Houston's noise ordinance 'not working,' say residents, bars

Sarah Rafique Image
Monday, November 21, 2022
Houston's noise ordinance 'not working,' say residents, bars
13 Investigates found just one percent of calls from residents complaining about loud noise end up with a citation issued.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- When the pictures on her wall start rattling, that's when Lauren Smith said she knows the music and outside noise in her neighborhood is more than what the City of Houston's sound ordinance allows.

"The scene doesn't usually pick up until eight or nine, but the music is very loud starting early, even when the clubs are empty," Smith said. "It's getting worse because, there used to be a couple days where the clubs were closed and now we don't have any of those days of reprieve during the week."

Smith, who lives across the street from a stretch of bars and restaurants along Washington Avenue, said when her fiancé purchased their townhouse, the two clubs nearest to them weren't there. Now, she said, they keep her up all night.

"It is so loud that we'll usually have to blare the TV to offset some of the sound," she said.

13 Investigates looked at a year's worth of tickets to identify problem spots and found 5306 Washington Avenue, where Standard Bar is located, has the most noise complaints across the city, according to Houston Police Department data.

From January through the end of September this year, Standard Bar had 236 noise complaints, which is more than twice as much as the location with the second highest number of complaints.

But, the bar only received 24 citations. It's part of a citywide trend where just one percent of calls from residents complaining about loud noise end up with a citation issued.

Even Standard Bar's attorney admits it's happening, but said it can't control the noise outside the bar and that it has taken steps to work with neighbors and mitigate the noise.

"My understanding is no one on Washington is getting the level of tickets that Standard is," said the bar's attorney, Damian LaCroix.

"It is because, in our opinion, we are being targeted by a specific neighbor because of the clientele that we serve," LaCroix said. "This bar at one point, over three years ago, served primarily white patrons and was just as loud. It was not quite as busy but there were no complaints during that time period. The complaints only began after the bar started focusing on the Latin clientele."

He said several complaints against standard came from an individual who lives a half-mile away from the bar.

13 Investigates could not confirm that as the city records 13 Investigates received shows the address of every noise complaint, but not who is complaining. Smith is not the neighbor the bar is pointing to.

The city has tried to combat loud noise, hoping to strike a balance in a growing city where bars and homes are sometimes feet away from one another.

Houston City Council approved amendments to noise ordinance in May.

The city now requires a sound permit for all commercial establishments, located within 300 feet of homes, that want to play amplified sound up to 75 decibels from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

The ordinance allows commercial establishments to play amplified sound up to 68 decibels outdoors from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday.

The changes went into effect in September, and while neighbors and bar or club owners don't agree on much, they do seem to agree that it's not paying off.

"It's not working for us," Smith said.

At Standard Bar, LaCroix also said, "the law is not working."

There hasn't been any real change in the amount of citations written since the ordinance went into effect at the end of September.

By law, when someone calls the Houston Police Department to complain about noise, a police officer has to be dispatched for a ticket to be written.

In a city dealing with the kind of crime that Houston has, even the police admit noise complaints are not always a high priority.

"We do struggle," Houston Police Department Commander Michael Collins said earlier this year. "Staffing shortages and our code one and two - the priority, the life threatening type of calls - of course those are going to take precedence every time."

Collins said when officers do eventually make it to the scene, a neighbor who complained about the noise has to meet the officer, sometimes at midnight or one in the morning or later, for a ticket to be issued.

The officer takes a noise measurement and if it's above 68 decibels at the club late at night or more importantly, 58 decibels at a residence, the club can get a ticket.

But on a recent day at noon, standing across the street from the Standard, traffic alone is enough to trigger Houston's noise ordinance.

"They're playing no music. The place is closed right now. Cars are driving by and we're talking and it's measuring 70, 72 (decibels)," LaCroix said, while holding a device to measure the sound. "It's not practical at all."

Even when tickets are issued, LaCroix said the people making the complaints generally don't show up to court hearings and the case is dismissed.

Smith said officers have written three tickets following her noise complaints, but she wasn't able to go to any of the hearings.

"We would need to take off work and go ahead and go to that court date," she said. "It's upsetting because I've dedicated hours trying to communicate the issue."

LaCroix said he has attended community meets in an attempt to address the neighborhood's concerns.

"Standard has made substantial changes to the bar. We've installed soundproof walls. We have reduced the sounds of the base. We turned the speakers inside so that they don't project outside. We've erected a wall outside to try to mitigate noise," he said. "We believe Standard has gone above and beyond in its efforts to try to mitigate any noise issues."

Still, there's people outside, along Washington Avenue, making noise, including a street preacher loudly yelling his message for everyone in earshot to year.

For Smith, the noise still keeps her up at night.

"We're kind of young working professionals and we're essentially getting priced out of living in Houston in general, so we have to buy houses within our means and townhouses are a good option for that," she said. "It is really hard when you acquire your first home and you finally reach that level, you save so long and then this happens and then you may have to leave."

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