Affordable housing and flooding among sustainability issues to address in Houston
HOUSTON – (Sept. 23, 2013) – 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.
The report, “Sustainable Development of Houston Districts: The Health of the City,” was released today 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 datasets, 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.”
The report’s key finding revealed that half of Houston City Council districts do not meet the conventional public policy indicator of housing affordability, which stipulates that the average household should not spend more than 30 percent of its income on housing costs. The average Houstonian spends 30 percent on housing costs and 16 percent on transportation costs; this ranks Houston 26th in the nation for affordability when compared with the top 50 largest cities in the U.S.
“According to the Council for Community and Economic Research, we are fifth in the nation in terms of housing affordability at the metropolitan level,” King said. “However, according to this new report, we do not show the same success at the city level.”
The report also suggests that assessment of businesses and homeowners in the 100-year flood plain is the first step in targeting areas for flood mitigation strategies. Almost 400,000 people live in areas at risk for flooding in Houston, which includes catastrophic flooding due to severe storms. The estimated value of housing in this area is $18 billion.
King said that one solution to flooding is capital improvement for drainage. Per-capita capital improvement spending ranged from $602 per person in District A (Carverdale, Fairbanks, Springbranch and Willow Brook) to $1,359 per person in District D (Astrodome area, Midtown, Medical Center, Museum Park, MacGregor, Third Ward).
“Further research needs to be conducted on why there is such a wide discrepancy in public spending among districts and understanding of city development goals to validate this spending preference,” King said. He added that the report 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.
Because City Council districts in the study are made up of several smaller neighborhoods, King noted, the range from lowest to highest performers among districts was expected to be much smaller than what was uncovered in the report.
“Traditionally, most cities have a difference between development in the Inner Loop and Outside Loop or development on prime scenic property compared with not-so-scenic vistas,” King said. “However, neither of these occurrences explains the variation in differences among districts in Houston.”
King thinks that the answer may be found in the fact 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 persons in and around that area,” he said. “The converse is also true, that 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 pointed out 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.”
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 http://shellcenter.rice.edu.
The report’s findings will be discussed at the Shell Center’s Sustainable Development Town Hall Meeting Oct. 8 and 9 on the Rice campus. For more information or to register, visit http://shellcenter.rice.edu/Content.aspx?id=2147484188.
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Shell Center for Sustainability: http://shellcenter.rice.edu/
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