Texas' $7 billion plan to remake Houston highways once again targets homes, businesses in communities of color

Historic black neighborhoods like Independence Heights and the Fifth Ward are in the crosshairs of Houston highway plans, decades after expressways separated communities from the rest of the city.

An aerial view of I-45 and Downtown Houston on Sept. 16.

HOUSTON — Joseph Lewis is 62, but has no trouble remembering the address where he spent the first years of his life: 1221 East 30th St. But if you head to that Independence Heights neighborhood address today, you won’t find his home.

Only one block of East 30th Street, with a handful of houses, remains before the road dead ends near a Whole Foods. Lewis’ home, like many others in this neighborhood north of downtown, long ago gave way to the 610 Loop and its feeder roads.

“I remember that we didn’t like it as boys, because we were already settled there,” Lewis said.

Before the road opened, they tried to make the most of its growing construction site. That was especially true on Sundays, when Lewis and his brothers wanted to go to the neighboring St. Anne De Beaupre Catholic Church.

“We would bring cardboard boxes to slide down the dirt,” he said with a smile.

But Lewis knows now that the 610 Loop was not a playground.

“It divided us,” he said.

As has happened throughout the country, the expressways built after World War II disproportionately affected Houston’s communities of color. Independence Heights, the first municipality established by black Texans, was isolated from the rest of the city by Interstate 45 and the 610 Loop. And now the Texas Department of Transportation plans a new expansion of I-45 and other expressways in and north of the city’s urban core. Once again, that could impact communities of color, including historic black neighborhoods like Independence Heights and the Fifth Ward, as plans call for demolishing homes and businesses to accommodate more roadway space.

Vehicles on highways I-10 and I-69 pass through the Greater Fifth Ward neighborhood in Houston on Sept. 16.

The North Houston Highway Improvement Project is estimated to cost $7 billion and would add ramps, frontage roads and lanes for carpooling or transit, among other modifications. Work will focus on the downtown loop (which includes portions of Interstates 10, 45 and 69); I-45 between downtown and the 610 Loop; and I-45 north from the 610 Loop to Beltway 8.

TxDOT estimates it will need to acquire 162 single family homes, 643 multifamily units and 508 public housing units.

“At the core, this project aims to reduce congestion by improving ability and operational efficiency in I-45 and along I-10 and I-69 around downtown,” said Varuna Singh, a Houston district director for TxDOT. “Congestion is the main issue, and that is followed closely with reconstructing the corridor for current standards which will have the principal impact of improving safety.”

Of course, more lanes don’t always solve congestion. After the $2.2 billion Katy Freeway expansion, travel times have actually increased for many commuters, according to Houston’s official traffic data. It has become a textbook example of what is called “induced demand,” a term to explain why more lanes sometimes spur more traffic.

With the I-45 expansion project, some experts forecast the same outcome. They say the solution is financing more transit, rather than more highway lanes. The Public Interest Research Group, a nationwide nonprofit, declared the project one of its annual “highway boondoggles.”

This seems obvious to 93-year-old Sammie Maxie, who has lived in Independence Heights since 1943 and every night hears ambulances racing over I-45.

Highway I-45 runs along the eastern border of the Independence Heights neighborhood in Houston on Sept. 16.

“People are constantly moving to Houston. It’s constantly growing and as soon as you finish an expansion, you have to do something else,” Maxie said. “You can’t fix something that is constantly growing.”

Texas’ population growth is also fueling other urban highway projects across the state. In Austin, TxDOT will add lanes to several segments of I-35, although the project in the downtown area is not funded yet. In San Antonio, the agency might add two lanes to I-10 and make other modifications.

The Houston region’s population is expected to grow from 5.8 million to 9.6 million people between 2010 and 2040. TxDOT says that average daily traffic will grow about 39% between 2011 and 2035 in and around downtown. In the area between I-10 and I-610, traffic is projected to grow 15% in the same period.

But accommodating that is not the only goal of the project.

“There are several factors that must be addressed. One is that some of the infrastructure in this quarter is the oldest highway infrastructure in the region, in some cases in significant need of repair and replacement,” said Alan Clark, transportation planning director with the Houston Galveston Area Council (H-GAC), the regional planning authority.

Some of the northern portions of I-45 date from the 2000s. But others, like the intersection near where Lewis’ home used to be, are from the 1960s. Portions of the lanes are so narrow that tall trucks have tipped when they’ve taken the curve too fast.

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Many critics worry about where people displaced by the new project are supposed to go. Public housing residents and hundreds of renters and homeowners likely won’t be able to pay market-prices to stay in the area. And getting fair compensation has not been historically easy for people of color.

“Especially in the case of lower income communities, they tend to be paid substantially below the fair market value,” said Thomas W. Mitchell, co-director of Texas A&M University’s Program in Real Estate and Community Development Law. “This is in part because sometimes they don't have a sophisticated idea of what their property is worth, but it's also because, even if they do, they don't have the financial resources to hire attorneys to fight.”

This, added to the legacy of redlining, only worsens the wealth gap between white people and Americans of color.

“We want to keep those that are displaced by the project in the Independent Heights neighborhood,” said Carl Swonke, environmental affairs director for TxDOT. “We are making efforts to do offers for those those homeowners that would allow them to buy a comfortable place in their neighborhood so that they aren't displaced outside the community.”

Houston residents push back

The Houston-Galveston Area Council in July discussed earmarking $100 million for the segment of the project that goes between downtown and the 610 Loop. Such hearings typically happen during work hours and don’t garner much attention.

“But the room was full, and not of the usual engineers and lobbyists who come to watch and see where the money is going so they can plan what's next,” said Oni Blair, executive director of LINK Houston, a non-profit focused on transit and mobility issues.

Many of the residents who showed up wore red stickers asking to delay the vote.

“A lot of them were people of color. There was a lot of energy,” Blair said.

For more than four hours, residents either asked for the project to halt or slow down so neighborhood impacts could be addressed.

An aerial view of the Greater Mt. Olive Missionary Baptist Church in Houston on Sept. 16, 2019.
An aerial view of the Clayton Homes complex near I-45 in Houston on Sept. 16, 2019.

The $100 million earmark was approved. But for many, this wasn’t complete defeat: the council also approved $50 million for potential sound barriers, sidewalk projects and other mitigation work in the neighborhoods surrounding the project.

“We did not lose. It caught the attention of everybody. Especially it caught the attention of the media, not just in Houston but around the state. And those $50 million weren’t designated for those communities beforehand,” Blair said.

For decades during the 20th Century, when the interstate system started plowing through urban neighborhoods, local residents’ voices weren’t heard.

In a 1944 issue of the black newspaper The Informer, coverage of the Gulf Freeway was accompanied by the headlines “Highway to replace homes” and “Owners in Furore Over Prospect of Being ‘Pushed’ Out.”

The editorial page of the paper suggested an alternative route for the planned highway, one that would avoid displacing black families.

“The process of repeating a highway expansion that goes through a community, takes away homes and displaces people is not new,” Blair said. “People coming together to say ‘enough is enough’ is something different.”

The current expansion plans are dividing mayoral candidates on the Nov. 5 campaign trail.

Mayor Sylvester Turner, up for a second term, has called the expansion the “biggest transportation project that most of us in Houston will see in our lifetime." Although he has said that it is not a perfect project, he has defended TxDOT for listening to Houstonians about ways to improve it.

City Council member and mayoral candidate Dwight Boykins said during the HGAC meeting that TxDOT should start from scratch — after its designers visit neighborhoods around the highways to see how they’ll be impacted.

Mayoral candidate Bill King said he’s concerned about how the project will impact the east end, the near north side, Independence Heights and the Fifth Ward. Others want to see the project scrapped altogether.

“I think we should learn from history that no neighborhood should have to experience the consequences from construction of expressways — every neighborhood should be protected equally in the future so that this never happens again,” said former council member and mayoral candidate Sue Lovell.

"Collateral damage"

Joetta Stevenson, president of the Greater Fifth Ward Super Neighborhood Association, remembers walking around and seeing the black-owned businesses up and down Lyons Avenue and Jenson Drive.

“When these freeways started coming through, it pretty much killed the commerce,” Stevenson said.

Her neighborhood, five minutes away from downtown, was destroyed in the name of traffic mitigation.

“We became collateral damage,” she said.

The cover of the black newspaper The Informer, in August 1944, protested the building of the Gulf Freeway.

The Fifth Ward is already sliced and flanked by I-10, I-59 and train tracks. Now an extension of the Hardy Toll Road is currently under construction in the area, too.

Farther up north, in Independence Heights, residents feel like their neighborhood's legacy has been forgotten.

“We are a historic community, the first municipality established by African Americans in the state of Texas,” said Tanya Debose, executive director of the Independence Heights Redevelopment Council.

Yet, when Debose read the initial project reports, she was surprised at the lack of recognition of her neighborhood’s historic importance. She would go from page to page, finding references to other communities, but not much about hers. “And I was going ‘what tha… Are they just poking the bear?’” she said.

Debose wants the housing lost to the latest expansion to be replaced. So far, TxDOT is looking at adding signs or gateway features to denote the neighborhood’s presence and role in Texas history.

Texas spends far more on highway construction than it does on public transit or affordable housing programs. And the $7 billion TxDOT plans to spend on the Houston projects would likely go to roads one way or another. In 2014 and 2015 Texas voters approved amendments to its Constitution that improved the capacity of TxDOT to get funding, but these funds just go to highways.

“If Houston decides they don't want the highway improvements, the funding will ultimately be re-allocated to highway improvements in other areas of our region or the state,” TxDOT engineer Quincy D. Allen wrote in a post in the blog of the Kinder Institute at Rice University. “Imagine where that would leave Houston in addressing congestion in the nation's fourth-largest city.”

Leverage and saving what's left

Only minutes away from downtown, right next to railway tracks and an empty lot, the dusty alley that is Grayson Street lays in the shade of I-69. There, four shotgun houses sit amid the infinite noise of traffic.

“I bought them in May 1995. In those days, this was all about to fall down. But I fixed them. I slowly paid all of it, little by little,” said 67-year-old landscaper Reinaldo Olivares.

After a Saturday working in others people’s lawns, he showed up here to fix one of his tenants’ pipes.

An aerial view of four houses next to I-45 near downtown Houston on Sept. 16, 2019.

Olivares knows the expressway expansion will likely mean that he will have to sell. He received some papers with information, but he doesn’t speak English, so he just passed them along to a friend who is helping him make sense of his options.

"This is good for me, because I’m old and I can’t keep coming here taking care of the houses," he said. "But the people that rent here are happy here, it’s all so close to downtown."

For Olivares, this might become his retirement plan, but others in the area worry about having another layer of pressures that might kick them out of their neighborhood. Many blocks in these areas were flooded after Hurricane Harvey and local agencies like the city and the Harris County Flood Control District have started offering buyouts — most times voluntary — that would remove houses, replacing them with open spaces that improve drainage. That means more and more people could have to leave the area. On top of that, as the demand for living in the urban core of Houston increases, residents in Independence Heights and the Fifth Ward are afraid of being priced out of their neighborhoods.

Olivares also understands it could be difficult to get a good return on his investment.

“It’s way too expensive for me to pay for a commercial appraisal, which would help,” he says. “But I can’t afford it.”

TxDOT aims to publish the final environmental assessment report on the project by the end of the year, but the segment that circles downtown won’t start construction before late 2021. It’s estimated that it will take seven years to complete.

“Many people have to say yes for a project to happen. And sometimes it only takes one group or organization to say no to prevent it from happening,” said Clark, transportation planning director with H-GAC. “These are the kind of checks and balances that are built in to decision making on transportation projects.”

In Independence Heights, Tanya Debose wants the history of the neighborhood to be respected and she wants her neighbors to be able to stay if they want that.

“We will try to use our leverage to move public policy towards making it more equitable,” Debose said. “Houston calls itself the most diverse city, but what will happen if all of us are gone from the inner city? But we still have an opportunity to save what’s left.”