More than 200 miles of ditches have been cleaned.
Approximately $75 million has been spent on improvements in the first four tiers of NTS. Currently, 14 more neighborhoods are preparing for Tier V.
Residents view the program’s cost as a bargain, given that maintaining infrastructure is less expensive than replacing it. And it does not hurt that the improvements have been made without subsequent tax increases.
Funding comes from various sources, including community development block grants, an expanded sales tax base through the city’s Metropolitan Transit Authority, public improvement bonds, certificates of obligation, water and sewer revenue funds, park bond funds and street and bridge bond funds The NTS program involves the coordination of various city departments. Representatives from the departments of public utilities, transportation, police, parks and recreation, neighborhood protection, code enforcement, engineering and construction meet quarterly to discuss priorities and give progress reports. Other local agencies whose services are necessary, such as local utilities and transportation, are also included in the process.
A liaison from the Mayor’s Office coordinates the city’s efforts with representatives from targeted neighborhoods, a relationship that is the cornerstone of the NTS program, since the residents of the neighborhoods know best the greatest needs of their communities.
* The criteria for eligible neighborhoods were set by a volunteer task force appointed by the mayor and include:
* an effective neighborhood organization;
* a stable population and core of home ownership, as resident owners have the greatest stake in the area and are the most likely private participants in improvement projects;
* a substantial stock of sound structures;
* a well defined area, so that improvements have a clear beneficial impact;
* improvements that can make a difference in the attractiveness and long-term viability of the neighborhood; and
* the potential for private sector improvements.
Most NTS neighborhoods are located inside Loop 610, a 38-mile circle on a radius of six miles from the Central Business District. The neighborhoods vary by ethnic group, income level and age. But as different as they sometimes are, the neighborhoods share the common goal of improving the quality of life in their respective areas.
There is nothing fancy about NTS. In fact, it has been referred to as a “meat-and-potatoes” type of program that addresses the basics – quality of life enhancement and crime reduction. Maintenance of the infrastructure is an integral component in this.
To that end, some of the involved neighborhoods are: upgrading water and wastewater service, overlaying asphalt on streets, constructing sidewalks adjacent to schools, maintaining roadside ditches, mowing rights-of-way, cleaning storm sewer inlets and off-road drainage ditches, installing street lights, replacing or repairing traffic signs and signals and upgrading parks.
Neighborhood protection teams, neighborhood traffic teams and solid waste personnel also are tackling problems affecting the quality of life.
Both the politicians and the public benefit greatly from these types of projects.
Actual sales records indicate that property values in targeted neighborhoods have gone up as much as 30 percent in several cases, and some inner-city neighborhoods have seen an increase in the number of private investors returning to these areas to do business.
For example, before NTS was implemented, the total value of building permits for residential and non-residential activity in Tier Ill neighborhoods was $81,602,779.
As of late 1995, the value of those permits had risen by 400 percent.
City employees carry out the core work in implementing the NTS program. An NTS mayoral liaison is designated to answer civic association questions, and the city likewise encourages associations to designate one point person to interact with city officials. NTS provides monthly status reports to each community and meetings are held on a semi-monthly basis in city facilities with city officials in attendance. Each neighborhood in the program receives a street-by-street visit from a community liaison on a quarterly basis.
All seven liaisons spend approximately 50 percent of their time in the neighborhoods they serve.
Additionally, the Department of Public Works and Engineering’s Neighborhood Protection Team has installed a question-and-answer hotline that has received twice the number of calls originally projected.
Maintaining and rehabilitating the neighborhoods, infrastructure preserves the unique, inherent charms associated with each area. Indeed, several city ordinances have been passed to prohibit the issuance of demolition permits for designated historic structures.
Houston also places a high priority on actions that will benefit neighborhoods and encourage localized self-help programs in an effort to reclaim neighborhoods.
Reduction of crime through increased and upgraded street lighting is one of the highest priorities. In fact, more than 40 percent of the resident responding to a city survey about concerns chose safety as the “Most Sought Neighborhood Attribute.” Not surprisingly, then, when homeowners were asked what improvements they were willing to pay for, they chose street lights, followed by newly paved streets and more and improved parks.
Consequently, the city has worked with Houston Lighting and Power to reduce the fees required of citizens and citizen groups who request additional street lights before their scheduled installation.
In addition, the Parks and Recreation Department has complemented the NTS program with its own Parks to Standard Program, providing new jogging trails and playground equipment, and the Department of Public Works and Engineering has instituted a Safe School Sidewalk Program to allow children easier, safer access to schools. So far, more than 75 miles of sidewalk have been constructed or are currently under design in the NTS neighborhoods.
Houston also has documented the positive effects of its NTS program. Residents in NTS areas are overwhelmingly more positive about the future. NTS area residents also want to remain in their neighborhoods and encourage families and friends to relocate there, and a majority of the people surveyed indicate a willingness to make home and yard improvements after witnessing street and parks improvements in their area.
Additionally, almost 50 percent of the residents surveyed have said they would be more inclined to become more active in local school and civic clubs after seeing the results of the program.
And the mayor benefits from the knowledge that these NTS area residents also feel much more positive about local government. Not coincidentally, Lanier was re-elected in November 1993 with 90 percent of the vote and garnered 85 percent of the vote in November 1995 for his third and final term.
Houston has used the NTS program to revitalize its declining inner-loop neighborhoods and the rest of the city proper. Now, an estimated 5,000 residents are returning annually to neighborhoods inside the Loop. Property values have risen, tax revenue has increased, crime is down, and attendance in parks is up.
The Department of Public Works and Engineering has recently produced a 20-minute video describing the Neighborhoods to Standard program. For more information, contact Mignette Patrick in the department’s public information office, (713) 754-9613.