Apartments Are Communities
Where we Began
In early 2009, the City of Houston approached Texans Together with a collaborative pilot project to be conducted in the Alief area. This project sought to bring a large apartment community together, across divides of ethnicity, income, and language, to civically engage residents in addressing serious community problems that permeated their lower-income neighborhood. The first site selected was the Mint Apartments at 6700 South Dairy Ashford. Since the fall of 2009, Texans Together has been on site at the Mint Apartments helping residents become active participants in improving their community and teaching them to work with each other and with the private and public sectors.
Before Texans Together came on site, there was little to no resident engagement or collaboration among residents and the community to improve conditions in the surrounding area, such as in their children’s schools and the local community center. Today, the Mint Apartments has an active, volunteer-driven Resource Center, hosts regular community events and resident-led clubs, and is engaged in needed community improvement projects.
Among many favorable statistics, renter retention and occupancy has increased by 20%, crime reports and 911 calls have decreased by 20%, and voting by residents increased by 112% in 2010 compared with 2006.
Guided by Texans Together, resident leaders are taking over more and more of their activities, and by the fall of 2012 the residents will be leading the Mint Apartments projects without regular support from Texans Together.
Identifying the Needs of the Project Community
Once a quiet middle-class suburb, Alief is a very diverse, underserved, modest-to-lower income community.
According to the 2010 census, Alief has a population of approximately 102,235. Of that number, 25% are black, 8% are white, 47% are Hispanic, and 18% are Asian. The median household income in Alief is approximately $50,000; it is significantly lower for renters. In 2011 a representative of the Alief Independent School District stated that, "Virtually every culture of the modern world is represented in [the district's] 45,000 student enrollment; more than 80 languages and dialects are spoken."
The area has a high concentration of young people who lack appropriate activities and social outlets. Gangs, vandalism, and high dropout rates are all prevalent. Over a third of Alief students have limited English proficiency and over three-quarters are termed “economically disadvantaged.” Two Alief-area high schools were identified as “dropout factories” in a 2007 Johns Hopkins University study. Crime in Alief is among the highest in the Houston area.
Identifying the Needs of the Project Apartment Complex
Approximately 1,000 modest-to-lower income residents live at the Mint Apartments. Eighty-five percent of the children from this complex who attend the Alief ISD receive free or reduced-rate lunches. The residents of the Mint Apartments are relatively young; about 60% of the residents are African-American and 40% are Hispanic. The Apartments as Communities project has worked with Mint Apartments residents for two and a half years of a three year planned commitment. Our goal has been to teach residents how to work together to obtain resources; set up a Resource Center from which to conduct apartment events and activities to improve their lives and community; and participate in community engagement projects.
Residents established the Resource Center at the apartment complex as their first project. Starting with one unfurnished unit donated by the complex owner, the Resource Center now has two fully-furnished units, equipped with furniture, desks, computers, resource materials, and books donated by community partners. The Resource Center has grown steadily and has developed these services:
Homework Club and Youth Development: Approximately 25 children are tutored and mentored every school afternoon by Texans Together staff and by resident parents and teenagers. Alief I.S.D. and the City of Houston Library each provided five computers to the Resource Center.
These computers are used by students who otherwise would not have access after school to the school district’s electronic curriculum.
Children’s Library: More than 1,000 books have been donated for the Resource Center library, all of which are available for check out by Mint Apartment residents.
Digital Access: Adult residents use the Resource Center’s computer lab with its DSL access to refine their computer skills and search for job opportunities.
Job Development: Ongoing workshops are provided to teach interview skills, résumé building, and effective job search techniques.
Life Skills: The Resource Center routinely hosts workshops that teach life improvement skills such as legal rights and responsibilities, financial literacy, and flu prevention.
Resale Shop: The residents run a small resale shop to raise funds for Mint Apartments events.
Stronger resident bonds reduce transience and create an environment of greater trust and mutual concern. Texans Together promotes creation of these bonds by encouraging “neighborhood” events.
Adult residents now host cultural heritage events to commemorate Martin Luther King’s birthday, Cinco de Mayo, Juneteenth, and other major holidays. Teenage and young adult residents celebrate the winter holidays, Halloween, and Thanksgiving. Residents hold community gatherings such as monthly family fun night and Poetry Slam Jam, and have established Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops. The Boy Scout troop is the largest in Alief. Residents lead their own groups, which include a girls’ choir, a reading club, and Bible study. At the suggestion and initiative of a Mint Apartments resident, Texans Together and residents established a Summer Youth Camp to provide academic enrichment, field trips, and structured activities for Mint Apartment’s children.
Seventy regular Mint Apartments volunteers have taken responsibility for improving the Mint Apartments through the Resource Center and resident-led activities and forty volunteers are participating in community-wide initiatives to improve the greater community. These stronger bonds are reflected in increased housing stability and decreased crime and EMS calls.
Civically Engaging Residents
Residents have overcome social, experiential, and cultural blocks to participating in the wider community. They work with each other and community volunteers to improve neighborhood resources. In the process, residents have learned effective civic skills.
Residents are working with police to address gang violence and crime through National Night Out and Crime Watch. Residents initiated, planned, and built a large community playground and gardens with the national nonprofit Kaboom! and over 200 area volunteers. Together with other organizations, residents are hosting an educational forum in Alief on the impact of state budget cuts and in the fall of 2011 they hosted a combined non-partisan school board and city council forum.
Over 180 Mint and Alief teens and young adults held an Alief Young Leaders summit in February at which they decided to work on building the Mint Apartments community playground and to improve after-school programs and youth services at the community center. They have met several times with the school district
and the city to address these issues. Mint Apartment and Alief young people also attended a 2012 Save Texas School Rally at the Texas State Capitol to support more funding for their schools and in May 2012 will be registering voters among the seniors at the high school.
During the first two years of this project, residents focused primarily on improving their families’ lives and improving the Mint Apartment complex. During the last phase of the project, Texans Together is working to deepen residents’ participation in community-wide projects.
Community Partners: Essential to Success
The apartment complex owner, BNC Real Estate (“BNC”), and other local partners, provide needed resources and support to the project. BNC has supported the project not only with its enthusiasm for residents’ activities, but also by entering in to a multi-year, free-lease agreement that provides two large apartment units that house the Resource Center. BNC has also served as a major financial and support partner with Kaboom!, helping residents to build the modern playground. Area businesses and congregations have supplied volunteers and support for many project initiatives, from Summer Camp to the Boy Scouts troop. Nonprofit organizations and governments have arranged for access to needed services and
The Residents Will Take Full Responsibility. This project was created not only to teach community engagement skills to apartment residents, but also to give them the confidence and ability to take self-sufficient action. As we come to the close of our three year commitment for change, Mint Apartments residents are running the Resource Center, developing and pursuing community initiatives, and organizing civic engagement projects on their own. The role of Texans Together is now to provide assistance and advice to residents upon request.
Because Texans Together has largely completed its task at the Mint, it is now able to start another equally exciting project – this time at the Linda Vista apartments in Northwest Houston off of Antoine Drive and De Soto Street. Partnering with BNC Real Estate and northwest Houston community we and our community organizers are conducting surveys, talking to residents and building a community resource center – just like at the Mint.
After Linda Vista, It is our goal to build a network of communities across Houston, united by a common vision that apartments are communities, that communities matter, and that residents have as much right to safe neighborhoods and opportunity as other citizens.