Northeast Houston’s Super Neighborhood 48 (SN48) is a lot like some parts of North and West Philadelphia. Take, for instance, Strawberry Mansion. Both SN48 and Strawberry Mansion have 15,000+ residents, most of whom are Black, and half of whom have incomes well below the poverty level. And, as in Strawberry Mansion, the devoted residents of SN48 work hard to keep their neighborhood safe and clean in the absence of effective municipal services.
Huey Wilson’s grandparents came to SN48 — also known as Trinity / Houston Gardens / the Gardens — in the 1930s, as part of FDR’s federal Suburban Resettlement program. The neighborhood was planned to contain large single-family homes, each with a garden. Today, SN48’s 10 square miles are more sprawling than urban, the community sometimes being described as “rurban” for its mixture of rural and urban characteristics.
The Gardens have relatively little retail activity, a high density of industrial sites, and struggles with basic quality of life issues. Wilson has been president of the neighborhood association for seven years. As such, she’s “constantly advocating for assistance” from the City — help, she says, “other communities receive with little to no effort.” The Houstonian, like so many Philadelphians — especially Black residents — gets frustrated by slow or ineffective responses to 311 reports she submits to the City’s hotline. And, as for residents of North and West Philly, a lot of those reports concern illegal dumping.
The situation in Houston is strikingly similar to Philadelphia’s — but for one notable difference: Houston has a far better enforcement record.
Over the past few months, however, Wilson has been able to ease up on reporting dumpsites in her community. That’s because, over the summer, the DOJ started investigating the City of Houston’s management of illegal dumping in SN48 and other majority-Black neighborhoods as a Title VI civil rights case. The outcome of the investigation is still up in the air, but the mere presence of the DOJ has breathed new life into Houston’s solid waste bureaucracy.
“We reached the end of our rope”
In recent years, Wilson has driven by mounds of debris on almost every block in her community. She frequently sees run-of-the mill-dumping, like construction materials and household furniture. She occasionally sees more egregious offenses: piles of hundreds of tires, or the remnants of an entire house that burned down.
Wilson and her neighbors find themselves repeatedly calling 311 to report dumping at the same places. Expressing their frustrations to their Mayor (currently Sylvester Turner), they were told that when 311 reports fail to produce the desired results, they should follow up with their councilmembers — effectively shifting the burden of responsibility for a basic municipal service off of the Mayor’s shoulders and onto those of SN48 residents.
Again, the situation in Houston is strikingly similar to Philadelphia’s — but for one notable difference: Houston has a far better enforcement record. Whereas our police department has a two-person Environmental Crimes Unit, Houston has nine officers assigned to the beat. Whereas we made a record 31 arrests for illegal dumping in 2019, Houston has made as many as 301 in a single year. And Houston’s leaders appear focused on improving those already impressive numbers, installing more and more surveillance cameras to boost enforcement efforts.
Yet, according to Wilson, all those arrests and camera installations haven’t changed conditions in SN48. If anything, dumpers are getting bolder. She recently caught a man unloading debris on the median of a busy street. When she confronted him, he said, “‘the City told me I could dump here.’” She drove away, came back around to check on him — and he threw a bottle at her car. While it’s doubtful municipal officials actually told the man he could dump in SN48, it’s clear he didn’t fear punishment for doing so.
For Wilson, enforcement data is irrelevant as long as there is pile after pile of trash in the street. She says it’s a status quo that wouldn’t be tolerated in wealthier, Whiter sections of her city. And she’s had enough. “Everybody’s pissed about this,” she says. “We reached the end of our rope on this thing.”
“Better days are surely coming.”
To be exact, Wilson and her fellow SN48 residents reached the end of their rope in 2018, when they started working with Lone Star Legal Aid, a free legal services provider, to file a Title VI civil rights complaint against the City of Houston. As initially conceived, the complaint focused on a host of basic quality of life issues — from the community’s lack of banks and grocery stores to its outdated infrastructure and rampant illegal dumping. It alleged that the City systematically failed to provide SN48 residents with adequate municipal services.
Title VI of the Civil Rights Act bars discrimination under any “program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance,” including municipal agencies. Title VI discrimination can take one of two forms: intentional or disparate impact. Lone Star’s lead attorney on this case, Amy Dinn, said that disparate impact discrimination can be as simple as neglectfully “allowing a problem to fester,” as opposed to intentionally creating one. As such, Lone Star began looking for data it could use to prove that the City of Houston has allowed quality of life problems to fester in SN48.
SN48 residents say when the City responds to their 311 requests at all, it does so slowly. If that were true, Dinn thought, the 311 data would back up the complaint. So, she set out to compare 311 response times for illegal dumping requests in SN48 to those in Whiter, more affluent neighborhoods. She had a team of environmental law students file an open records request with the City. They discovered a very clear trend in the data: Response times in SN48 routinely took almost twice as long.
After some Covid-related delays, Lone Star filed its Title VI complaint in December 2021. At the time, the last thing Dinn expected was a Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation. She filed the complaint against the federal agencies that had funded Houston’s municipal government — groups like the EPA, DHS, and HUD. The DOJ became involved as a coordinator between the various agencies. Before long, it became interested in investigating the case itself.
Wilson has already noticed a difference in how the City handles illegal dumping in her community … The week after the DOJ’s announcement, hordes of sanitation trucks and cleanup crews descended on SN48.
About a month before Lone Star filed its complaint, the DOJ’s newly formed Office of Environmental Justice announced its first-ever Title VI investigation in Lowndes County, Alabama — which, as a “focal point in Martin Luther King Jr.’s march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965,” was a “logical choice” for opening “a new front on civil rights.” The Lowndes investigation became the flagship case in the DOJ’s new Comprehensive Environmental Justice Strategy, which “combines civil rights with environmental protection to focus on communities with low-income, minority, tribal, or indigenous populations that experience disproportionate and adverse environmental or human health impacts.”
Incidentally, Lone Star picked a perfect time to file its Title VI complaint. In July 2022, the DOJ announced it was launching an investigation based on SN48’s grievances. The primary focus: illegal dumping, because Lone Star assembled such compelling evidence from its analysis of 311 data. The DOJ told Dinn it plans to move quickly with the investigation, and will take a citywide approach — focusing not just on SN48, but on several of Houston’s majority-Black/Brown, low-income neighborhoods. It has already interviewed more than two dozen community leaders and filed RFIs with the City.
Dinn and Wilson are hoping for a civil settlement in which the DOJ forces the City to provide neglected communities with more effective municipal services, including cleaning up illegal dumping. But it’s not a sure solution. The DOJ’s use of civil settlements to compel local policy changes is a “long-running strategy with mixed results.”
For example, DOJ civil rights investigations targeting local police forces have often ended with consent decrees that call for major reforms overseen by federally appointed monitors. But issues with city record keeping can render such oversight difficult. In some cases, decrees have failed to produce desired changes in officer conduct. In 2021, Axios reported significant crime spikes in cities with court-ordered police reforms, suggesting that federal intervention can perversely erode the performance of targeted local agencies.
Regardless of the outcome of the investigation, Wilson has already noticed a difference in how the City handles illegal dumping in her community. She says that the week after the DOJ’s announcement, hordes of sanitation trucks and cleanup crews descended on SN48. City leaders apparently didn’t want the DOJ to see for themselves just how bad the dumping was. As Wilson put it, “you don’t want your mom to walk into your room and see your underpants on the floor.” Joking aside, Wilson says the City’s urgent cleanup effort begs the question: “If you have the resources to do this now, why’d it take until now for you to do it?”
In any case, she is feeling optimistic. “Better days are surely coming,” she says. And not just for SN48. She hopes that their case “resonates with communities all across the country.”
“I hope this resonates with communities all over the country”
During the 1930s, while the federal government was rolling out the Suburban Resettlement Administration that birthed Houston’s SN48, it was also creating its infamous redlined maps of cities all across America, including Philadelphia. Many of Philly’s redlined neighborhoods are, to this day, home to majority Black, low-income communities. Those communities — primarily in North and West Philly — are now disproportionately struggling with a lot of the same basic quality of life issues as SN48, including illegal dumping. And residents here, like Huey Wilson in Houston, have long been frustrated with the City of Philadelphia’s lackluster Streets Department.
Judith Robinson, for instance, has lived in North Philadelphia for decades. She calls herself the “Queen of 311” because she relentlessly reports instances of illegal dumping to the City. When her reports are neglected, she calls up the City or logs onto Facebook to make her voice heard. “I love social media,” she says, quipping that people might be wondering “what [her] old ass is doing on Facebook.” She loves it because it enables her to put City officials on blast for all to see when they don’t provide adequate municipal services. And yet, even armed with 311 and Facebook, Robinson is still at her wits’ end with her neighborhood’s trash-strewn streets.
Back in 2005, she founded Susquehanna Clean Up / Pick Up, Inc. (SCUPU), which allowed her to pay young men to remove trash from streets and vacant lots in the community. But in spite of all her efforts — SCUPU, 311 reports, social media shaming — the trash crisis rages on, and she says it’s only gotten worse in the last 10 years. Like Wilson, she says the City would never allow other, more affluent neighborhoods to get as dirty as hers. “If I wasn’t a naturally high-spirited person,” she says, “I’d be depressed” — because SCUPU has “been cleaning for 17 years now, but you’d hardly know we ever existed.”
Hearing of the DOJ’s investigation in Houston, Robinson perks up. “The Creator works in mysterious ways,” she says, noting that she’s been on the hunt lately for a more effective and lasting solution to her community’s struggles with litter and illegal dumping. She thinks it’s time for a similar investigation in Philly, and she’s now talking with legal aid organizations such as Fair Shake Environmental Legal Services (where the author once interned) in the hopes of filing a Title VI complaint.
There’s no telling whether the DOJ would accept the complaint, or if they did, what the prospects for an investigation here would be. But here are some relevant considerations:
- Philadelphia’s Streets Department has received federal funding.
- Pre-existing data analysis from the City Controller’s office shows that communities in North and West Philly file 311 reports at much higher rates than Whiter, more affluent communities — and that they experience slower rates of trash pickup.
- On October 7, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania announced that Erin Lindgren will serve, as per the DOJ’s Comprehensive Strategy on Environmental Justice, as its very own Environmental Justice Coordinator. Lindgren is now seeking “information about polluting activities or potential violations of law” in low-income, minority communities in Eastern Pennsylvania.
Time to put the Philly Shrug on trial?
Asked for a response to the Houston investigation and its parallels to Philadelphia’s own struggles with illegal dumping, a Streets Department spokesperson replies, “We will not be providing a comment on the DOJ investigation into the City of Houston.”
In Philadelphia, we have a phrase for the kind of neglect that leads to disparate environmental impacts, the attitude that allows municipal problems to fester. Coined by the Daily News’ Helen Ubiñas in 2013, the Philly Shrug is “maddening ‘whadya-gonna-do?’ or ‘it-is-what-it-is-cuz-it’s-always-been’ attitude,” she writes — one that is all too often used to brush aside civic dysfunction like illegal dumping run amok.
With Judith Robinson looking to Huey Wilson and Lone Star Legal Aid for inspiration, it may soon come time for the Philly Shrug to stand trial.
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