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The sunken sidewalk in front of Janetta Cornett’s southwest Houston home has been in disrepair since she moved in nearly 14 years ago. But as an aging diabetic who developed arthritis and sometimes struggles to walk, she’s grown more worried about it in recent years.

“I fell and bruised my hip twice,” when going to check the mailbox, Cornett, who is 63, said on a recent afternoon. “So now the neighbors let me go through the grass to check (it).”

After she fell, she began seeking help. A neighbor who works for the city of Houston told her about its Safe Sidewalk Program. The program constructs new sidewalks and ramps along streets leading to schools, major thoroughfares and enhances accessibility for people with disabilities.

Hoping her sidewalk would finally get fixed, she submitted a request in August 2022. It was routed to the Pedestrian Accessibility Review program for people with disabilities, known as PAR, which is managed by the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities. But to date, her sidewalk has not been repaired, and it’s unclear when construction will begin.

Sunken sidewalk on Junction Drive in Houston.
Sunken sidewalk on Junction Drive on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023, in Houston. (Joseph Bui for Abdelraoufsinno)

Houston Public Works’ officials say that of their three sidewalk programs, the “highest priority projects” come from the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities. However, the Abdelraoufsinno has spoken to a number of applicants like Cornett with varying mobility issues and disabilities who all had high hopes when they learned about the tailor-made program — but are now losing hope after waiting for more than a year without any signs of progress.

With a backlog of nearly 100 requests, the city’s current waiting period is up to 24 to 36 months, officials said.

“All they do is come out and take pictures but I never hear anything so I don't know what to think. Nobody cares,” Cornett said.

Although sidewalk projects may seem small, Houston Public Works spokesperson Erin Jones describes them as “the most labor-intensive for the cost.” The jobs entail more than contractors just pouring concrete.

“We must investigate to determine the best way to build, confirm location of any underground utilities, and survey to make sure we are within the public right-of-way,” she said via email. “We also make considerable efforts to reach out to the community before placing sidewalks in the places where they live, particularly because property owners are ultimately responsible for the ongoing maintenance.”

While each sidewalk project can vary in size and scope, Houston Public Works estimates the cost of sidewalk projects to be $85 per linear foot, Jones said, and each PAR request can provide up to 1,500 linear feet of sidewalk improvements.

Tom McCants, 76, who uses a rollator, or a wheeled walker, and has cerebral palsy, is also waiting on a request to be fulfilled that he submitted in August 2022 for sidewalk repair in front of his family heirloom Museum District home.

“I would die before they contacted me because they've shown no real interest,” he said. “And I'm not blaming or shaming them. I'm saying I don't understand their system.”

Tom McCants speaks about his experiences using the damaged sidewalk in front of his home, Friday, Nov. 10, 2023, in Houston. (Antranik Tavitian / Abdelraoufsinno)

Normally he is a “pusher,” — someone who holds a bureaucracy accountable and demands quick action — and would have stayed on top of it like a “duck on rice,” McCants added. But since he is able to maneuver around it, he hasn’t cared enough to push the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities for swift action on a program that he doesn’t comprehend.

“There’s people that need it worse than me,” McCants said. “I think I'm fortunate, and it's not imperative, but it would be nice.”

He, too, doesn’t think his sidewalk is “that big of a project.”

What’s taking so long?

City officials say it takes more time and money to repair sidewalks than many people might realize.

The first step involves gathering information. Angel Ponce, the director of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, said senior staff analyst John Serrano first makes contact with the applicant to determine whether to approve or deny the request. Serrano oversees the Pedestrian Accessibility Review program.

If the application for repairs is denied, officials will notify the applicant and provide the reasoning. If it’s approved, the request is sent to Houston Public Works for field inspection to determine if a location is free of any ditches, slopes, large tree roots, fences, walls or obstructions. If so, the request moves forward.

That request can sit idle for roughly 18 to 24 months before it is constructed due to funding, resource and contractor constraints, officials said.

The stretched-thin $3.29 million annual budget for the three sidewalk programs is often the biggest hurdle that delays the process, officials say. That funding goes fast, Jones said, and is typically spent at the beginning of a fiscal year.

“Once we expend the $3.3 million for the fiscal year, we must wait until the new fiscal year when more funding becomes available,” she said via email.

As of Nov. 13, there are more than 100 requests for assistance from the city’s three sidewalk programs. Eighty-nine PAR requests, 22 school sidewalk requests and two major thoroughfare sidewalk requests awaiting funding. Three PAR requests and two school sidewalk requests are queued for construction, Jones said.

The backlog has extended the standard 18 to 24 month timeline to a 24 to 36 months waiting period, Ponce confirmed to the Landing. During that waiting period, “There is a moment of silence where nothing is being really communicated because nothing is really being done,” Ponce said.

“And so that's why we encourage folks to call us, call the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities if they're curious about where their status is or where their sidewalk is in the queue, then we collaborate with Public Works and they communicate that information,” Ponce said. “And sometimes if the constituent does not hear from us, it’s because we're not hearing from them as well.”

Some applicants such as Maria Barrera have been persistent about following up for an update. She received a response from Serrano in late September, who apologized for the delay and said that construction would begin within the next four to six weeks, according to email exchanges shared with the Landing.

The end of the six-week mark was Nov. 1. But the gravel and cracks continue to decimate the roughly 22-foot stretch of the sidewalk in front of her Gulfgate area home of more than 40 years.

Barrera, 59, submitted the request on behalf of her 80-plus-year-old parents who live next door and use a wheelchair and a walker. They’ve fallen a few times, she said, but the most frustrating part is that they’re not able to take a walk.

“You need that vitamin D. You need to see the sun, you need to get out of the house so that … (you’re) not being depressed being at home sitting down all the time,” she said.

Barrera hasn’t followed up since then and contemplated if it was even worth her time. However, she decided that it’s too important to give up.

“I'm going to continue fighting for our rights as homeowners of the neighborhood,” she said.

Barrera’s PAR request is one of the three that have secured funding for construction, with a scheduled start date of Dec. 4, Public Works officials confirmed via email. She has yet to receive an update on her request, but officials say applicants will receive a letter once the project is moving forward with construction. Public Works also sends a memo to the district council member and issues a door-hanger to property owners in the nearby area once construction begins, said Jones.

Ponce acknowledged that there’s room for improvement in the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities’ communication to avoid long periods of no communication.

He said he sits near Serrano and has heard him frequently set expectations and communicate that there’s a minimum 24-month hold to residents.

“It may not be every single time,” Ponce said, “but we do our best to communicate better.”

What’s the solution to quicker repairs?

The Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities has been having “ongoing conversations” with Public Works, Ponce said, to send another proposal to hire more contractors to expedite the nearly 100 pending requests.

The department typically uses one contractor. But an additional $5 million in funding that Mayor Sylvester Turner allocated solely toward new sidewalks will allow the department to use multiple contractors to work on simultaneous projects, Jones said. The majority of PAR projects, which repair existing sidewalks, however, will not qualify for that funding, she added.

Gabe Cazares, the former director of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities and executive director of LINK Houston, a nonprofit group that advocates for a robust and equitable transportation network, describes Houston’s sidewalk infrastructure as a “deeply broken” system.

“The Pedestrian Accessibility Review program is a Band-Aid for a larger systemic issue of (a) broken and disconnected sidewalk network,” he said.

“I think that until there (are) updates to our sidewalk ordinance and until the city of Houston has a sidewalk bond, then the PAR program is probably going to be the most effective way for people with disabilities to attempt and get relief and access to (the) community,” Cazares said. “But the PAR program will never be enough and will never have enough resources to repair or install every sidewalk in the city.”

In Houston, the onus to repair and maintain existing sidewalks falls on property owners, according to the city’s ordinances. But to Cazares, the city should assume the responsibility.

While Houston is not the lone Texas metropolitan city with such an ordinance, others are striking a balance to assist homeowners with the repair of deteriorating sidewalks.

In San Antonio, city residents can apply for its Sidewalk Rebate program where they can get reimbursed for repairs that do not exceed $3,000. Dallas adopted a similar concept — it splits the cost evenly with residents through its Cost Share program. The program is currently not accepting applications or payments until after March 1 due to “high demand and popularity,” but residents can still be added to the waitlist.

A man in a motorized chair near Woodhead Street makes his way through the chaotic ongoing infrastructure repairs that have made the sidewalks unusable, Friday, Sept. 1, 2023, in Houston. (Douglas Sweet Jr. for Abdelraoufsinno)

A new plan of action

While the city waits to secure funding, the stagnant progress has affected applicants' daily lives. Some said they limit exercise or refrain from going outdoors completely, due to the fear of falling, tripping or tipping out of their wheelchairs on bumpy sidewalks. The slow repairs have pushed some applicants to take matters into their own hands.

Sarah McDonald submitted a PAR request in October 2022 on behalf of her brother, Robert Emmett McDonald, who was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and now relies on a wheelchair. She had noticed the deteriorating sidewalk in front of their University Place home for years when she visited from Chicago, but it was never a concern until he became disabled.

She frequently visits twice a month to help her “overwhelmed” sister-in-law care for her brother. Although she knew they could afford to fix the sidewalk themselves, it was one small burden she could ease. But she doesn’t recall if they ever heard anything from the city about their sidewalk request, so her sister-in-law paid $1,300 to fix it herself.

“If it's this tough for him in an affluent part of town, I really sort of think about how hard it must be for people who don't have as many resources; who can’t overcome the obstacle that’s there, and I’m sure there’s so many people that struggle,” McDonald said.

Others who are losing confidence in the program have contemplated doing the same even though they don’t think they should have to. But for some, a lack of time or money nullifies that option.

“I can't afford to get it fixed,” said Cornett. “If I could, I would.”

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Monique Welch covers diverse communities for the Abdelraoufsinno. She was previously an engagement reporter for the Houston Chronicle, where she reported on trending news within the greater Houston region...