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 Kyle Nazario
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How Houston’s Size Hurts the Poor

How Houston’s Size Hurts the Poor
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Joe Nunoz sits in traffic for an hour and twenty minutes every day, just to get to work.

“It could be a two-hour drive, especially because I’m driving into downtown Houston,” Nunoz said. “I’m driving through the worst part of traffic to get to work.”

Stories like Nunoz’s are not uncommon. As our city grows uncontrollably, its traffic is getting worse. As the traffic worsens, it hurts Houston’s most vulnerable citizens.

How Our City’s Size Hurts the Poor

For reference, let’s remember how huge Houston is. The city is almost as large as the state of Massachusetts. It dwarfs Hawaii (the island, not the chain). Houston is massive.

Urban sprawl affects everybody, but it touches the lives of the poor most of all. Low-income residents are most likely to be affected by urban development and often lack the political connections to change anything.

Something as simple as traveling becomes difficult when you’re poor in one of the most car-centric cities in the world.

Stephen L. Klineberg, co-director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University, called it a city “built for the car, by the car.”

“You can’t get around without a car,” he said.

The problem is that cars are expensive. When you start adding up the cost of buying a car, gas, insurance, and repairs, it becomes prohibitively expensive. AAA found owning a car costs $9,122 per year when everything’s tallied up. For poor households with average median incomes as low as $12,089, that’s too much.

When owning a car is too expensive, you ride the bus. That sucks, because Houston Metro sucks. Buses arrive infrequently and use confusing routes at weird hours.

“Nobody’s gonna use [the bus] unless they’re desperate,” said Peter Brown, director of planning group Better Houston. “We need walkable cities.”

Brown told Free Press Houston he often asks people waiting for a bus how long they’ve been waiting. He claims they usually say 30-45 minutes.

That’s too long for blue-collar residents working jobs that pay by the hour. Every second you’re waiting for the bus is a second you’re not making money.

Someone who works for minimum wage ($7.25/hour) loses $1,885, assuming they spend an hour on the bus every day for the average work time of 260 days. When you’re poor, you need every dollar.

Modern Segregation

Then there are the long-term societal problems from spreading out the city. Klineberg explained when everyone has enough room to move anywhere, people tend to clump in like groups.

That means the rich people lock themselves away in gated communities. This removes a lot of opportunities for low-income residents to make connections and find better jobs.

“As jobs become more distant, it is also more difficult to participate in informal networks through which job placements are often made,” one study said. “This is most evident for racial minorities and particularly African Americans.”

Physical distance compounds racial distance. It creates real barriers between poor minority groups and middle-class white people. In the end, the poor stay poor.

So Why Don’t We Fix It?

Houston is in this situation because of its geography and politics.

Klineberg attributes Houston’s growth to a couple factors. One of the biggest is the lack of natural barriers. Other than the Gulf of Mexico, Houston has unlimited room to grow.

“It’s a developer’s paradise,” Klineberg said.

Houston woos land developers, nurturing them in a warm environment that eschews any harsh zoning laws or serious regulations.

The city has refrained from putting a leash on the growth in part because of the dedicated efforts of special-interest groups.

A quick look into Mayor Annise Parker’s 2013 campaign finance documents reveals 7 contributions from development-related groups for the last reporting period alone. Her reelection campaign received $19,000 from groups such as Houstonians for Responsible Growth (realtors, builders and architects who oppose zoning) and Jacobs Metro Area PAC (the political arm of Jacobs Engineering Group, a construction company).

These contributions show that land development advocacy groups exist and are working to keep Houston expanding.

“HRG’s mission is to work with elected officials and the public to preserve the policies and principles that have made Houston one of the most affordable and successful major cities in the world,” their website reads.

At least HRG is direct about their goals. We could not reach any of its founders in time for publication.

But then they’re just one of many groups invested in expanding Houston. There’s a lot of money in building more houses, even if it hurts the poor.

Will Anything Change?

The real question is whether anything can change Houston’s rampant growth addiction.

Klineberg thinks so. He sees the growing population of 20- and 30-somethings that put off having kids and buying a home as the very people who will push for a more dense urban core.

They want sidewalks, trees and parks, the stuff you can’t find among Houston’s current bird’s nest of highways.

That and a projected increase in population should force Houston to implement new public transportation systems.

“The 21st century is different,” Klineberg told Free Press Houston. “We need new solutions.”

8 Responses to How Houston’s Size Hurts the Poor

  1. Kwjuana Thomas June 5, 2014 at 5:28 pm

    The truth is this, the issue of Houston’s expansiion without consideration for mass transit is in fact archaic. Though we are twenty some-odd years behind in mass transit, we are moving in the right direction. As citizens of the city, it is imperative we look at the expanse and opportunity the city provides. There are more than enough resources and opportunities for people to have what they need, though challenging it may be, all things are possible. Community is the answer. There is nothing a group of people of like-minded believers cannot accomplish if they are willing and obedient to the governing authority. The question is this, who is your authority? Being governed by the natural situation is not progressive, we have to set our sights higher and lift up those who cannot see until they gain sight. We must step out of the natural circumstance into what is available within. There is no limit there.

  2. mark matsusaki June 5, 2014 at 2:54 pm

    Hawaii is the largest island of the Hawaiian achipelago, not Oahu.

    • Mariam Afshar June 5, 2014 at 3:23 pm

      You’re right, fixed. Geography is hard sometimes.

  3. Douglas Ward June 5, 2014 at 2:28 pm

    Before you slam Metro, why not ride it yourself first? It’s my only option to getting around since I’m one of those low-income people you were writing about and I actually enjoy it. I’m thankful for the Metro and rely on it to get me where I want to go. Perhaps if more people rode Metro, then their services could also be expanded. As far as waiting 45 minutes for a bus to come, someone must have had great difficulty reading the bus schedule to find out what time is comes or a bus broke down. 10 minutes is the average wait time that I’ve experienced riding bus 108 and 44.

  4. Trey June 5, 2014 at 2:13 pm

    Who wrote this? I couldn’t get passed Houston being bigger than Massachusetts. Is that a joke? Honolulu isn’t even an island. Am I missing the joke cause this can’t be real. A household income of twelve thousand dollars is below minimum wage if someone is working full time. Yes Houston is spread out, it always has been. Yes the public transportation system sucks here, that isn’t news. Now how exactly does the size of the city hurt the poor?
    This article is horrible.

    • Mariam Afshar June 5, 2014 at 2:44 pm

      1. Houston is, in fact, almost as large as than Massachusetts. Not bigger, but close. Mistake fixed.
      http://www.houstontx.gov/abouthouston/houstonfacts.html

      2. You’re right, Honolulu is a mistake. Fixed.

      3. You’re right, the median income for some neighborhoods is actually $8,590 for Fonmeadow.
      http://www.city-data.com/nbmaps/neigh-Houston-Texas.html

      • Trey June 5, 2014 at 3:47 pm

        Okay, the stats you pulled the square mileage from accounts for “Houston-Galveston-Brazoria Consolidated Metropolitan Statistical Area (Houston CMSA)” which is far greater an area than covered by Houston Metro public transit. Where as the urban area is closer to 1.3k square miles. Second, Hawai’i or the “Big Island” is Hawaii’s biggest island and is about 4k square miles. O’ahu, where Honolulu is, is much smaller. Third, a full time minimum wage workers yearly income is about fifteen thousand. I do not doubt that there are households that are below that but how do they factor in to your article?
        The whole point of my making a comment is to ask; What are you even trying to say? I pointed out your mistakes to show that you have no base and no point…
        It literally took me five minutes to check and disprove your statistics. I am not trying to be a troll but I am stating that this article is weakly done and pointless. I have no idea what you are even trying to tell me. Are you saying that there should be better public transit? Are you saying there should be more low wage jobs in the city? Are you saying that there shouldn’t be poor people or neighborhoods where they conjugate?
        I agree that it can be difficult to get around the sprawl of Houston no matter what your means may be and I wish there were better and faster ways. I think that Houston is growing and it is getting more expensive to live here, but it is still very affordable in comparison to most big cities I know of.
        So what were you trying to tell me when you wrote this article?

  5. MCW June 5, 2014 at 2:10 pm

    METRO has proposed a completely reimagined bus system to address the bus problems stated above and is the process of public review and input:

    http://www.transitsystemreimagining.com/

    This link tells you where and when public meetings are being held this month:

    http://transitsystemreimagining.com/web/meeting-schedule/

    It won’t fix all the problems listed above, but it is part of finding a solution.

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