A generation ago, a documentary revealed an unseen housing crisis in Houston

FEATURES :  Apr. 23, 2023 HOUSING

James Blue and Adele Santos

In 1979, a documentary filmmaker and an architect trained both of their lenses on Houston’s housing crisis. The result was a film that could have easily been made today, as housing costs, inflation and demographic change continue to reshape the region. It is also a film that demands a second viewing.

A hand loads a video tape into a large gray Betamax machine, and the audience immediately begins to see and hear people from Houston. Then the camera cuts to a man sitting in a film editing room, eyeing a wall of tapes behind him.

“These are video cassettes. There are almost 180 on these shelves—about 75 hours of program. And in each one, someone in Houston has told us something or showed us something about an aspect of the city that is invisible to many of us. … If we could probe through all this material, finding the pieces and putting them together somehow, we could make the invisible city visible. Let me show you what I mean.”

This is how James Blue introduces his documentary film series “The Invisible City: Houston's Housing Crisis.” It aired in 1979 in six parts on Channel 8, the PBS affiliate. A production of the South West Alternate Media Project, or SWAMP—a group that continues to support independent films—the documentary was a successor to Blue’s previous effort to understand displacement and disinvestment in a historic black community, “Who Killed Fourth Ward?” in 1977.

It would also be one of Blue’s last projects.

By the time he had come to Houston—first to the University of St. Thomas, then to the nascent Rice Media Center—Blue was a highly regarded filmmaker who had taught the likes of Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, and had been nominated for an Academy Award for his 1968 documentary, “A Few Notes on our Food Problem.” To have this talent in Houston in the 1970s—made possible by John and Dominique de Menil—was auspicious.

Houston was in the midst of a decade of spectacular growth and change. The metro area added about a million people between 1970 and 1980. The New York Times noted Houston was the fastest-growing city of the decade, with 1978 possibly being its peak, adding 97,000 people that year alone. This decade of population growth coincided with other economic gains, the Times reported: The city’s bank holdings quadrupled to $24 billion, office space more than tripled to 100 million square feet, and more than 670,000 jobs were created.

Amid this decade of apparent prosperity, another reality was obscured. A city report found that about 60% of the homes in low-income neighborhoods were experiencing significant structural damage. Occupancy statistics showed that Houston had a worse overcrowding problem than New York City. Mortgage interest rates of around 11% and increasing construction costs were pushing homeownership out of reach of more working-class people.

It was in this climate that Blue met Adèle Santos, an architect and professor at Rice, who prompted Blue to dig deeper into these housing issues.

“James Blue was a good friend of mine,” Santos said via a Zoom call in March 2023, having been asked to reflect on the film. “I went to him after he’d done the Fourth Ward films … and said, ‘What do you think of this? Would you be interested?’ and he said, ‘Absolutely.’”

Fortunately, “Invisible City” was not lost to time. The film lives on, thanks to the Knight Library at the University of Oregon, which houses James Blue’s collection of work and uploaded his films to YouTube. In 2018, the Houston Cinema Arts Society hosted a screening of Part 6, a one-hour epilogue that summarizes the findings of the previous five parts.

But it is not nearly as widely known as it should be.

As a representation of urban planning and journalism working hand in hand, it is uniquely inspiring. It’s also a film that ought to be required viewing to better understand this city.

Homes in the Invisible City

The contours of a crisis

On tape, Blue explains, first as the narrator, then with Santos speaking: “This all began when Adele Santos came and said to me: ‘I perceive a real crisis that exists here, and a worse crisis — if that is possible — is going to occur unless something is done about it.’”

The two secured a grant from Texas Humanities to pursue a documentary exploring Houston’s housing woes, particularly in inner-city neighborhoods but also the sprawling suburbs, where cheap new homes were being erected “like cereal boxes,” as one potential homeowner described them on the film.

“We had no idea what we were getting into,” said Santos, who spent much of her career helping to envision affordable housing across the world and eventually became dean of architecture at MIT. “Once we started filming and going around and talking to people, we kept saying, ‘My God.’”

Santos’s working hypothesis was that Houston had two major issues: “an exceedingly short supply of homes—and racism laid over on top of that.” The filmmakers found ample evidence of both.

In one interview, Osci Johnson says she lives with eight others in a two-bedroom house in Fifth Ward because it was the only way to make ends meet:

“It really gets to be a bug sometimes. It looks like 20 people rather than nine. … In order to make it, moneywise, healthwise and allwise, we had to move together, stick together, move together in order just to exist.”

This was occurring at the same time that thousands of homes were being demolished in inner-city neighborhoods, many of which could have been salvaged with repairs costing $6,000 to $10,000, a city official tells the filmmakers. By comparison, a new unit of housing cost about $40,000 to build at the time. An estimated 3 to 5 homes were being abandoned every day in the city—homes that could have been made livable.

“I’m very afraid that if there is not an accelerated effort to create new housing for low-income people and to rehabilitate the units in which low-income people now live, I’m very afraid that we’re headed for a deplorable situation, a deplorable housing situation.” — Roberta Burroughs, Houston Planning Department.

In another interview, a candid developer explains that some houses in the wards are being relocated—whole houses moved from their foundations—to Montrose and other desirable areas to be renovated and resold for less than buying a home that already exists in the neighborhood.

“We have gone out to used house lots, just like a used car lot. … The cheapest one we bought was $90. … We move them on-site and we upgrade them. … They come from all over.” — Steven Rudy of Creative Restorations.

Another set of issues confronted Houston’s growing immigrant population, particularly Spanish speakers, who were at risk of being exploited or forced to live in unhealthy, dilapidated dwellings.

These are just a few voices from Part 1. The “Invisible City” comprises six parts in total—five episodes followed by a one-hour summary film. As one can imagine, these perspectives quickly become overwhelming. But sitting through it and listening to each perspective reveals sides of Houston that are out of sight and out of mind for many people, even to this day.

The braintrust

To help make sense of what they were learning from these on-the-street interviews, Santos and Blue recruited a panel of researchers, professors and policymakers — “people who were skilled at looking at the problems of society,” as Blue put it. The resulting effect is not unlike a graduate-school seminar in sociology, segregation and housing policy.

The panel and interviews are a who’s-who of Houston’s community and housing braintrusts, with experts in economics, sociology, political science, and flood control: Stephen Klineberg of Rice, Naomi Ledé of Texas Southern University, Bart Smith of the University of Houston, Philip Bedient and Jim Blackburn of Rice, Tom Lord of the nonprofit Houston Housing Corp., and Roberta Burroughs, a planner with the city of Houston, among dozens of others.

Looking back on the film, Klineberg said being included as a young faculty member at Rice made Houston’s urban inequality painfully real to him.

“We were aware of it intellectually, but it was a deeply segregated world, a deeply divided world, and it was largely divided by ethnicity,” Klineberg said. “It was an eye-opener, and it was also a confirmation of what I thought was wrong with this city. … Houston could have almost gotten away with it, because it is the most spread-out, it’s the least dense compared to these other American cities. You can live here and never see it. I may never have seen it until James Blue showed us.”

Many of these experts—captured as young professionals in the film—would go on to dedicate much of their lives to understanding and solving Houston’s biggest problems. Klineberg founded the Houston Area Survey and co-founded the Kinder Institute for Urban Research. Ledé founded the ​​Center for Transportation Training and Research at TSU. Smith became Houston’s preeminent economic forecast guru, founding the Institute for Regional Forecasting at UH. Bedient and Blackburn remain among the region’s leading experts on flood control and formed the Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disaster (SPEED) Center. Lord helped to reform Houston’s antiquated building code and worked on the problem of affordable housing for over 40 years. Burroughs committed her career to community planning and was recognized as a Texas Planning Legend in 2022.

It makes viewing the documentary all the more frustrating to know that Houston had the expertise and insight into the problems confronting the city—but lacked the overwhelming political will and commitment to contend with it.

“This was a city with almost no redeeming virtues,” Klineberg said. “People were making money … but there was a total lack of serious attention to the future.”

Affordability and livability were the dual housing crises that the film contends with, but there was another vulnerability Houston needed to face but would not: flood risk. Creeping development outside the city clearly posed threats to critical watersheds. In fact, the filmmakers happen to document a flooding event in 1979: Tropical Storm Claudette.

In “Invisible City,” Bedient criticized the buildout of the flood-prone Alief prairie—now he’s helping preserve what is left of the Katy prairie, even further west. In an especially prescient warning, a young Jim Blackburn tells the filmmakers:

“In the long term, if some kind of action is not taken in the area of drainage, the potential for real disaster in Houston is tremendous. I think you could be talking about a disaster on the order of several billion dollars … something that could destroy hundreds of thousands of homes. It would be an unprecedented disaster certainly in the history of Houston … and would probably be one of the largest disasters of this type in the United States.”

Stepping forward, then stumbling

The 1970s happened to be one of the most opportune times to address the problems of housing and segregation in Houston. Not only was the city in the midst of an oil-fueled economic boom with billions of dollars in capital flowing to the city, but Houston had also recently become eligible for the first time to use federal funds for affordable housing construction and preservation.

The camera tracks a packed station wagon barreling down the road with kids in the back, New York license plates in the front and a small camper in tow. Blue, or someone else behind the camera, hollers at them as their car pulls up alongside. The screen flashes with a caption: The Dave Page Family.

“What are you doing down here? Are you visiting?”

“No,” the man behind the wheel shouts back. “We’re down looking for a job.”

“Do you live around here?”

“Yes … I hope so, anyways.”

The Pages were among the thousands of people showing up to Houston every week looking for a chance at better circumstances — a decent-paying job and an affordable home. Their plan was to live in the camper until steady work could be found. That would be the relatively easy part; finding an affordable apartment or home for a family of five was another story. (In fact, they ended up living with Santos for several days.)

The demand for housing within reach of the working class—and the shortage of supply—created two problems: rising prices and even further reduced housing stock for those lower on the income ladder. As the film points out, this challenge becomes a near impossibility for Black people and Spanish-speaking immigrants, forcing them into even less ideal housing situations, living in overcrowding units, buildings in disrepair or in non-residential structures.

“The low-income person is in a no-win situation, absolutely none. The private sector cannot—in the absence of either federal subsidies or through philanthropy—provide housing for the low-income that would be acceptable shelter.” — David Sawyer of Sawyer Development Co.

Prior to this decade, federal housing loans required municipal zoning, which the city famously eschews. In fact, from 1952 to about 1968, Houston built no publicly subsidized housing. (Unsurprisingly, this setback persists: Houston had around 24,000 subsidized units in 2021; similarly-sized Chicago had more than four times as many.)

“We’re still struggling to meet the need that existed in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s simply because nothing occurred here for 20 years,” the Houston Housing Authority’s William McClelland tells the filmmakers after one of his colleagues notes the city has a housing waitlist of well over 14,000. “We’re playing catch-up, which we will never do.”

From 1968 to 1974, the city was able to build 10,000 units of affordable housing for low- to moderate-income households. Then a Republican federal administration imposed a moratorium on the program, and political support shifted toward Section 8 vouchers instead—which while supply was constrained, had the effect of increasing competition for existing units.

“So in the midst of all this success, it came to a halt. So in ‘74, ‘75, ‘76, we went almost to zero in terms of housing for the poor.” — Tom Lord, Houston Housing Corp.

In the late 1970s, Community Development Block Grants allocated to Houston gave it more than $200 million to put toward revitalizing homes and neighborhoods, nearly 10 times the amount received four years prior. The only problem? Progress was too slow; advocates said the city lacked the staff expertise in handling such a large infusion, leading to bottlenecks. The film notes that out of 750 households identified for rehabilitation, just 60 had been completed after three years.

If this sounds familiar, it should: Three years after Hurricane Harvey, a federal audit found the city had only spent 1.8% of its CBDG funds and assisted just 297 out of 8,784 housing program participants.

“That’s because the city never took this very seriously—using federal monies effectively. We’re still learning how to do that, sadly,” Klineberg said.

Compounding this, a younger version of Klineberg points out in the film, is the severe underinvestment in local services, from trash pickup to police to education. Or as his fellow panelist Bill Simon puts it:

“We are a welfare-dependent city. Virtually everything above the absolute minimum comes from the federal treasury. We’re a beggar city, and we aren’t even very good at begging.”

These decisions reflected a willful indifference toward lower-income people and people of color. Naomi Ledé of TSU argues this approach, carried to its logical conclusion, leaves an entire city unknown to itself:

“They become totally invisible to the extent that we only know them as a statistic, not as human beings. And once this occurs, then the whole city in essence can become invisible by virtue of neglect.”

These were the kinds of vulnerabilities that would be exposed by the 1980s oil bust, when hundreds of thousands of jobs would disappear and one in eight Houstonians would be unemployed.

“Nothing fails quite like success,” Klineberg said. It was this boom-to-bust transition that prompted him to continue the Houston survey, which has been going on 40-plus years. “It was one of our wake-up calls as a city that what we were doing was not sustainable.”

‘We’re not like that’

Santos: We’re going to call this film “The Invisible City,” because we believe people don’t know what’s out there.

Hazel Patten: They don’t. That’s a fact. Then you go to Third Ward, Fourth Ward, Fifth Ward, Acres Homes—you just don’t think you’re living in the same place.

After the first episode aired, the filmmakers fielded phone calls from incredulous viewers who believed they did not accurately portray the city: “We’re not like that,” one said. Another said the residents who want better housing conditions ought to simply work harder to pull themselves out of poverty. These comments only confirmed the filmmakers’ thesis: Much of Houston is invisible to its own residents.

This is perhaps why “Invisible City,” is so powerful. It is a masterclass in participatory journalism, a storytelling method that centers community voices and questions in ways that open the eyes of the filmmakers and the viewer along the way.

Blue and Santos used their own ignorance about the extent of Houston’s social problems as a proxy for their viewers’ ignorance. They did not merely talk about the problems; they showed them through footage of neighborhood decay and the voices of residents, and they probed these findings through the informed perspectives of experts. They connected symptoms to systems.

And over the course of several weeks in late 1979 in Houston, the film brought a fuller picture of reality into focus. But did anything change?

“It’s hard to say of course. Obviously, affordable housing is a challenge everywhere. … And it has to do with, what do we as a society believe? Does everyone deserve housing or not? Everything flows through what we value,” said Santos, who worked on the problem of affordable housing throughout her career.

The series culminates in a town hall episode. Blue moderates a discussion with several elected officials on the stage, as an audience of residents and stakeholders — many who appeared in previous interviews — listen with varying expressions of confusion and frustration. As questions are posed and solutions discussed, the hope for a profound collective call to action seems to evaporate.

The problems, now extensively documented and well understood, now seem to be too overwhelming to confront.

“It made things somewhat more difficult to hide. The only thing that is clear by the end of it,” Klineberg said, “is that Houston must have a different strategy than minimum government. Houston must have a plan. It must think about its future in more intentional ways. The issues have only become more complex, not less. And nothing is going to stop the demographic change that will define the next 30 years of Houston.”

Houston would go on to build more housing, with the metro area permitting hundreds of thousands of units in the 1980s. Many of these built-cheap-and-fast apartments now comprise the vast majority of the city’s so-called “naturally occurring” affordable housing stock. Unfortunately, many of these units need significant improvements or repairs to remain livable quarters. Meanwhile, another 30,000 units of federally assisted housing in Harris County could lose their subsidies over the next 20 years, unless the owners of those properties choose to renew their terms with the government.

Surely, Houston has made progress since the making of “Invisible City,” but the same documentary could easily be made today. After all, relative to other cities, Houston is continually billed as “affordable,” but the region still has a severe shortage of affordable housing units for the people who live here, as has been documented by Kinder Institute research and the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Homeownership, perceived as a fading dream in 1979, is even further out of the reach of moderate-income families. Houston is a majority-renter city, and Harris County will soon follow suit. Developers continue to reshape and redefine communities; even gentrifiers are being gentrified. We are also in the midst of a potential housing expansion as developers try to keep up with wider regional growth. In 2022, the Houston area registered more housing permits than any other year since 1982.

In the town hall episode, the series’ ultimate conclusion, Houston Housing Authority Director William McClelland puts forward a challenge that hangs in the air today: “We’re at the point now that we’ve got a serious housing problem, and the question becomes, are we going to abdicate that now to somebody else to solve, or are we going to solve it ourselves?”

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