High maintenance: The Heights set to lead 311 reports for ninth year in a row – Houston Chronicle

When it comes to reporting municipal mishaps, the Heights can be high maintenance.

For the ninth consecutive year, the Greater Heights is on track to file the most reports to the city’s 311 customer service department, logging thousands of missed recycling pick-ups, water leaks, drainage issues and other nuisances.

The affluent enclave was the source of roughly 13,000 reports between January and October, up from 12,600 in the same period of 2020, according to a Chronicle analysis of city data. Its 15,743 complaints in 2019 set the high mark for any neighborhood in the last decade.

Despite its reputation for shaded streets lined with 1920s bungalows and Victorian-style homes, the neighborhood is not immune to potholes, drainage issues and lagging Solid Waste service. Nor do its residents appear reluctant to complain.

The volume is not simply a matter of population. Greater Heights has less than half the residents (47,860) of Alief, a frequent 311 runner-up that is home to more than 104,000 people, according to Planning Department data. Alief has filed roughly 11,300 reports this year. It was the last neighborhood to surpass the Heights in 311 reports — in 2012.

So, are Heights residents neighborly narcs, or merely careful stewards of their streets?

“I think it’s an equal amount of both,” said real estate agent Bill Baldwin, a 23-year Heights resident and himself a frequent 311 user. “There’s a certain amount of entitlement and bitchiness that goes along today that’s on Facebook, that’s on Nextdoor, and 311 is just representative of the same thing.”

At the same time, Baldwin said, the Heights has a strong civic tradition, stemming from vibrant homeowners’ associations, neighborhood groups and historic districts. Its residents “understand that the squeaky wheel gets the more responsive government.”

Councilmember Abbie Kamin, whose District C includes both the Heights and Montrose, another high-volume 311 user, said the data is not shocking, whatever the motivation. She said the city is better when its residents are engaging.

“District C is known to receive the most constituent calls and emails of any district office, so the fact we have 311 data to support that is not a surprise,” Kamin said.

The council member noted the Heights does have aging city infrastructure — old water systems, old roads, old or nonexistent sidewalks. Kamin said constituents told her about four sewer overflows in one week alone in early December. The Heights also has open drainage ditches, which require steady maintenance.

Drainage issues and sewer calls ranked 3rd and 5th, respectively, among Heights complaints to the city.

Glen Austin, a resident near 20th and Ella, has lived in various Houston neighborhoods. He guessed the Heights’ reputation may explain the volume of reports to the 311 system.

“The Heights is viewed as safe, clean, and orderly — it is noticeable when something is out of order,” Austin said. “If I saw a pile of old tires on the ground, on TC Jester, I would recognize right away that this needs to be fixed and this is unusual.”

Central southwest Houston (11,296), Washington Avenue/Memorial Park (9,562) and Montrose (9,117) are on track to round out the top five neighborhoods this year. Those results are common going back at least five years; Northside/Northline is another frequent top finisher.

On a per capita basis, the Heights and Montrose have nearly identical volumes: 274 reports per 1,000 residents. Fifth Ward, Greater OST, Midtown and the Near Northside had high reporting by that metric as well.

The colloquial boundaries of the Heights are constantly expanding from the original neighborhood that dates back to 1891, but the city uses super neighborhood maps to code 311 requests. By that boundary, Greater Heights includes much of the area contained by the Loop 610, Interstate-45 and Interstate-10. The western boundary is a combination of the White Oak Bayou and Durham Street.

Brad Snead, an attorney who lives in the Heights, offered another theory: There is tension between longtime residents of the Heights’ core and the rapid commercial development around it. The Heights scores high on socioeconomic and educational factors, meaning there is a broader awareness that 311 exists and people know how to navigate it.

The Heights is among the top neighborhoods in median household income, at $116,171, and education. Two-thirds of Heights residents have college degrees.

“The area is ripe for friction, coupled with knowledge of how to complain about it,” Snead said.

Daniel T. O’Brien, a professor of public policy at Northeastern University who has been researching 311 reports for a decade, said accessibility is likely the easiest explanation for the Heights’ position at the top of the pile.

“For various reasons, certain populations — given the same level of need, holding that constant — are more likely to know the system and be able to access it in that very literal way,” said O’Brien, who authored a book about his findings on Boston’s 311 data.

“It could be that they trust the system more. There are disadvantaged communities that may not believe government is going to come and fix things… There’s also the flip side of that, which is entitlement. There are definitely some communities that are, shall we say, well heeled, and they have high standards for the maintenance of their community and they’re going to advocate for that.”

Still, other well-heeled neighborhoods do not use 311 at the same level, even on a per capita basis. University Place ($135,766 average income, 86 percent college-educated) has filed just 3,360 complaints this year.

The Heights’ most common complaints were missed recycling pick-ups (993), water leaks (784), drainage issues (682) and property nuisances (653), a broad category that captures anything from overgrown lawns to improper storage of lumber.

Recycling service is a persistent issue citywide — complaints were up 30 percent this year, seventh among all reports — but most other neighborhoods show more concern about garbage and heavy trash routes. Among the top 30 neighborhoods, missed recycling pick-ups was the primary complaint only in the Heights and Montrose.

Those neighborhoods also stuck out when it came to reports of COVID-19 capacity violations in 2020. The city used fire code complaints to log tips about capacity limits when pandemic restrictions were in place, and the Heights, Montrose and the Washington Avenue corridor were responsible for a disproportionate number of those tips.

It was the second-most common report in the Heights that year, and the top report in the Washington Avenue corridor and Montrose.

That could be because those areas had more bars and restaurants subject to capacity complaints. The Washington Avenue strip, for one, was notorious for rowdy bars that bent the rules. That area led the city with 1,091 such reports.

O’Brien, the professor, said it falls on government to make sure they are pairing 311 reports with more objective data, so as to not funnel a disproportionate amount of resources into communities that use the system more.

“If you’re just responding to the calls, you’re perpetuating disparities,” he said.

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Source: https://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/High-maintenance-The-Heights-set-to-lead-311-16726634.php

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