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July 2nd, 2014:

HISD redistricting underway

As we know, the Houston Independent School District now includes all of the former North Forest ISD. The addition of all that new territory, and especially all those new voters, means that the existing HISD Trustee districts will have to be redrawn. HISD is going through that process now.

HISD Redistricting Plan

The Houston Independent School District will launch a series of four community meetings next week to hear feedback about a draft plan to redraw trustee districts.

The first meeting will take place at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 1, at Shadydale Elementary School, 5905 Tidwell 77028.

With the annexation of North Forest ISD in 2013, 56,000 more people were added to HISD, necessitating the redrawing of all nine trustees’ areas to comply with federal election law mandating that population be distributed evenly throughout the entire school district.

Trustees voted at their last regular meeting to send a draft plan to the community. Three additional meetings will be held in July:

  • Pin Oak Middle School (4601 Glenmont, Bellaire 77401) 6:30 p.m., July 8
  • Hattie Mae White Educational Support Center (4400 W. 18th St. 77092) 6:30 p.m. July 10
  • Austin High School (1700 Dumble St. 77023) 6:30 p.m. July 15

The board will receive feedback from the meetings and is expected to vote on a final redistricting plan at its August meeting.

For more on the redistricting plan, including materials reviewed by the board and the proposed map, click here.

Sorry I didn’t post in time for the first meeting, but there are three others. A draft map is here, and the associated presentation with all the before-and-afters including population mixes is here; both are PDF file download links. Greg has had a look and doesn’t think there will be too much fuss as not to much is changing at a high level. You never know with redistricting, of course, so don’t be surprised if someone expresses unhappiness about this. The one question I don’t see answered is if implementing this plan will require all Trustees to run for re-election in 2015, as members of the Texas Senate and SBOE, both of which have four-year terms, are required to do after the standard decennial redistricting. That wasn’t the case for HISD in 2011, however, so perhaps it will be just the Trustees elected in 2011 on the ballot as usual. Anyone know the answer for sure?

Uber is working hard to make itself unlikeable

It’s almost as if it’s a deliberate part of their business plan.

“We’re in a political campaign, and the candidate is Uber, and the opponent is an asshole named Taxi,” Travis Kalanick, the CEO of ride-sharing company Uber, said while on stage at a conference in late May. “Nobody likes him, he’s not a nice character, but he’s so woven into the political machinery and fabric that a lot of people owe him favors.”

Kalanick wasn’t bluffing. Uber really is the candidate: It has been interviewing potential campaign managers–real ones, from real presidential campaigns–for months. A source close to the hiring process told me, “They want somebody who has been steeped in that political warfare.”

And for good reason.

In the process of trying to force regulators to concede to its enormous popularity, “Uber” has become, in some ways, a loaded political term. And observers and participants alike are questioning, in real time, how much government interference is too much.

Uber, which in June was valued at $17 billion, appears to be launching a full-scale political operation—complete with backroom operators and face-saving strategists.

To combat governmental hostility, Uber has hired political muscle all over the country: in D.C., it has the Franklin Square Group (Apple, Google). In New York, it has Bradley Tusk (Michael Bloomberg’s former campaign manager). In Chicago, it has Michael Kasper (the lawyer who got Rahm Emanuel on the ballot). Additionally, it has lobbyists in Miami, Baltimore, Houston, and Denver.

And Uber’s not the only member of the new sharing economy who’s gone political. Airbnb, a housing and rental service estimated to be worth $10 billion, has hired one of the most-connected operators in New York—and even formed its own “grassroots” political organization.

Kalanick (who did not respond to multiple requests for an interview) looks like a television preacher, appears on Gwyneth Paltrow’s Instagram, and once joked to a journalist about how the success of Uber increased his desirability to women: “Yeah, we call that the Boob-er.”

For a time, Kalanick’s Twitter avatar was the cover of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead—which he has repeatedly said was not the sort of bold political statement some have made it out to be. (In other interviews, he has indicated Rand has influenced his thinking.) But it is difficult to not see some parallels between Uber’s business model and libertarianism.

Given that, it’s not surprising that Uber is gaining friends on the right side of the political aisle. For example, Grover Norquist, the anti-tax activist, on Thursday Tweeted “Today, there are two political parties/movements in America. One is UBER, the other is with taxi commission. Choose.”

Overwhelmingly, the political types who openly support Uber—Norquist and Republican Senator Marco Rubio, to name two—are the ones who were demonizing regulators long before the phrase “call an Uber” had ever been uttered. But now, of course, the phrase has been said millions of times in multiple languages across the globe.

Companies like Uber—along with Airbnb and less popular services like Zilok (which lets you rent “anything” from strangers)—make up the sharing economy, a community in which individuals rent out their possessions or their labor, and businesses act as middlemen, helping to arrange plans. Uber and Lyft (another ride-sharing service) will connect passengers with drivers, but won’t provide a car. Similarly, Airbnb will introduce homeowners to those looking for a place to stay, but doesn’t own properties.

The distinction of not owning any hardware, sharing economy companies would like customers and regulators alike to believe, should make all the difference when it comes to the law. Except, it doesn’t—at least not yet. The fact remains that Uber and Airbnb have built multibillion-dollar empires by operating in places where they are illegal, and so they are turning political to protect themselves.

Jesus. As you know, I’ve been basically supportive of the efforts to revamp Houston’s vehicle for hire ordinances. I believe the existing taxi industry does not adequately serve the whole city, I believe there is room for the market to grow with the new services, and I think Houston’s emerging image as a dynamic place to live would benefit from including the newcomers and would suffer from excluding them. But as I’ve also said, Uber in particular has done an amazingly effective job of alienating the people they should be courting, with their decision to go rogue and start operating as if they’d been approved even though they’re still not legal, thus putting their drivers and potentially their customers at risk while utterly disregarding the concerns of the existing players. I’ve marveled more than once at how a company with that much venture funding, and that much at stake because of it, could be so cavalier about the process that will ultimately determine whether or not they get to do business in a given city. I suppose this is one answer to those questions.

(Side note: While I have generally lumped Uber and Lyft together in these discussions, it strikes me that Uber has been by far the worse actor of the two. Lyft has also had drivers charging for rides, but they followed Uber’s lead, and overall my impression is simply that they’ve been less obnoxious, at least as far as I can see. Maybe there’s more going on that I haven’t seen, but this is how it looks to me.)

One has to wonder if Uber and its allies are self-aware enough to realize the potential for political consequences, in particular for undermining their own efforts. Campos made an interesting observation last week:

H-Town City Council takes next week off then comes back after the Fourth of July. I am thinking the next big issue before them is the vehicle-for-hire ordinance. Let me say again that I don’t have a dog in this hunt. That being said I’m thinking don’t put your money on the Uber and Lyft movements. First of all I think they have pi__ed off folks here in H-Town by operating illegally. Second of all I think they have been completely outflanked by the disabilities community. Uber and Lyft don’t have an answer to their concerns. Thirdly, their demographic isn’t a political force in our burg – they don’t vote. Fourthly, Uber and Lyft don’t have any roots in our community and that has to count for something – don’t you think? Stay tuned!

I’ve generally been of the opinion that Council would accommodate the newcomers, at least in some fashion, but I’ve also said that there isn’t much of an early indicator how the vote will go. What I do know is that if this turns into a partisan fight, the Republican side is outnumbered. Counting CM Costello, who isn’t much of an R these days but who is a self-proclaimed supporter of Uber and Lyft, there are seven Rs out of 17 votes on Council (Mayor Parker gets a vote, too), so at least two crossovers would be needed. That could certainly happen, but most other large cities are predominantly Democratic, and I don’t think having Grover Norquist and Marco Rubio as Uber’s champions will do them much good in those environs. But hey, they’re obviously so much smarter than the rest of us, so I’m sure they know what they’re doing.

One less food desert

From the inbox:

With high hopes of more to come, Mayor Annise Parker, Council Members Stephen Costello and Dwight Boykins, the Houston Redevelopment Authority (HRA) and others broke ground on the first project to target a Houston food desert. With financial assistance from the city, Pyburn’s owner John Vuong is building a first-class grocery store to serve South Union and surrounding neighborhoods. The store is scheduled to open the first quarter of 2015.

“An estimated two-thirds of Houstonians are overweight or obese and a high percentage of them live in food deserts with no access to fresh food,” said Mayor Parker. “This forces families in these areas to rely on unhealthy processed or fatty foods from convenience stores and fast food restaurants. I am excited that we are able to take the first step to address this problem that impacts the overall health of our residents and am confident there will be additional opportunities for grocery stores in other food desert areas in Houston.”

“Everyone should have access to fresh food, no matter the zip code,” said council member Costello. “I am grateful to the Vuongs for recognizing the need and reconfirming their commitment to serving the community. Pyburn’s will not only provide fresh meat and produce to South Union, but will also create jobs for our city’s youth and spur economic development in an area ripe for more industry.”

Vuong and his family own and operate 11 stores, nine of which are located in Houston. They have extensive experience operating in low to moderate income areas. The new venture, which must create a minimum of 25 jobs, will be the next generation of the company’s stores, named Pyburn’s Farm Fresh Foods. The funding agreement with the city requires that the store be designed to provide customers with a shopping experience equal to that of grocery stores in high income areas of Houston. In addition, there is room at the site for additional complementary development. The loan agreement prohibits uses inconsistent with community revitalization, such as liquor stores and pay-day loan establishments.

“My family purchased the land at Scott and Corder over eight years ago and this opportunity to partner with the City of Houston allows us to realize our dream of bringing healthy fresh food choices to South Union and the surrounding communities,” said Voung. “We are humbled by this opportunity to invest, serve and bring over 25 new jobs to this community.”

Council member Dwight Boykins is excited the new store will be located in his council district. “As a child growing up on welfare, my walk to school took me by this site,” said Boykins. “I am thankful to the mayor, the Voung family and all the other people who worked so hard to secure this opportunity for my community.”

“Everyone deserves the opportunity to purchase healthy food for their family,” said Yael Lehmann, Executive Director of The Food Trust. “We applaud this initiative by the City of Houston to increase access to grocery stores in underserved areas,” said.”

The City is providing a performance-based loan of $1.7 million for predevelopment, land acquisition, construction and equipment. The total project cost is estimated to be $3.7 million. Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds awarded to the Houston Redevelopment Authority for economic development projects will be used for the project. Funding is available for additional projects and HRA will work with potential partners on a case-by-case basis to determine eligibility for building or revitalizing grocery stores in food desert areas.

To combat food deserts in Houston, which has fewer grocery stores per capita than most large cities in the country, the Mayor, partnering with Council Member Costello, The Food Trust and Children At Risk, created the Houston Grocery Access Task Force in 2011. At the end of 2012, the Task Force issued their report, Roadmap for Encouraging Grocery Development in Houston and Texas. Economic development tools, such as performance-based loans, were highlighted as key opportunities to increasing access to fresh food. The report can be accessed here.

The Chron story is here. We first heard about this proposal in December. Council passed an update to its ordinance about the minimum distance a retailer that sells beer and wine must be from schools and churches in January to allow supermarkets to be built in some places where they would otherwise have been forbidden. Here’s a Google map link to where this Pyburn’s Farm Fresh Foods is going up. According to CultureMap, the closest existing grocery store is an HEB at Scott and Old Spanish Trail 1.2 miles away. That’s not that far, but if you live south of Corder it could get to be a bit of a hike, especially if you depend on public transportation. Be that as it may, I think it’s a good thing to encourage this kind of development in parts of the city that don’t have it regardless of whether there are any associated health benefits to it. I do hope someone is going to follow up with a study, however, because if there really are health benefits we as a country should pursue this kind of development more aggressively, and if there aren’t we should at least be careful to not make dishonest arguments in favor of it.

Don’t kill no-kill

I don’t like the look of this.

Stricter enforcement of a previously obscure state regulation is threatening the no-kill movement across Texas and could result in animal shelters euthanizing tens of thousands of additional pets each year, advocates warn.

A “clarification” of state rules by the Texas Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners last August already has sparked a court case and caused widespread confusion among city officials and private groups.

At issue is the veterinary care provided to animals in municipal shelters and privately-operated animal rescue organizations.

Under its rules, the Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners requires the same level of medical care and attention for shelter dogs and cats as they would receive from a private veterinarian. That means volunteers and fosters cannot perform routine care, such as administering intake vaccinations, without a trained vet present. It also means shelter veterinarians must provide individual care to each shelter animal upon intake.

Shelters say that requiring a veterinarian be present at all times would bust their budgets and reverse cities’ efforts to reach and maintain the no-kill status of euthanasia rates at or below 10 percent. Without full-time vet staff, animal advocates say, shelters eventually would fall back on euthanizing more animals since state law allows trained staff to administer lethal injections to animals.

“There’s no need for this policy,” said Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, a leading animal advocate in the Legislature who has sponsored numerous humane treatment bills. “We already have high-kill shelters and this would just exacerbate that. They’re just going to turn into euthanasia centers.”

TBVME Executive Director Nicole Oria said the Board always has interpreted the law in this way to protect public health and safety. Shelters, she said, will not be targeted by the agency because it only takes action when it receives a complaint.

Shelter veterinarians and their advocates, however, worry that could leave them open to investigations sparked by disgruntled former employees, volunteers or rival groups.

There’s already been one disciplinary action taken against a no-kill shelter that stemmed from two complaints, one of which turned out to be spurious. I’d like to see some more clarity in the law to ensure that the interests of the animals are being put first. I feel reasonably confident that Rep. Farrar will file a bill to that effect at her first opportunity. But let’s not wait that long till we get this straightened out.