As the average American lifespan has begun to decline and rates of obesity and preventable diseases escalate, the vehicle-centric nature of our suburban landscapes is being scrutinized. Yet, at the same time the suburban landscape is transforming, increasingly home to poorer and less mobile residents. For the first time in U.S. history the suburbs are home to a larger percentage of people living below the poverty line than urban areas. Two factors are compounding this dramatic and unprecedented demographic shift. Firstly, the increased investment in, and value of, urban living that has led to a rise in luxury redevelopment projects that replace affordable housing within the urban core. Secondly, suburban neighborhoods have been hardest hit by the foreclosure crisis. This factor, combined with an aging stock of multi-family housing, has made the suburbs increasingly affordable yet correspondingly less desirable. The impact is that economically disadvantaged households are being pushed to the periphery where they confront a sprawling landscape devoid of much needed support networks and community infrastructure. The result is the emergence of new challenges to health and quality of life in our suburban landscapes that need to be addressed to ensure that all citizens have access to equal opportunity and a healthy environment.
One of the largest challenges is the aging apartment complexes constructed in the 1970s and 1980s that are reaching the end of their useful lifespans. As these complexes age, they are more frequently home to rising populations of suburban poor. Ranking eighth in the United States, the Houston metropolitan region has one of the highest rates of suburban poverty. Between 2000 and 2010 the percentage of the poor living in suburban areas in Houston rose from 42% to 51%. This profound demographic shift can be best illustrated by the Greenspoint neighborhood. The 12-square-mile master planned community located in suburban north Houston has one of the highest concentrations of multi-family housing within the city limits, at 11,000 units. Over the last twenty years, working class families have replaced single-person professional households within the apartment complexes. As a result, population density in the neighborhood has increased by a factor of 1.5, generating significant new social, environmental, and economic challenges. For example, according to the U.S. Census, only 2,500 people below the age of 18 lived in Greenspoint in 1990. By 2000, this number had skyrocketed to over 12,400, and by 2010, it climbed yet again to 14,000 representing 36% of the total population. Over 34% of households currently live below the federal poverty level. Compounding a challenging situation, there are few basic amenities such as fresh and healthy food, pharmacies, community services, libraries, or youth programs available to Greenspoint residents. Over 24% of households do not own a car and depend solely on relatively limited public transportation. In Houston overall, there are 409,651 apartments in buildings with ten or more units, housing over 1.1 million residents. 42% of these apartments (172,053 units) were constructed between 1970 and 1989, during a period of rapid growth in the city. In an era where vouchers and subsidies compose the extent of our national low-income housing policy, this housing stock in many ways represents a new de-facto public housing infrastructure. Thus, it is increasingly subject to many of the same challenges that public housing communities faced fifty years ago. Are there new solutions for the “New Projects?”
Text: Gregory Marinic and Susan Rogers; Photo and Graphics: Andrea Gonzales and Susan Rogers