Juan Antonio Sorto
On April 17, 2017, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner announced the launch of Complete Communities, an ambitious economic redevelopment initiative of five predominately low-income communities: Acres Homes, Gulfton, Near Northside, Second Ward and Third Ward. Since its launch, the city’s planning department, which is overseeing the initiative, has held dozens of meetings with city department representatives, several private and public entities and community stakeholders to collect community input, which has coalesced into an ambitious and still uncertain vision for the neighborhood.
In the case of Acres Homes, also sometimes known as Acres Home as the initiative calls it, that community input is actually from two distinct communities, Inwood and Acres Homes. According to 2010 Census estimates, Acres Homes has an estimated population of roughly 50,000. The majority of its residents are African American and roughly 51 percent of its citizens are living at or below the poverty threshold. Inwood on the other hand, has a population of 24,000, is 48 percent white, and its residents have a median income of $43,000, with roughly less than 31 percent of its citizens living at or below the poverty threshold.
In addition, 50 percent of the property value in Acres Homes is below $100,000, and 59 percent of the population consider themselves renters, which makes the area a target for economic redevelopment due to its close proximity downtown and affordable land. Despite the differences between the two communities, both are considered food deserts and lack proper health care facilities, infrastructure, public transportation, affordable housing and parks. Though both are confronting gentrification, Inwood has the benefit of an economic redevelopment management district to guide the development and serve as a potential proxy for civic input.
So far, the Complete Communities process has both raised hopes and questions for an area that has seen ambitious plans developed and largely abandoned in the past.
Located 10 miles northwest of downtown Houston, Acres Homes was established during World War I as a farming community. Land was sold by the acre to accommodate agricultural activity, giving community its name. Much of that heritage remains in sight; horses and trail riders are a common part of life there. During the 1960s, the City of Houston annexed the community, which had a moderate thriving economy and included the first African American-operated bus transit system in the South. In addition, many of the schools and parks located within zip codes 77088 and 77091 are named after prominent residents who have made significant contribution toward the advancement of the community, including our current mayor.
I started attending the Complete Communities meetings in Acres Homes in April 2017 and attended all of the kick-off meetings in each of the five communities held during the fall of 2017. In Acres Homes, the meetings have produced mixed results in terms of attendance and citizen engagement, even though the city’s website, social media accounts and planning department have been actively informing the public about the timing and location of the meetings.
The kick-off meeting, for example, had one of the biggest turn outs of community representation to date, likely due to the mayor’s presence at that meeting, a major component to the success of any economic development plan that is produced, according to Melinda Gleghorn, with the Acres Homes Community Animal Support Team. For Gleghorn, the success of the plan depends on the level of participation from the mayor and councilmembers but that has waned since the kick-off meeting. Attendance at the follow-up general public meetings as well as at meetings held by Neighborhood Support Team (NST)–compromised of super neighborhood, civic club presidents, and civic leaders–has been markedly lower.
But that’s not for lack of dedication from community members. In talking with participants who have each lived in the area for more than five years, they share a sense of pride and commitment to community involvement with a do-it-yourself mindset.
Norma Jo Thomas, whose father owns a barbershop in the community, was born in Acres Homes. For Thomas, these meetings served as a place where residents could highlight and address community issues collectively, without being given an agenda by the city. As Curtis “Renzo” Curley, Vice President of Toshia Hurd Foundation, a non-profit in Acres Homes that addresses issues of social injustice, stated, “Growing up, if my family needed our roof repaired, we would get the tools to repair it ourselves. It is the way of life in Acres Homes.” This appears to be another reason why there is a sense of uncertainty over the outcomes of the ambitious initiative by those who have been attending the meetings.
Incorporating Inwood into the overall plan of Acres Homes, for example, seems to do more with the tools that the area already has in place than with a coherent community identity. Inwood has several active economic development organizations to make the plan a success while Acres Homes sits in an area that is increasingly becoming more attractive to developers, due to the abundance of vacant land and proximity to downtown. Some of the economic development in Inwood stems from the Northwest Management District and Greater Inwood Partnership, which the president of the Greater Inwood Super Neighborhood Philip Salerno acknowledges to be an advantage for any future development in the area. According to Salerno, part of the reason he believes Inwood was included in the Acres Homes Complete Communities design was due to the city’s decision to turn the Inwood Golf Course into a storm water detention site, which sits on the border of both communities, and could potentially serve as an economic hub.
Questions about funding, too, have been a common refrain during these meetings. The city has offered suggestions, but the sentiment among all interviewed is the same. When asked about the low-level of participation of key community leaders since the kick-off meeting, many of the participants turned to the 1999 Acres Home Revitalization Strategies Plan created by the city to improve the well-being of the community. Little was done with that plan and some expressed concern a similar fate would befall this round of community planning. And many of the community members that participated in the creation of that plan have been largely absent from the Complete Communities meetings. Former Acres Home Super Neighborhood board member Robin Anderson said he believes some community leaders have been absent from the meetings because of a lack of trust that exists between the community and the government.
And it’s not just a disillusionment with planning. Some community members also pointed to the aftermath of Hurricane Ike, when they said the city was slow to respond to roof damages that their properties sustained as a result of storm, a priority for Mayor Turner after he took office. The quick action by the mayor in addressing this issue is what has allowed Anderson and other community members to remain hopeful about the outcomes of the Complete Communities program.
Community members Sandy Francis and Yvonee Green are also hopeful that those who are participating will remain engaged in the process and will continue to push not just for a plan, but also resources to implement it. Both agree that addressing the need of affordable housing, animal control, public sidewalks, parks, schools and a lack of economic opportunities will require the community and city officials to work together during this initial planning process. The community also wants to see the preservation of the rich history that defines Acres Homes alongside the development of new economic opportunities.
The planning department expects to complete the plan by March or April, and for the mayor and city council to adopt it before the start of the summer. Until then, the community waits anxiously to see what type of results the plan will produce for an area that takes extreme pride in its rich history and cultural influence.
Juan Antonio Sorto is a doctoral candidate in the department of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University. He has been attending community meetings and interviewing participants and residents as part of a larger research project.