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Where the poverty is

It’s all around us, but more in some places than in others.

The number of Houston-area residents living in very poor neighborhoods almost doubled over the past decade, which researchers say increases their risk for unemployment, health problems and crime.

The neighborhoods identified in a Brookings Institution study of the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas are concentrated in Houston’s inner city, with smaller pockets across the region.

Some of the increase came as rising unemployment pushed people already living in those neighborhoods below the poverty level. Researchers say the lack of affordable housing in more affluent neighborhoods likely contributed to the increased concentration of the poor, as well.

Many of these high-poverty neighborhoods – defined as those in which 40 percent or more of the residents are poor – have been the focus of renewal efforts for years.

“The Fifth Ward is void of jobs,” said Jarvis Johnson, whose City Council district includes the neighborhood east of downtown, home to several of the high-poverty census tracts cited in the study. “There aren’t any commercial grocery stores. There aren’t any places where young people can get a job.”


Kathy Flanagan Payton, who grew up in the Fifth Ward and now runs the Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corp., said poverty too often leads to powerlessness.

“Poverty weakens the voice of the people,” said Payton. “It dampens the overall spirit of the community.”

Like Councilman Jarvis, she said the neighborhood is hurt by the lack of retail.

“No money is being spent in the community,” she said. “It’s all spent outside the community.”

I see that as being more effect than cause. Most of the money spent at a given business doesn’t necessarily stay in the community. Taxes go to the city and state, TIRZes aside. The owners and employees will spend their wages and profits where they live, which may or may not be in that community – if the business is not locally owned, much of its revenue may not even stay in the city.

Of course, having retail means having jobs, which certainly benefit the community, and it means having amenities that make people want to live there. It’s hard to attract people to a neighborhood that doesn’t have grocery stores, restaurants, gas stations, dry cleaners, etc etc etc. It’s a chicken-and-egg problem – businesses don’t want to be where there isn’t an established market, and people don’t want to live where there’s nothing to do and no place to go.

The good news for the Fifth Ward, as I’ve said before, is its status as the last bastion of cheap real estate inside the Loop. Sooner or later, I believe, it will become attractive to the speculators and pioneer gentrifiers. The neighborhood appears to be ready for that.

[Payton’s] group builds affordable housing and is involved in efforts to renovate the DeLuxe Theater on Lyons Avenue, which Texas Southern University will use for classes and performances.

The goal isn’t to bring back the old Fifth Ward, which was the heart of African-American life in the 1940s and ’50s, Payton said, noting that it is now about 40 percent Latino.

“We’re trying to diversify the community, both socially and culturally,” she said, “to improve the overall economics that will lead to much-needed retail and bring jobs.”

I hope to see it happen. See here for more on the national story.

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