June is a junk waste month in Houston. So a week after the city’s solid waste department hauled off most of the neighborhood’s bulky piles of trash stacked by the curb, Ann Samuels spends her Tuesday morning doing a sweep of the streets near her home in Fifth Ward. It’s better than usual but she still finds 27 lots, which she jots down in pen on a piece of paper on her clipboard, with some sort of issue, including standing water, overgrown weeds and trash. On one lot alone she counts 20 tires.
“I take the address and I take pictures,” she said. “Some of the areas, I know by heart when I see them on the pictures.”
At her kitchen table, she goes through the list, matching photos with descriptions to submit to the city’s service request system. Around the neighborhood, Samuels, 71, has earned the nickname Ms. First Lady, enforcing her philosophy: “you make your place look good and people respect it.”
Because solid waste will only pick up junk from occupied residences or vacant lots if the junk has to do with the lot’s maintenance, there’s still trash left behind even during a junk waste month. A blue sofa missing its cushions. A waterlogged mattress. Another couch. The debris of human life left at the side of the road by anonymous people; some passing through the neighborhood, others living right next door. Together, it creates a haunting effect.
This is where Cynthia Bailey and her crew come in. Born and raised in Houston, she said she saw illegal dumping getting worse in her own northeast neighborhood and began calling her council member, Jerry Davis, to complain a little over a year ago. Now she and three others who were also frustrated with the trash in their neighborhoods work as a roaming city cleanup crew as part of a pilot program covering parts of District B. Driving through Kashmere Gardens, just north of Fifth Ward, Bailey parks a white City of Houston truck on a narrow residential street lined on either side with open ditches. If the illegally dumped trash is in a ditch or on the street, it’s fair game. But if it’s further from the road on private property, like the pile at least three feet tall in a gravel lot on the corner, they can’t touch it. Other than that, they get everything heavy trash pickup doesn’t.
Nails stick out of the boards piled in front of an empty lot on a residential street. With gloves on, Tracy Shephard, Constance Robertson and Alfred Gentry start clearing the debris. The junk is clearly from a home that got torn down but there’s no sign of such a place anywhere around. Meaning whoever did it, drove to that street, saw an empty lot, with just the block beginnings of a house on it, and dumped the wood. A busted dresser sits in the ditch as well. Bailey’s team was just here three days ago to clear a similar pile. In Kashmere Gardens, Bailey said, the trash comes back quick but she’s noticed it’s a little slower in Fifth Ward, where it seems like their efforts, along with the work of Samuels and local groups, are working.
It’s a tangled issue, with its roots in decades of discriminatory federal housing policies and local decisions, like those that tended to locate city dumps in black neighborhoods and created the underinvestment that is responsible for so many of the vacant lots in those neighborhoods. And its solution seems equally tangled at the city level, with responsibility split between the Department of Neighborhoods, the Solid Waste Management Department and a contracted non-profit that provides cleanup equipment to volunteer groups across the city. Enforcement falls partially to the city, with the Department of Neighborhoods ticketing people who put heavy trash out too early, as well as the police, with an environmental crimes unit charged with investigating illegal dumping and monitoring 25 surveillance cameras placed in undisclosed locations in collaboration with the county.
Reenergized community groups and the new city pilot program taking aim at illegal dumping offer promise for what has proven to be an intractable problem not only in Fifth Ward and Kashmere Gardens but in many of Houston’s neighborhoods.
Like other Houston neighborhoods, Fifth Ward is a neighborhood in transition. The three-story townhomes that have become synonymous with gentrification have started to pop up on some blocks, scattered between older homes and the vacant lots and boarded up homes that present a constant challenge for Samuels and others. With neighborhood newcomers, including a growing Hispanic population, there are also efforts by longtime residents and community organizations to preserve the area’s history through projects like the recent renovation and reopening of the DeLuxe Theater, while also trying to shed the neighborhood’s more recent reputation for crime.
Though Samuels said she’s seen positive change from the city since moving back to her childhood neighborhood more than 20 years ago, the latest round of promises include echoes from those made by other administrations over the years.
In 2016, the issue of illegal dumping came into focus as the city and county worked to curb the threat of Zika virus. City health department officials went door to door handing out insect repellent and the solid waste department cleaned up the piles of trash that provided the perfect breeding ground for mosquitos. The city described the neighborhoods targeted as “underserved.”
A map of nuisance calls to the city made between May 31, 2016 and May 31, 2017 shows the concentration of these complaints in only some Houston neighborhoods.
But trash and illegal dumping have been near constants in Houston’s city government.
In 1977, the Houston Chronicle wrote about the beginnings of a “long range program to clean up trash and litter in the city” in the mayor’s office. “Some slobs don’t just throw a cigarette package,” a spokesman for the state Department of Highways and Public Transportation told the newspaper. “They leave a dead horse by the side of the road.”
Even before then, trash made headlines in Houston.
In the 1940s, for example, Mayor Oscar Holcombe created his “Clean City” campaign largely focused on downtown sidewalks. In 1955, Mayor Roy Hofheinz’s efforts earned a Houston Chronicle story titled “Mayor Declares War on Illegal Trash Dumping,” following a rise in violations after the city introduced a fee to use the Holmes Road dump in southeast Houston. A month later, the newspaper followed up with another story “Cops to War on Garbage Dumpers.”
Later, Mayor Lewis Cutrer passed an anti-littering ordinance in 1960. And in an effort dubbed Operation Sparkle, Mayor Louie Welch partnered with the Chamber of Commerce to pick up heavy trash weekly in April of 1967. In 1988, Mayor Kathy Whitmire kicked off a campaign promising stricter enforcement of anti-littering and illegal dumping laws. Then, in 1993, the city council considered impounding the vehicles of people caught illegally dumping on the more than 700 sites estimated across the city.
In 2006, Mayor Bill White told a Kashmere Gardens crowd that part of his three-part plan to revitalize neighborhoods that some people “may have written off” included reducing illegal trash dumping and other cleanup efforts. White touted his “zero-tolerance policy” that came with potentially steep fines for people who put heavy trash out ahead of schedule.
A common refrain in these promises for action on illegal dumping is a simultaneous admonishment of the neighborhoods where it often occurs. “We can give you the instruments,” Bill White said to the people gathered in Kashmere Gardens, “But if there is no band to play, there won’t be any music.”
And to some extent, it’s true that the residents can make a difference. Erica Hubbard, president of the Progressive Fifth Ward Community Association, says she’s been pleased with the response from 311, which she and Samuels call to report illegal dumping whenever they go on sweeps of the neighborhood. After moving to the neighborhood two years ago, her own struggle with an overgrown vacant lot across the street from her house is still unresolved but she said generally 311 is a useful resource in her fight to clean up the neighborhood. And she said part of her effort is simply educating her neighbors on when to put heavy trash out, so it doesn’t sit for weeks and attract illegal dumping before pickup.
The city agrees that more reporting and better education around heavy trash pickup is critical.
“A lot of our concern around illegal dumping has had to focus on, how do we change mindsets,” said TaKasha Francis, director of the Department of Neighborhoods. “Just a simple sense of what’s right and what’s wrong to do.”
The city is cash-strapped but growing, she said, citing the revenue cap that Mayor Sylvester Turner hopes to repeal. That has meant gaps in service for some and keeps the city from doing more frequent heavy trash pick ups and ticketing. “For a city our size, it’s definitely worth the investment,” said Francis. “I don’t know that we’ve ever really put that kind of investment in.”
But she said she also puts the responsibility on the neighborhoods themselves. “Quite interestingly enough,” said Francis, “you don’t see illegal dumping in more affluent neighborhoods and part of the reason why is because they know people won’t tolerate it.”
Part of the reason is also a difference in resources. River Oaks, for example, has its own private security patrolling the affluent neighborhood night and day.
Though Hubbard agreed that some of her Fifth Ward neighbors could do more, she said she began to wonder about the root of the problem.
“This should not be the dumping place,” said Hubbard. “We started thinking about what the real reasons are behind this. You get angry about it because this is your home, this is the place you live and raise your children and someone feels they have the right to come dump whatever.” More than that, she said, it sends a message when the city is slow to respond that it doesn’t care about that neighborhood, which in turn can fuel disengagement from citizens who either explicitly or implicitly understand that the neighborhoods the city recognizes as “underserved” got that way because the city underserved them.
“Black Houston,” wrote Robert Bullard, professor at Texas Southern University, in his book Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality, “has had to contend with a disproportionately large share of garbage dumps, landfills, salvage yards, automobile ‘chop’ shops, and a host of other locally unwanted land uses.”
By design, he argued, black and sometimes Hispanic neighborhoods, like those in northeast Houston, became the dumping grounds for the city.
Plastic bags and trash litter the grass on the road to the city dump just north of Kashmere Gardens. Before making the left turn just ahead of the railroad tracks to enter the facility, visitors to the site drive by piles of old tires, bits of busted electronics and other trash scattered by the side of the road. Though residents can use the city dump, one of six across the city, up to four times per month with a valid license and utility bill, the dump is closed on Monday and Tuesday. “It was closed when they came,” said Bailey about the illegal dumping just outside the dump, “so they just threw it out.”
There are other pressures that explain the reoccurring piles in the neighborhoods surrounding the dump. Residents can only dump up to five tires there, so tire shops with many more often just leave them by the side of the road somewhere to avoid paying the fee businesses are charged to use another city facility. Bailey and her crew once cleared 46 tires from one lot alone.
Construction crews do the same with their debris, sometimes dumping their junk in the same gentrifying neighborhoods where they’re building.
The many vacant lots in places like Fifth Ward and Kashmere Gardens also help attract illegal dumping. That’s why Samuels and Hubbard are working to join the Department of Neighborhood’s Mow Down program, which, through a contract with the Keep Houston Beautiful non-profit, will pay groups $50 per lot that they mow. Keep Houston Beautiful also gets funding from the city to maintain a warehouse of equipment that volunteer community groups can then use during their own cleanups. Houston residents can also pay an extra fee for a bag to remove heavy trash from their house off heavy trash schedule. Or they can call 311 and someone from the city’s abatement team, a small operation, will start the process of citing the property owner of the lot. But Samuels and Hubbard both get frustrated waiting on that to play out.
And so, inevitably, part of the burden falls on citizens in some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city to deal with the trash.
There have been some positive changes over the years, like the switch to the larger, city-supplied trash cans rather than making residents supply their own, remembered Robin Blut, the executive director of Keep Houston Beautiful. And the county-city collaboration to install the 25 surveillance cameras in 2016 has helped with enforcement.
But it’s a persistent problem that tends to afflict only some Houston neighborhoods.
“I find that this mayor is very interested in the neighborhood issues that are based on keeping the neighborhoods clean,” said Blut, “he seems to really have his heart and focus on that.”
Turner’s much-anticipated Complete Communities initiative, unveiled in April still has few details but its loosely-sketched aims are broad, including everything from increased affordable housing and employment opportunities. It is focused in just five historically underserved pilot neighborhoods. During the April kickoff, the mayor said part of the initiative, which does not include any new funding from the city, will include heavy trash sweeps and enhanced weed abatement in those targeted neighborhoods.
Neither Fifth Ward nor Kashmere Gardens was on the list.
Instead Davis’ staff is hopeful a recently approved $310,000 pilot program called “Between the 10’s,” which includes funding for four crews like Bailey’s for at least one year as well as $50,000 for the county for additional surveillance cameras, will help make a dent in the problem there. “It was like Complete Communities before Complete Communities was cool,” is how former Davis staffer Jeremy Harris put it. Harris, now chief of staff with council member Mike Laster, helped put together a task force that eventually led to the pilot program. But it will take continued effort beyond a pilot program. “As soon as you take your foot off the gas, it just ignites again,” said Bryan Smart, deputy chief of staff for Davis.
In the meantime, Samuels hopes the neighborhood will take to her message. She remembers Lyons Avenue in its heyday, busy with law offices, grocery stores and hat shops, “back when that was the thing to do,” she said.
“When I was a little girl, it was all we had, we couldn’t live nowhere else,” said the retired supervisor with the postal service. Even after moving away to the suburbs when she had kids, she remembered a white brick house that caught her eye as a girl. “It was the best looking house on the block.” After her divorce, she bought it and turned it into her oasis.
“I like looking at nice things, not just my house,” she said.
When drug dealers on the corner down the street started leaving trash outside, she figured, “I can’t change them but I decided I could encourage them to take care of their area.” And so she started talking with them, asking where their families were from, letting them know she wasn’t going away and would call the city to report the trash. It worked.
Samuels and Hubbard both would like to see more enforcement from the city for the host of issues connected to illegal dumping. But they’re not waiting. In addition to their 311 sweeps, they’ve helped launch a neighborhood bike group and are looking into getting approved for the Mow Down program.
“You improve the community by example,” she said.