Leah Binkovitz | @leahbink | April 17, 2017
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner unveiled details of his long-anticipated Complete Communities initiative Monday, three months after a federal investigation found the city had violated the Civil Rights Act by locating subsidized, low-income housing in segregated areas.
The newly unveiled initiative seeks to redirect current city and federal resources to a handful of underserved neighborhoods to improve access to jobs, schools, parks, quality affordable housing and more, in an effort that will require coordination across city departments as well as with outside bodies, including the local school districts and transit agency.
“Houston must have thriving neighborhoods citywide for us to reach our full potential,” said Turner at a press conference on the steps of City Hall Monday.
Surrounded by city council members and department heads as well as representatives from community groups, Turner outlined the initiative but said further details — including key items like its budget, timeline and performance metrics — would be forthcoming. No new funding was included in the announcement.
The effort will focus on five neighborhoods in its first round: Acres Homes, Gulfton and Second Ward, where the city will take a lead role, as well as Third Ward and Near Northside, where the mayor said the city will play a more supportive role, helping to implement existing plans developed by community groups.
Turner said those neighborhoods were all historically under-resourced and represent a diverse set of communities with varying characteristics. As a result, the city could experiment with different strategies in different types of neighborhoods.
By working with community organizations and select institutions and developers, the mayor said he hopes the focus on the five pilot neighborhoods will signal to businesses that their investments there will be supported.
Turner cited a slew of private entities involved in the effort including the Greater Houston Builders Association, Commonwealth Funding, Wulfe & Co. and Midway Companies. He didn’t elaborate on the exact nature of those partnerships.
Though the city’s investment period was open-ended, the mayor said his administration will focus on short-term projects, like heavy trash sweeps, park and community center repairs, enhanced weed abatement and improved sidewalks and street lighting, as well as home repairs and public art to highlight the transformations underway.
Turner also promised longer-term gains like improved educational outcomes, access to quality grocery stores, better drainage and the creation and preservation of affordable housing.
“I’m not placing any limit on it,” said Turner. “We stay until we reach that benchmark.” Specific benchmarks for each neighborhoods have not yet been identified.
The city will finalize its plans for each neighborhood by January 2018, after a community engagement process, according to the city. “This not a one-size fits all approach,” the mayor said.
Turner promised to dedicate 60 percent of the available $46 million from Houston’s tax increment reinvestment zones’ housing funds to the effort, as well as federal funding in the form of Community Development Block Grants and other sources, some of which are under threat by the current federal administration’s budget proposal.
At the press conference Monday, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Houston) promised to fight to protect funding from the federal housing department as well as the National Endowment for the Arts and other programs targeted by the president. Turner added that he will look for other uncommitted funding sources currently available to focus investment in the pilot areas.
Monday’s announcement came after Turner faced criticism earlier this year for city decisions that effectively barred low-income housing from wealthy Houston neighborhoods, according to a federal investigation. Citing his decision to table the low-income housing tax credit project proposed at 2640 Fountain View in a census tract that was almost 90 percent white, the federal housing department said that decision and others were based, in part, on racially-motivated opposition from community groups. But instead of crafting a corrective plan, the city has vehemently denied the findings, and Turner has asked the agency to rescind it.
Simultaneously, Turner has moved forward on his Complete Communities initiative, arguing that low-income Houstonians should not have to move from largely low-income communities to reap the benefits often associated with wealthier neighborhoods, often labeled as “high opportunity” communities.
“I vowed that we cannot allow Houston to be two cities in one, a city of haves and have-nots,” Turner said.
Rick Lowe, co-founder of Third Ward’s Project Row Houses and a member of the advisory committee for the mayor’s initiative, said he’s looking for Complete Communities to support the planning work already done by his and other community organizations. “We are ahead of the game in a lot of community organizing aspects,” he said, adding that he’s hopeful the city will provide policy guidance around parking and other planning and development issues.
Lowe also said he’s hopeful that initiative will spur further community organizing across the city. “That’s the key, I think, for this whole initiative. It goes beyond five [neighborhoods]. It needs to get into the fiber of the city,” said Lowe.
Without a set timeline, it’s unclear when the next round of communities might benefit from the initiative. And some advocates are concerned that other neighborhoods might be overlooked in the meantime.
“These are emerging communities; these are communities on the brink of gentrification, if not there already,” said Chrishelle Palay, Houston co-director of Texas Housers, of the selected neighborhoods. “So there are already investments. You have other communities just screaming for help.”
Kathy Flanagan Payton, executive director of the Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation, said the mayor was trying to include several types of communities.
“Given the diversity of Houston, I think the mayor’s challenge was making sure that he was inclusive and diverse economically as well as geographically,” said Payton, who served on the mayor’s advisory committee.
Though Fifth Ward is not one of the pilot neighborhoods, she said, “[Turner’s] announcement for Complete Communities does not eliminate other opportunities.”
The initiative will also include the creation of a citywide “Neighborhood Toolbox,” a way to highlight the various city programs available to support community development.
Turner acknowledged that because much of the funding comes from the city’s already-tight budget, he can’t pursue all the projects at once. “If you try to do everything at the same time, you end up not doing much at all,” he said, defending the selection of only five neighborhoods. “When you look at what we will do,” he added, “I think communities will be willing to wait.”