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The state of the city

Mayor White made his State of the City address yesterday, which you can find here. The Chron has a bunch of stories relating directly and indirectly to the items mentioned in this address. I’ll start with the two big proposals for 2005:

Foreclosing for affordable housing

The city of Houston will foreclose on 1,500 tax-delinquent properties beginning next month in an effort to add affordable housing and stem the gentrification of poor neighborhoods near downtown, Mayor Bill White said Monday.


White said at a news conference after his speech that with the help of the Texas Legislature, he hopes to complete the foreclosures in six to 18 months. After that, he said, the city envisions working closely with developers and funneling tens of millions of dollars in local, state and federal funds to build mostly subsidized, single-family homes on the 1,500 lots.

The city also plans to improve infrastructure in these areas, he said.

White said that too many subsidized housing units now are being built in outlying areas of the city, “far away from work centers.” White also has expressed concern that the increasing popularity of inner-city neighborhoods could drive out low-income homeowners as rising property values increase tax bills.


Steve Tinnermon, White’s special assistant for neighborhoods, said White’s plan is more ambitious than anything the city has tried in an effort to clean up tax-delinquent properties and build affordable housing.

Tinnermon said the city will ask the Legislature to pass two laws to help the plan. The first would eliminate, in some cases, a requirement that courts appoint a lawyer to represent the interests of property owners who cannot be located.

Tinnermon said the city wants to remove that requirement on properties that have delinquent tax bills and fees greater than their appraised values. About half of the 1,500 properties are in that category, called “upside-down” in real estate parlance.

Tinnermon said such a law could expedite foreclosures by reducing the entire process to as little as four months from as much as 18 months. He said the city has been unable to locate owners for about 80 percent of the city’s tax-delinquent properties and that taxes have been unpaid on some properties for almost 20 years.

The city will also ask the Legislature to create a Houston “Land Bank,” such as one already authorized in Dallas, that would give it the first right to buy foreclosed properties by paying the lesser of either the delinquent tax bill or the appraised value.

The city then could pass along the savings in selling the property to developers who would build affordable housing.

This one seems pretty achievable. The goal is clear, precedent exists, and there’s no obvious and organized opposition. If the legislative hurdle is cleared and the money is there, this one should get done.

Tracking toxic air

Taking his strongest stance yet on the city’s air pollution problems, Mayor Bill White on Monday said the city would set up an air pollution monitoring network along the fences of some of the region’s industrial plants to track down companies contributing to risky levels of carcinogenic chemicals in city air.

“We will begin to place air quality monitors outside the plant gates of those firms most likely identified as the source of these excess levels of air toxics,” White said in his second annual State of the City address.

“I don’t want to wait two or three years,” the mayor later said in a briefing. “I don’t care who does it, but if somebody doesn’t do it quick, we are going to do it.”

The new air quality initiative — one of two unveiled by the mayor for his second year in office — is aimed at addressing “needs we’ve swept under the rug for too long,” he said.

While White applauded business community efforts to cut smog, he said “we cannot ignore air toxics,” a group of 188 chemicals linked to cancer and other serious health effects.

Other goals of his clean air plan include: asking state and federal agencies’ to post their air toxics data on the Internet; assembling a task force of medical experts to analyze the risk from the pollution levels measured; and joining other local governments to bring legal action against companies whose plants are “cutting corners.”

This one will be tough. The goal is certainly laudable, but it’s less clear, and the polluters aren’t going to sit around quietly. Further, it’s not clear that any help will be forthcoming at either the state or national level. Still, this would be a huge feather in White’s cap if he can succeed. We’ll keep an eye on this one.

Other headlines relating to the address or items mentioned by Mayor White:

ChevronTexaco deeds golf course to the city

Texas Rangers to oversee crime lab review

LULAC denounces SafeClear

Council to weigh funding for Emeergency Center audit

Happy reading.

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