City Project Fights Urban Blight, Increases Tax Roles

Started three years ago as a pilot project shortly after Mayor Bill White took office, Project Houston Hope has blossomed into a full-fledged program that's fighting urban blight in some of the city's most neglected areas. Houston Public Radio's Jack Williams has an update.

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One of the major components of Project Houston Hope is the city foreclosing on abandoned or tax delinquent properties, mostly empty lots, in 9 neighborhoods, places like Denver Harbor, Northside Village and Sunnyside. So far, around 650 lots have been acquired by the city, with about a 1000 more in the foreclosure pipeline. Steve Tinnerman runs the project for the Mayor's office.

"Over the years what's happened is that these properties have simply contributed to blight in the neighborhoods. You couldn't buy them, you couldn't sell them. The owners basically had walked away and the city encountered expenses in terms of cutting weeded lots and having to remove any abandoned buildings and the like so through this program, this has been a way of getting re-control of these properties and bringing them back on the tax roles with the goal of revitalizing these neighborhoods."

On average, the foreclosed-on lots have been tax delinquent for 17 years and in many cases the city can't even locate owners. Now, the city is selling those lots to community development corporations, which are developing the properties into affordable housing. Tinnerman says there are about 20,000 tax delinquent lots in Houston.

"It's unfortunate that we've gotten ourselves to this point where there are so many lots that are tax delinquent but in terms of a resource for helping to revitalize the neighborhoods and for building affordable housing, it's an asset at this point."

Another component of the project is to make sure the lots and homes built on them don't fall into disrepair again. This is Mayor Bill White.

"Every lot that receives any public assistance, home funding, will be deed restricted and in addition to that our goal, and we have an operating plan, it to get every owner of residential property, whether they be owner occupied or rental, to sign deed restrictions and file them."

The only entities eligible to participate in the project with the city right now are community development corporations and charitable organizations that have affordable housing missions, like Habitat for Humanity. City councilwoman Ada Edwards says Project Houston Hope is about more than just developing empty lots.

"Not only are we building houses though, we're building economies because when I see the CDC's working with builders from the community that are then hiring people from the community and that money is starting to turn around in the community. It's not only about building a house. There's an economy that's being built that for a good part will stay within that community."

The city has strict guidelines for homes that can be built on the lots, with maximum construction costs of $99,000 and mortgages and taxes that total no more than about $950 a month.

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