[Hpn] The not so visible homeless will be seen on the streets thank you Houston

William Tinker wtinker@metrocast.net
Sat, 20 Sep 2003 10:04:35 -0400


www.HoustonChronicle.com


City targets demolition of 600 homes, trimming of 2,500 lots

Sept. 19, 2003

City steps up efforts to cut urban blight

By KRISTEN MACK

For months, Houston officials have bragged to anyone who would listen that
the city was set for a renaissance of sorts. A light rail system is to begin
operating downtown Jan. 1, they point out, followed soon after by such major
events as Super Bowl XXXVIII and Major League Baseball's All-Star Game.
But the chest thumping has rung a bit hollow to folks like Frank Barnett,
whose neighborhood is plagued by overgrown vacant lots, open ditches and
abandoned houses.
So Barnett embraced Mayor Lee Brown's announcement Friday that the city
intends to partner with neighborhood groups to tackle long-ignored urban
blight in Houston.
"City bureaucracy takes time," Barnett said. "It takes them awhile to do
everything."
City officials say the program unveiled Friday will lead to the demolition
of 600 homes, trimming of 2,500 overgrown lots and the towing of scores of
nuisance vehicles by June.
Many of those efforts will be concentrated in north and east Houston, some
of the city's most blighted sections. Some of the targeted areas include
neighborhoods highlighted in "Living In Neglect," a series of Houston
Chronicle articles in November that detailed the city's spotty record in
addressing urban decay.
"Our goal is to improve the quality of life by reducing blight," Brown said.
"We are returning power to the people. You tell us what your problems are
and we will use the tools at our disposal."
Bob Litke, Houston's planning and development director, said the city
intends to do away with its slow and often ineffective complaint-driven
system.
"So many things have fallen through the cracks, and we haven't dealt with
them," Litke said. "There's a tremendous problem in these neighborhoods. It
doesn't take much to identify it. There's no way we can eliminate the
problems, but we can manage them."
Litke said the city's Neighborhood Protection Division is going to lean
heavily on 38 Super Neighborhood Councils to guide them, asking them to
identify priorities on which the city should concentrate. In concrete terms,
that will include sending a chief city inspector to every Super Neighborhood
meeting.
Brown created the Super Neighborhood Program in 1999 as part of an effort to
have neighborhoods identify city projects in their part of town.
Barnett, president of the Independence Heights Super Neighborhood Council,
said he is grateful for the city's increased reliance on groups like his,
because they know best what and where the problems are.
Barnett has watched for years as his historic neighborhood deteriorated. He
hopes the city's increased attention will spark a long-awaited turning point
and attract more neighborhood participation as well.
"If they see us cleaning up, it will put a guilt feeling on them," Barnett
said of his neighbors.
Paula Parshall has seen firsthand how abandoned homes and vacant lots become
a breeding ground for decay and crime, including prostitution.
"People want their neighborhoods cleaned up. This shows people that the city
is focused on it," said Parshall, of the Northside/Northline Super
Neighborhood Council. "I hope it funnels more energy in that direction and
brings back pride to our neighborhood."
Rather than attack blight by haphazardly responding to random complaints,
the city's Neighborhood Protection Division now plans a more systematic
approach.
Its three top priorities will be abandoned and dangerous buildings, weeded
and overgrown lots, and junk motor vehicles.
Although the city has a history of tearing down an average of about 300
houses a year, the department plans to demolish 600 by June.
City officials hope to streamline the process by contracting with fewer
companies, which means fewer trips to City Council for contract approvals.
City officials have been working over the past few months to get demolition
orders lined up for targeted properties. As properties are scheduled for
demolition, the city will post demolition dates on its Web site,
www.houstonplanning.com, so neighborhoods can hold city officials
accountable.
The city's priority will be on lots adjacent to senior citizens' or disabled
people's homes and on neighborhoods containing schools and heavy crime.
Last fiscal year, the city spent about $750,000 to cut 8,000 vacant lots.
This year, it has budgeted only enough money for 5,000.
To increase the number of lots to be cut, the city will join with Keep
Houston Beautiful and the Harris County Community Supervisions and
Corrections Department to have probationers cut and maintain lots throughout
the city. Between May and August, probationers had already cut 249 lots.
Through a pilot program, Keep Houston Beautiful will monitor the
probationers and will help neighborhoods maintain lots by providing
equipment, insurance and organizing support.
Within the past year, the city also has stepped up enforcement of junked
motor vehicles -- those that are wrecked, dismantled or inoperable and
without valid license plates or inspection stickers.
City workers have towed about 200 junked cars and trucks at a cost of $45
each, which the city pays. Tired of paying to clean up other people's
messes, city officials recently began charging owners of junked vehicles
$200 for each tow to encourage them to get rid of the vehicles on their own.
The newest plan allows vehicle owners to contact a towing company to have
their cars towed for free. Twenty companies already have signed up with the
city to tow the vehicles; they would be reimbursed by stripping the vehicles
and selling the parts.
Councilwoman Carol Alvarado, whose district includes the East End and parts
of the Third Ward, said she and her residents have gotten frustrated with
the backlog of cases. She said she hopes the city's new effort will finally
bring some relief to her constituents.
"This is a more coordinated effort than I've seen in a while," she said. "We
finally have something more concrete. This is for real this time, and the
city is putting in all of its resources to target these districts. I'll be
holding their feet to fire and making sure there is delivery."