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Category: Housing

HUD Assisted Housing Properties (2015) and Poverty Level by Census Tract (2011-15), Harris County, Texas

Do No Harm: A Message to Dr. Carson about Housing and Health

The appointment of a physician, Dr. Ben Carson, to run the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) raised eyebrows. What does a brain surgeon know about affordable housing? But health and housing are intimately linked. Where we live not only dictates our access to opportunities such as education and employment. It shapes our thoughts about what opportunities exist and if they are attainable. It controls opportunities we are exposed to – job or gang. If Dr. Carson reduces segregation by enforcing the new federal fair housing rule, he can advance health equity — the opportunity for everyone to live their healthiest possible life.

During his recent Senate confirmation hearing, Dr. Carson reinforced his position that government should have a more limited role in the provision of housing and noted his own background as a medical doctor as shaping how he would lead the department. What could this mean for Houston?

A day before the Carson hearing, on January 11, the federal government issued a scathing letter outlining in detail a finding that Houston has made decisions about the location of low-income housing in a “racially-motivated” manner, singling out Mayor Turner’s recent decision not to back a housing development on Fountain View in the Galleria area.

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Hazardous: The Redlining of Houston Neighborhoods

For a larger, high-resolution version of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) map of Houston, visit this link.

Why are we so compelled to define neighborhoods as “good” or “bad”? Is there one definition of a “good” neighborhood — is it universal? Can a low-income neighborhood be a “good” neighborhood? I often wonder, and frequently challenge, whether these labels accurately depict a place and its people or whether they are self-fulfilling prophecy that makes it easy to invest or divest. The question comes more clearly into focus by understanding the history of neighborhood classification, of “good” and “bad” labels, and why they are too often directly associated with income and ethnicity.

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Photos courtesy Emergency Floor.

Two Miles from Syria: An Update on Emergency Floor

A year ago, OffCite published “Emergency Floor,” an article about a flooring solution for refugee camps developed by two Rice University graduates, Sam Brisendine and Scott Key, and their crowdfunding campaign to help put their modular tiles of extruded polypropylene on the ground. Below is an update that Key and Brisendine sent to supporters on July 15. You can learn more about the project here.

It is surreal to walk amid refugee shelters in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon a few short miles from ISIS-held towns in Syria. By in large, these families have lived in shelters cobbled together from tarps, scrap wood, and refuse for four to six years on average.

In the summer, temperatures soar to well over 100 degrees and in the winter down below freezing. Unfortunately, like many countries in the region, cold winters coincide with wet weather. One teenager told us living in his shelter in the winter “is like living in a wet refrigerator.”

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The Garden House designed by Sam Cuentas, Jose Martinez, and Claudia Tax for Fifth Ward. Courtesy.

Big Living in Small Houses in the Fifth Ward

Donna Kacmar is the author of BIG Little House (Routledge, 190 pages, 2015), a study of small houses designed by architects, and professor of architecture at the University of Houston. Here, she writes about four small houses designed by her students in collaboration with the Fifth Ward Redevelopment Corporation. The projects were presented to the board and staff, community leaders, and local architects on April 26. Construction of one of the houses is expected to begin in fall of 2016. For more on small houses, read Allyn West’s essay in Cite 97.

My professional-level design studio this spring focused on developing small-scaled solutions for living “large” in Houston’s Fifth Ward. Located just northeast of Downtown, the Fifth Ward has a rich history and an urban fabric damaged by large industrial and transportation infrastructure. The area is now attracting new development of its many vacant lots, yet it remains an affordable inner-city neighborhood in fast-growing Houston. The Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation asked the students to design affordable 850-square-foot houses for three small lots located at 4017 Market, 3906 Curtis Street, and 4018 Farmer. The students began their work by investigating the local context of the neighborhood along with research on other small houses and construction systems. After individual design work for five weeks, the students were organized in teams and spent an additional five weeks developing the four different schemes.

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Building in a landscape being converted from mid-income housing to high-end luxury condos; construction currently stalled due to financial hardship. Photos: Daisy Ames.

The Oil Series: Housing in Houston

Houston is caught in the crosshairs of irrational exuberance, a term initially coined in the 1990s by Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan in reference to the overvalued dot-com market. Similarly, when the United States’ housing market crashed in 2008, we were again forced to rethink our economic investments and spending. As architect and writer Pier Vittorio Aureli explains, we began to embrace Mies van der Rohe’s aphorism “less is more,” rendering it fashionable once again.

During such fundamental economic shifts we have come to see Houston’s continuing growth as more of a superficial reconstruction rather than an attempt to address the root of its problems. For example, the oil market crash in the 1980s left the city desolate, and the buildings Downtown were referred to as “see-through buildings” because the floors were not occupied and left transparent from one glass facade to the other. Since Fall 2015, the oil price per barrel has declined 70 percent, and unless we implore thoughtful design and fiscally responsible construction methods, we might face an empty city once again.

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Entrance to proposed Houston Arboretum Visitor Center with a vista of restored Gulf Coast prairie. Houston Arboretum.

ICYMI: Big Outdoors, Micro-Living, and More

Houston’s past of “big houses, not housing” and a “sensational lack of convivial public space” is being turned on its head. Molly Glentzer reports for the Houston Chronicle on the Houston Arboretum’s plans, which bring yet more firms of national repute to transform our parks, while RE/MAX markets micro-living in EaDo.

Putting the Wilderness Back in Houston Arboretum
Molly Glentzer, Houston Chronicle
Steven Spears of Design Workshop, Reed-Hilderbrand landscape architects, Lake|Flato architects, Texas ecologists from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, transportation planners from Walter P. Moore, cultural planners from SWCA environmental consultants, Texas A&M University forester W. Todd Watson, and park operations experts from ETM Associates reimagine the Houston Arboretum.

Micro-Living Project Coming to EaDo
Laura Cook, RE/MAX
A 24-story development of units less than 500 square feet will sit on a full 1.4 acre block at the Southwest corner of Leeland and Live Oak in East Downtown.

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Scott Key and Sam Brisendine in shelter using Emergency Floor. Images: Good Works Studio.

Emergency Floor: Rice Graduates Raising Funds to Improve Refugee Camps

Last year, 38 million refugees fled conflict and natural disasters. Many live in camps where tent-like shelters provide little to no barrier to the dirt below, exposing them to parasitic infections, flooding, waterborne diseases, and freezing temperatures.

“A floor under your feet is just as important as a roof over your head,” says Scott Key, who along with Sam Brisendine, developed Emergency Floor while students at the Rice School of Architecture. The project was selected as a finalist for a $150,000 grant from USAID’s Development Innovation Ventures. In order to quality for the grant, they must raise $50,000. Their crowdsourcing campaign ends July 15 and is $20,000 from reaching the goal.

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Canal Street Apartments, New Hope Housing, 2005, Val Glitsch. Photo: Raj Mankad.

Nine Ways to Make Houston Affordable (Again)

A feeling of malaise, even panic, has permeated a swath of Houstonians even as we receive national attention for job growth. We have lost Houston’s greatest attribute — affordability. Erin Mulvaney reported for the Houston Chronicle on the spike in housing costs and quoted a couple moving to Portland, Oregon, for the lower rents! A recent salon.com article by Anis Shivani, who was evicted from a complex to be partially demolished for a new luxury development, claims Houston’s oligarchs have destroyed the city and the planning commission has sold out to developers. Though some of Shivani’s claims are overstated and have been questioned, his anger and dismay speak to Houston’s affordable housing problem.

Shivani appeared on Houston Matters with Kinder Institute for Urban Research Director Bill Fulton, who distinguished between changing demographics and new development. Fulton argues that “you cannot freeze-dry a neighborhood.” Preservation ordinances might protect the built form, but the underlying economics of the “great inversion” will still lead to wealthy people displacing those with fewer resources.

I am no expert on affordable housing, but as Editor of Cite I am exposed to all kinds of ideas, and I collect a few relevant ones in this blog post. The ideas don’t form a comprehensive analysis or a cohesive strategy. Rather, I’m trying to get across the breadth of possibilities for those with low to moderate incomes given the political climate of Houston. There are as many ways to approach affordable housing as there are keys on a piano, but we seem to be stuck in a one- or two-note song. Here are nine ways to polyphony:

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Austin Autophagia: A Review of David Heymann’s My Beautiful City Austin

“Austin had naively existed in my mind as an antidote to the overstuffed burrito-ness of America,” says the unnamed narrator of David Heymann’s new book of fiction, My Beautiful City Austin (John Hardy Publishing, 2014). The narrator is a residential architect who fails again and again to dissuade his clients from building 8,000-square-foot Italian villas. He participates in the erasure of the landscape he loves.

The long lament is beautifully balanced by lyricism and humor. Many of the scenes take place in lakes, creeks, and swimming holes. I felt like I was right there in an inner tube, a floating cooler within arm’s reach. I read the book in one sitting.

Early on, the narrator explains that he came out of school in the mid-1980s and you get a sense of the impact the dismal economy had on his psyche: “When you start in architecture, especially when you first start studying architecture, it’s all high-mindedness, a hangover from the Frank Lloyd Wright Fountainhead idea of architects actually having a say in the way the world becomes. But Wright could behave the way he did, telling people how to live, because he had work, and everything in architecture, all authority and identity, stems from having work.”

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Installation of ReFRAME x FRAME in Hermann Park. Photo: Patrick Peters.

ReFRAME: How Unwanted Cubicles Became Emergency Housing

In 2011 alone, the Environmental Protection Agency noted that more than 22 billion pounds of furniture and furnishings and another 22 billion pounds of ferrous metals, much of which is found in office furniture, were discarded in the U.S. waste stream. Carole Nicholson, a regional A&D workplace manager for Allsteel, the world’s second-largest manufacturer of office products, was acutely aware of these figures. “Fifteen or 20 years ago there was a big segment of the market for used office furniture. But now there’s so much of it that people don’t want to deal with it,” she said. “It costs them money to take it away, so a lot of it ends up in landfills.” When Allsteel was contracted to replace the existing furniture in a 14-story office building in Canada, Nicholson, who lives in Houston, was struck with an idea.

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