Lawler: ‘Complete Communities’ will aid Houston’s public health

Houston Chronicle, April 25, 2017                                                    

Paola Martinez gazes at Houston's skyline from her apartment window. She motions to photos of her three children and says she is proud of how far they have come as a family. Before finding Avenue Station, an affordable apartment community in Houston's Near Northside, the shortage of quality affordable rental homes and apartments forced the Martinez family into cramped, substandard housing where they shared a single bedroom for more than a year. Now, she rests easier knowing that her family is safe in their new community. Not only does their current apartment provide her children with room to grow and thrive, but Martinez, who works as a chef, has room to cook for them. Their lives, she says, have changed for the better.

Mayor Sylvester Turner has recently designated Martinez's neighborhood, Near Northside, as a pilot neighborhood in the Complete Communities initiative, which is designed to help revitalize Houston's under-resourced neighborhoods to create sustainable, "complete" communities that are safe, economically viable and affordable. The initiative will focus on providing residents access to quality affordable housing, education, transportation, healthy food options, green spaces, economic opportunity and well-maintained infrastructure.

The mayor's support provides a vital boost to the efforts of Near Northside residents, who are working to preserve their community's rich cultural heritage and affordability while addressing key factors that impact their quality of life, such as safety, education, health and more.

This effort comes at a crucial time, as Houston's escalating housing costs have created a critical need for investment in quality affordable homes. An influx of new development projects inside the city's Inner Loop has resulted in the demolition of many older homes, and, in turn, has compromised affordability for residents in and around Houston's urban core.

As the Houston Chronicle reported in its April 16 article, "Downtown boom puts service workers in housing dilemma," (Page 1A, Sunday), monthly rents in downtown and the surrounding areas now average $1,750 for a one-bedroom apartment - a cost out of reach for many service workers employed in the city's burgeoning hospitality industry.

The Kinder Institute at Rice University provides more insight into this crisis, noting that - collectively in Harris County - an estimated 435,000 low-income residents are spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing, living in substandard housing, or both.

The profound impact that substandard housing has on the health of children and adults only amplifies the need to address this issue now. Crowded conditions create stress and increase the spread of illness. Those residing in poor conditions face greater risk for lead poisoning, asthma and accidental injury from unsound or poorly maintained structures. Properties overrun with dust mites, insects or rodents contain allergens that can cause respiratory illnesses, fatigue, headaches and difficulty concentrating. Mold and improperly functioning heating and cooling systems also pose hazards.

When housing costs are too high, it strains a family's ability to meet other essential expenses, forcing them to forgo needs like food, heating and medical care. Families without stable housing also tend to move frequently, which can lead to emotional, behavioral and academic problems among children, as well as increased risk of teen pregnancy, early drug use and depression during adolescence.

Safe neighborhoods are as important as quality affordable homes. Unsafe neighborhoods where families are exposed to violent crime and traumatic events foster harmful psychological stress. Residents who feel unsafe avoid walking and other healthy outdoor activities, even if resources such as parks, recreation centers, fresh food and other amenities are available.

The attendant stress and poor health outcomes of unstable housing among Houston residents takes a toll on all of us - from job absenteeism and low school performance, to strained health-care resources. We must do more. Strategies must be multi-faceted, focusing on strengthening social and physical conditions in neighborhoods, improving the quality of housing, and increasing access to affordable homes.

We are at a critical juncture in Houston's urbanization. We must focus on creating affordable homes and sustainable communities now, or else the unhealthy consequences will have a profound impact on the future for all Houstonians.

Lawler is the executive director of Avenue Community Development Corporation, a Houston nonprofit focused on affordable housing and community revitalization.

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