Many African Americans across Houston have felt ‘disenfranchised’ and have dealt with the overarching effects of ‘gentrification’ for years, as they have consistently reached out to city officials and elected officials to help improve their neighborhoods and quality of life, while struggling to hold on to their property and land in areas that have long been considered strong, traditional African American areas. In order for any of that development and improvement to take place in their communities, however, Houston leaders would have to finally start speaking up and making some tough decisions that are critical to the long-term sustainability and growth of the Black community, while helping to improve traditional Black neighborhoods, in the way other more affluent areas across the city of Houston have been developed and improved.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the term ‘gentrification’ is defined as “the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents.”
Another term found in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, ‘disenfranchised,’ which is defined as “depriving someone of a legal right, or some privilege or immunity.”You may have become familiar with the term, ‘disenfranchised,’ especially over the last several years where civil rights activists have fought against Voter ID bills that were introduced and even passed in states like Texas. Many activists and even the U.S. Attorney General argued that these Voter ID bills would disenfranchise the voting rights of U.S. citizens, particularly African Americans. The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that these laws were unconstitutional.
It appears that African Americans in the city of Houston may have finally found the right voice and advocate to make that vision a true reality, after the scathing rebuke that Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner provided to the Houston Chronicle Editorial Board and the decision he made not to present a proposed project by the Houston Housing Authority (HHA) to Houston City Council for consideration. Under the plan, the HHA had proposed to build a 233-unit apartment complex on property it owns near its administrative headquarters at 2640 Fountainview. As part of the proposal, only 23 out of the 233 units in the apartment complex were going to be set aside for low-income tenants. The remaining 210 units, however, would have been set aside for higher income tenants, who could afford higher market rate housing. The price of the development per unit was approximately $240,000, which included a $6 million developer’s fee to HHA.
Mayor Turner, who not only grew up in Acres Homes, but still lives in Acres Homes, chimed in on the proposed development, as well as his decision about the project, which drew a critical response from the Houston Chronicle Editorial Board. Turner said at the time of his decision:
“After careful review of the costs and other concerns, I am asking HHA to look for an alternative location for this project that is still in City Council District G in what we refer to as a high opportunity area with access to good public services, quality schools, and thriving businesses. I also want the Authority to begin a conversation with private apartment owners about making more units available to our public housing clients so that those who rely on the federal government’s voucher program are not limited to living in certain geographical areas. I look forward to working with HHA to accomplish the important mission of providing for fair housing and quality affordable homes in safe neighborhoods near great schools throughout all of Houston.”
In an editorial that appeared in the Houston Chronicle earlier this month, the Chronicle editorial board criticized Mayor Turner’s decision to stop the development and even questioned his motives for doing so. It was the last two paragraphs of the editorial, entitled “Housing dreams: The mayor’s reset on an affordable housing project only kicks the can down the road,” that stood out the most, as the Chronicle editorial board says:
“At a certain point, City Hall has to stop giving in to whatever excuses people can invent to oppose low-income housing. All of Houston bears a shared responsibility for offering a hand up to people trying to improve their lives.
We know that bringing kids into better neighborhoods helps them reach that next rung on the economic ladder and take part in the American dream. For the kids who would have moved into the Fountain View apartment, that will have to remain a dream deferred.”
For years, there has been a constant “back and forth” between community residents and developers over the various types of development projects that have been proposed across different areas in the city of Houston, but little activity in African American neighborhoods that wanted to improve their areas through various types of developments.
When it comes to the Black community of Houston, it has often appeared that many traditional African American neighborhoods have been neglected, ignored and often overlooked when it comes to these types of development projects and community investments, except when it involves catering to other cultures and races of people who decide to move into those areas.
In response to the Houston Chronicle editorial, Mayor Turner delivered a sharp retort, saying:
“It’s hard to quantify the level of my disappointment in seeing a Houston Chronicle editorial veer off into an outmoded, skewed analysis about my decision to reject the Houston Housing Authority’s (HHA) plans for a project on Fountain View in the Galleria area (“Housing dreams” Page 35A, Sunday).
First of all, there are good reasons to question the economics of the project that originated prior to my administration. This multi-family project of 233 units would have cost $56 million, which equates to $240,000 per unit. Only 23 of the units, just 10 percent of the entire project, were to have been designated for families living below the poverty line. The rest would have been available for people with incomes considerably higher than the poverty line. There were also concerns about the $6 million developer’s fee from this deal. It was simply too high. Repeatedly, people use the argument of helping the poor to advance the interests of others who are interested in profiting.
More important, the Houston Chronicle editorial board criticizes me for deferring the hopes and dreams of children living in high-poverty neighborhoods by not signing off on this project. With a poignant reference to “A Raisin in the Sun,” the editorial states that the city is preventing these children from living in better neighborhoods. This is not true. I have asked the HHA to get to work on affordable housing in all areas of the city, including so-called high opportunity areas like District G, consistent with my plans. You see, I value all neighborhoods of Houston and do not believe that only wealthy areas have value to our children. We cannot and must not say to the kids in Fifth Ward, Second Ward, Sunnyside, Denver Harbor or Acres Homes that unless you move to the Galleria area you will forever be trapped at the bottom of the economic ladder and unable to take part in the American Dream.
The “silver bullet” to eliminating systemic poverty is not moving families from areas that have been overlooked and underserved. Rather, the answer is to invest in these neighborhoods with quality affordable and mixed income housing, good schools, retail and economic development, parks and green space, transit options, and job and business opportunities. Far too often people who live outside high-poverty areas believe that the answer to eliminating poverty or improving school test scores is to close neighborhood schools and move these low-income families across town. That suggestion does not require any accountability from institutions to improve these neighborhoods and schools.
I have no problem with people disagreeing with my decisions – that comes with the job. I do, however, have a big problem with an institution that does not reflect the diversity of this city publishing a lecture on race and class that does not elevate all children, regardless of where they live. I know the people and their dreams because I was born and raised in such a community, where I still live. My dreams came true because my parents, neighborhood pastor and teachers believed in me. I choose to still live there today because it is my way of living by example for the youngsters in my neighborhood.
It is sad that some still see Houston through the black and white lens of Lorraine Hansberry’s 1950s America – a city in which the dreams of a child growing up in a Black neighborhood must be deferred unless his or her parents can move someplace else.
“A Raisin in the Sun” was written before the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the advent of single-member districts, the rise of an African American middle class, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and countless other heroic achievements and unsung sacrifices that have created the diverse and welcoming city we live in today.
We have a lot more work to do on this long journey to equality, to be sure – but the Houston Chronicle editorial board needs to reset its perspective.
A good first step would be to increase diversity on the editorial board so that it looks more like Houston and has greater access to the diversity of life experiences that the majority of Houston knows.”
In Houston, whether development is an affordable housing project, grocery store, multi-family project, apartment complex, mixed-used development, industrial warehouse, a business park or a commercial business, there has and always will be community activists who are opposed to having certain types of developments in their respective neighborhoods. On the flip side, there are also many people who welcome these types of developments, in order to create economic opportunities and improve the quality of life in their respective neighborhoods.
As the top brass in the city of Houston, Mayor Turner effectively communicated and illustrated to all Houstonians something that the majority of African Americans have been saying for years. African Americans are more interested in improving their own neighborhoods, rather than leave their own neighborhoods to move somewhere else to chase after a better life for themselves or a quality education for their children in another part of the city.
If you visit the website of the Houston Housing Authority, they indicate that they are an entity with a mission “to improve lives by providing quality, affordable housing options and promoting education and economic self-sufficiency,” that is “committed to providing support to its low-income, elderly and disabled residents.”
If the city of Houston, members of Houston City Council and the Houston Housing Authority are really committed to improve the quality of life of African Americans across the Houston area, it would appear that encouraging city officials, developers, businesses, school trustees and residents to follow the lead of Mayor Turner and focus on channeling resources directly into the areas where African Americans currently reside, as opposed to sending a mixed message to them that leaving their Houston area neighborhoods is the only way they could ever actually improve their lives and have a better life for their families in the city of Houston.
So at the end of the day, the question becomes whose dream has been deferred? Is it the lucky 23 low-to-moderate income families who would have the hope, if selected, of leaving their own neighborhoods to move on up like The Jefferson’s to another side of town where the grass is supposedly greener and their housing would be subsidized, or the 210 higher income tenants who could afford the units that would come along with the $240,000 per unit cost of development?
Only time will tell.