Photo: Juan Antonio Sorto.

One of the many communities affected by Hurricane Harvey, Northeast Houston's recovery has been slow. But one community fair that sought to flip the top-down recovery script offered hope.

It is an early Saturday morning in September and Jazmin Negrete and her younger sister are patiently waiting in line. In two and half hours, the doors of Hilliard Elementary will open.  By then, over 100 individuals are standing in line outside. Some even brought their own lawn chairs and umbrellas to ease the wait in the hot, humid summer morning. Inside, a community fair aimed at helping residents affected by Hurricane Harvey offers an opportunity for them to receive food, medical, transportation and housing assistance. 

For Negrete, a married mother of three children, the event represents a beacon of hope. But there is skepticism there too. She is hopeful that she may finally receive some assistance in rebuilding her house, which took on 2 feet of water during Harvey and is still in need of repairs one year after the storm. She has attended other events like this in the city. “Most of the community fairs make you go around a room, talk to a few organizations, but you never hear back from them afterwards,” she says of her experience. “The most I have received are free pens and candy. What led me to attend this event was a group of volunteers that came to my house last week encouraging me to come," says Negrete, "I felt a personal connection to come.” 

More than a year after Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas, residents, like Negrete, of Northeast Houston, which encompasses the communities of Fifth Ward, Kashmere, Pleasantville, Houston-Trinity Gardens, Settegast, East Houston, Homestead and East Little York, are still attempting to rebuild while also contending with ongoing issues prevalent prior to the storm. 

The 77078 zip code, which sits between Halls and Greens bayous, experienced some of the worst flooding, and has lacked the necessary attention and assistance that many other communities are receiving. Then there are the issues that seem to compound the problems: many of the residents, for example, have been struggling with parking citations from the city. Due to the extensive damages that many of their vehicles sustained during the flood, residents were often unable to move or relocate vehicles within the required 30 days, or 72 hours if they’re in a right-of-way. Adding to this hardship is a lack of adequate public transportation in the area, where many of the residents walk up to 1 mile to the nearest Metro bus stop. Data collected during the recent community fair by the Alliance, a nonprofit working to empower residents of low-income communities, and the Section of Public Health Pediatrics with Texas Children’s Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine revealed that 57 percent of households within 77078 experienced loss or sustained damages to their vehicles. “Frequent, reliable, and accessible public transportation plays a significant role in people’s access to jobs, schools, healthy food, and places to live,” according to Oni K. Blair, director of Link Houston, a nonprofit that advocates for equitable public transportation.  

While many publications have written about the hardships that Northeast Houston residents experienced as a result of the storm, fewer have highlighted the importance that grassroots efforts, nonprofits and political representation have played not only in the recovery and rebuilding process, but also in addressing ongoing needs that existed before the storm. This article seeks to acknowledge the importance of a collaborative effort among all these groups that allowed Negrete and over 1,000 individuals to receive post-Harvey assistance during the recent Northeast Houston Community Fair, and promote it as a model for future fairs. 

Photo: Juan Antonio Sorto.

As vice-chair of the Super Neighborhood Alliance and a local resident, I approached the group's grassroots organization, seeking assistance to organize an event that would help affected residents here. Board member and community activist Tomaro Bell was instrumental in bringing awareness of the hardships of the area to the City of Houston’s Department of Neighborhoods Director Takasha Francis. That awareness combined with a slow and complicated recovery effort in zip code 77078 and its surroundings led the City of Houston to organize the Northeast Houston Community Fair. According to Bell, before Hurricane Harvey, civic and grassroots organizations played a fundamental role in the distribution of information between community members and city officials and vice-versa. That network was tested after Hurricane Harvey. Contacting the various civic leaders became more difficult since many of them were themselves displaced from their homes and communities. This displacement has also created a hardship in the distribution of information by several of the city’s departments. 

In addition, the Department of Neighborhoods has been struggling to provide assistance to the communities while enforcing certain rules in order to prevent additional hazards from forming within a community. While the loss of a vehicle for a low-income family produces additional economic hardships, the health impacts associated with the accumulation of mosquitoes from stagnant water, for example, can provide long-term effects-information that most residents are not aware of,” said Francis. This type of information would normally be shared at community meetings. 

To address this gap, Francis, with the assistance of the Office of New Americans and Immigrant Communities, led by Director Terence O’Neill and team lead Rachelle Honore, organized the community fair within Northeast Houston.

The community fair would not only address Harvey-related issues, but also many other issues prevalent within Northeast Houston before the storm. For example, in Fifth Ward, many of the residents are concerned about access to affordable housing, and have mobilized through the super neighborhood, Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation, Fifth Ward Civic Club, Fifth Ward Bond and Progressive Fifth Ward Community Association. Pleasantville residents’ main concern is environmental pollution within their community, and therefore they have mobilized with the assistance of several educational institutions, including Texas Southern University and Texas A&M University, and nonprofits such as Air Alliance and Achieving Community Tasks Successfully led by Pleasantville Super Neighborhood President Bridgette Murray, who were both participants at the event. Murray said the fair served as an opportunity to share vital information that impacts every resident in Northeast Houston due to its proximity to the Port of Houston. This sentiment was shared by Leticia Ablaza, from Air Alliance, who has attended several community meetings in Northeast Houston and sees the lack of information that most residents have regarding their own environment. In Kashmere, many residents are concerned with public education and therefore a strong alumni association and the nonprofit ProUnitas Incorporated are working with the high school’s feeder pattern to address many of the community needs.

Despite the differences between these communities, there exists a common theme that I have noticed based on my personal work in these areas in Northeast Houston—residents often speak of what they see as the City of Houston’s failure to properly address issues of illegal dumping, stray animals, lack of grocery stores, lack of health care providers and lack of public transportation. On a tour of these communities before the event, I was able to help share this information with the leadership team of the Office of New Americans. That tour was not only a way to educate the department about the ongoing needs of these communities, but it also allowed the city to deviate from an often top-down approach to community planning. 

Based on my personal research as a doctoral candidate in urban planning and community development at Texas Southern University and a neighborhood resident, community fairs and things like the Harvey Recovery Centers can often fail to address and provide services that are tailored to fit the needs associated within the communities. So while the Harvey Recovery Centers provide valuable information to these communities, for example, many of the nonprofits that are participating who have received grants through the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund are limited by the amount of services and areas that they can serve, either by zip codes or region, which can foster a level of skepticism by residents like Negrete. And for neighborhoods like those inside the 77078 zip code, where the majority of the residents lack adequate transportation, many of these centers are out of reach for those in need of assistance. The Office of New Americans understood these issues and allowed each community leader to address their needs and provide suggestions on the type of vendors they wanted to see at the fair. In addition, each super neighborhood and civic club within the area was granted a table to promote their organization at the event, as a way to provide inclusion. This was a crucial step since several nonprofits, which have been performing Harvey recovery-related work, have also experienced challenges reaching grassroots and civic club leadership in Northeast Houston. According to Baylor College of Medicine assistant professor and pediatrician Suratha Elango, who is working with several nonprofits in Northeast Houston, the event allowed data to be collected in a way that will be tailored to each nonprofit’s level of services. Sharing this sort of data, agreed Fifth Ward CRC Director Kathy Flanagan Payton and Business Development Manager for the Avenue Community Development Corporation Noel Baldovino, whose nonprofits have been actively engaged in rebuilding efforts, is critical for a better understanding of the necessities of each community and household. Such information also allows nonprofits to respond quickly, fighting the sort of skepticism expressed by community members like Negrete. 

The inclusion of political leadership was another element vital to the success of the event. “Rebuilding will be a long process that will require every community stakeholder and political representative to be involved, which I saw firsthand in New Orleans and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina,” said City of Houston Council Member Amanda Edwards at the event. Even in New Orleans, she said, many residents are still rebuilding and the recovery here in Northeast Houston could be equally as long. Her presence at the fair, however, along with many canvassing events that she has led in Northeast Houston, has already allowed for the successful distribution of information, which translated to additional participants at the fair. Indeed, some progress has already been seen. “Hilliard Elementary, which reopened its doors after experiencing severe flooding, serves as a beacon of hope in the importance of the rebuilding of Northeast Houston, and the inclusion of all community stakeholders is a key to this success,” said Houston Independent School District Trustee Rhonda Skillern-Jones at the event.

The importance of the Northeast Houston Community Fair was vital not only in providing Harvey-related assistance to the community, but also in serving as a model for future fairs. As East Houston Civic Club President Marlyn Whittaker, along with the grassroots community leadership of Kimberly Lee and Viula Torgerson, who organized a community fair in the fall of 2017, illustrated, the inclusion of several local churches, played an important role in the success of the Northeast Houston Community Fair. “Churches are often considered a vital source within a community in providing rebuilding and recovery efforts after a disaster,” agreed the president of Houston-Trinity Gardens Super Neighborhood, Huey German-Wilson, who is also an active member of Trinity Gardens Church of Christ. For the fair, many of the local churches allowed the organizers to use their parking facilities as additional parking space for the fair.

The result of seven months of strategic planning and stakeholder inclusion was over 1,000 individuals who received services on September 8, 2018, with many in line more than two hours prior to the event. Residents who attended the fair have already asked when another one will take place and how they can start becoming involved within their communities. Many, like Negrete, have been contacted by several of the nonprofits who participated at the fair. 

"Not only did I receive a phone call from several nonprofits offering rebuilding assistance, but I am now working with Lone Star Legal Aid, a nonprofit offering free legal service, on transferring the title of my parents’ house to my name,” said Negrete. “In addition, I am now receiving free medical assistance that I did not know existed prior to the fair,” she said.

The speedy response to services is also thanks to a new pilot program that was created by the Section of Public Health Pediatrics along with nonprofits that attended the fair. Using the data that was gathered, the nonprofits are currently working together on unifying services that will better assist the communities in a timely manner while taking into account all the barriers that residents experienced before and after the storm, such as the lack of transportation and medical assistance. In addition, Metro has agreed to look at Northeast Houston more closely as part of MetroNext, the agency’s long-term transportation initiative currently in the works.

Perhaps the biggest outcome of the fair, though, was providing hope to an area whose residents, like Negrete, have called it home for generations and refuse to let the aftermath of Harvey negatively impact their future. 

 

Juan Antonio Sorto is a  is a doctoral candidate in the department of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University. He has written about Hurricane Harvey, Northeast Houston and his research before and began doing case management for the nonprofit Northeast Next Door Redevelopment Council in East Houston, which serves zip code 77078, following the storm.