Whether he’s dealing with smoke in the air, oil in the water, or contaminants in the ground, Ben Houston ’06 has a passion to help the environment. As an attorney he’s volunteered his services on countless occasions, usually through his ‘Of Counsel’ position with the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, located in Detroit.
Among his current cases is the contesting of a permit to allow fracking (hydraulic fracturing) in Kalkaska County (Michigan). Another case deals with a Detroit incinerator. It burns garbage to produce electricity, but the smell it generates is a detriment to those who live in the area.
Houston is also working with Detroit community groups that are concerned that a proposed expansion of I-94 will result in the removal of overpasses, decreasing pedestrian mobility in nearby neighborhoods.
In the recent past he became involved with the 2010 oil spill into the Kalamazoo River caused by the rupture of a pipeline operated by Enbridge Incorporated.
His contribution to the cause also includes being a co-author of two published articles about the Great Lakes; one is about its governance, the other about managing the demand for fresh water, especially in light of climate change.
Houston’s arrival at K in the fall of 2002 was preceded by a visit the year before, during a road trip with his family after his junior year in high school. It turned out to be a case of love at first sight.
“We had already visited some other schools by the time we got to Kalamazoo,” Houston recalls. “But once I saw K, I said, ‘We can stop now. This is where I want to go!’”
Among the sights that captured his interest during that first visit was what he describes as the “Sisyphus statue” (the spiral, flame-like sculpture by the late Marcia Wood ’55, professor emerita of art and art history, located on the Light Fine Arts Building lawn). “I liked that a lot; it just resonated with me.”
Houston was enthused to attend K, and his years on campus (2002 to 2006) didn’t disappoint. “I loved every minute of it. It was perfect. My foreign study was in London, at Goldsmith College. That was great, too.”
After graduating, Houston spent eight months overseas, in Zagreb, Croatia, with his aunt and uncle. There he worked for the Academy for Education Development, an organization that disbursed USAID money to local nonprofits.
“One of the local agencies we dealt with provided social services to the Roma people” a disadvantaged ethnic minority. “Another agency we supported removed land mines that had been left behind from the Bosnian war in the early 1990s.”
One incident helped Houston understand that the war was still a very sensitive topic with Croatians. “I got into a discussion about which side in the war was responsible for the destruction of a famous bridge in Mostar. Next thing I knew, things were getting really heated; I made an expeditious retreat.”
Houston enjoyed his time in Croatia. “I’d go for walks and intentionally get lost just so I could see the city. People liked to talk to me so they could practice their English. That happened so much that at times it was a bit exhausting.”
What brought his time in Croatia to an end? “I ran out of money.”
After a year spent as a “landscape architect,” Houston resumed his education, beginning his studies at the University of Michigan law school in the fall of 2008. Helping him feel at home in Ann Arbor was the fact that he roomed with his former K roommate, Ben Connor Barrie ’06.
“Because of my time in Croatia I thought I might like international law, but at Michigan I took an environmental law course and that just clicked for me.”
Three years of law school apparently wasn’t enough for Houston. After graduating from Michigan he traveled west, to Portland, Oregon, where he earned, in 2012, a Master of Law degree from Lewis and Clark Law School.
“I wanted to get a deeper understanding of environmental law, especially water law and policy,” Houston says in explaining his move west.
While in Portland, Houston worked as a clinical student in the Pacific Environmental Advocacy Center (now the EarthRise Law Center). He helped with a number of environmental cases, including those relating to the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.
“Portland was great. For one thing, you can’t fall down without being close to a good restaurant. And I ran into an old K friend, Noah Manger ’08, who really introduced me to the city.”
Houston now practices law with his father, Charles O. Houston III, in their office in Mount Clemens. The firm’s focus is real estate, corporate law, and estate planning. “Working with my father allows me the freedom to do the environmental pro bono work I love.
“Another thing I really like doing is helping local businesses get off the ground,” Ben explains. He did that recently for fellow K grad, Lisa Ludwinski ’06.
“Lisa had moved to Detroit from New York and she wanted to set up a commercial bakery. It’s called ‘Sister Pie.’ She had received $50,000 in seed money from Comerica Bank and the Detroit Lions.”
Among the advantages to having such a client: “She sometimes gives me bakery stuff that doesn’t pass her standards of quality, but it’s still excellent!”
Houston lives in Detroit with a friend from law school. By living in the city and working in a suburb, Houston has morning and afternoon drives that are “opposite of typical rush hour traffic. Those drives take me about 30 minutes, but that’s half of what it would be if I was doing the typical suburb-to-city commute.”
Having grown up in greater Detroit, Houston Is pleased with the city’s recent developments. “Detroit is really going through a lot of great changes. The area is vastly better than it was a few years ago.”
Through his work to help the environment, Houston hopes that the area’s environment will be better, too.