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Complete Communities

Mayor Turner makes an announcement about a new program for revitalizing some core neighborhoods.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner plans to focus Houston’s community development efforts on five low-income neighborhoods as part of his Complete Communities initiative announced Monday.

The program comes without a price tag or implementation timeline, and the mayor has committed no additional money for housing and community development.

Instead, Turner said the city will redirect 60 percent of its local and federal housing dollars to the five pilot neighborhoods: Acres Homes, Gulfton, Second Ward, Northside Village and Third Ward.

That amounts to roughly $34 million annually, if federal funding remains steady, on top of $28 million in available local housing funds.

“We recognize that this effort will not transform neighborhoods immediately, nor will it be a panacea that eliminates challenges neighborhoods face,” Turner said. “But they will see an intense, concentrated effort by many partners to enhance their quality of life and improve their living conditions.”

The city intends to finalize development plans for each of the five neighborhoods in January, after several months of community engagement. Turner said programs could include additional heavy trash pickup, weed abatement, sidewalk construction or single family home repair – things the city already does in neighborhoods across Houston.

“These short-term projects will generate enthusiasm and serve as a catalyst for support from outside organizations and the local community,” the mayor said.

Asked how he would respond to other disadvantaged neighborhoods eager for investment, Turner said, “We see you and hear you, but when you look at what we will do in these respective pilot communities, I think communities will be willing to wait for the transformation that will take place.”

See here for the Mayor’s press release. Leah Binkovitz the The Urban Edge adds some more detail.

Turner cited a slew of private entities involved in the effort including the Greater Houston Builders Association, Commonwealth Funding, Wulfe & Co. and Midway Companies. He didn’t elaborate on the exact nature of those partnerships.

Though the city’s investment period was open-ended, the mayor said his administration will focus on short-term projects, like heavy trash sweeps, park and community center repairs, enhanced weed abatement and improved sidewalks and street lighting, as well as home repairs and public art to highlight the transformations underway.

Turner also promised longer-term gains like improved educational outcomes, access to quality grocery stores, better drainage and the creation and preservation of affordable housing.

“I’m not placing any limit on it,” said Turner. “We stay until we reach that benchmark.” Specific benchmarks for each neighborhoods have not yet been identified.

The city will finalize its plans for each neighborhood by January 2018, after a community engagement process, according to the city. “This not a one-size fits all approach,” the mayor said.


Monday’s announcement came after Turner faced criticism earlier this year for city decisions that effectively barred low-income housing from wealthy Houston neighborhoods, according to a federal investigation. Citing his decision to table the low-income housing tax credit project proposed at 2640 Fountain View in a census tract that was almost 90 percent white, the federal housing department said that decision and others were based, in part, on racially-motivated opposition from community groups. But instead of crafting a corrective plan, the city has vehemently denied the findings, and Turner has asked the agency to rescind it.

Simultaneously, Turner has moved forward on his Complete Communities initiative, arguing that low-income Houstonians should not have to move from largely low-income communities to reap the benefits often associated with wealthier neighborhoods, often labeled as “high opportunity” communities.

“I vowed that we cannot allow Houston to be two cities in one, a city of haves and have-nots,” Turner said.

There are still a lot of details to work out, and a number of similar neighborhoods that would presumably be next on the list after these five. The goal here is to upgrade the infrastructure in these neighborhoods, making them better for existing residents, who haven’t seen a lot of investment from the city, while also making them more attractive to the kind of businesses that thriving neighborhoods need, all while (hopefully) not causing appraisals to soar or the kind of developers who would raze everything in order to build luxury condos to swoop in. Easier said than done, but the goal is a good one. All parts of the city need maintenance and new investments, and there’s a lot of room for infill development to ensure the city remains a vibrant alternative to outward sprawl. I look forward to seeing how this goes.

The Magic Bus


Just like that, faster than Uber, the Magic Bus is seven minutes from its first passenger of the day.

For the next 12 hours, the bus – in actuality, a brightly painted van bearing the slogan “For all who labor for a better life” – will make 20-minute loops around Gulfton, a working-class neighborhood of apartment complexes and strip malls in southwest Houston.

It will trundle past fruterias and carnicerias, dollar stores and washaterias, charter school campuses and health clinics, wind along Gulfton Avenue and Bellaire Boulevard, rattle down Chimney Rock and up Hillcroft.

Along the way, the 15-passenger van will fill up with women running errands before shifts as restaurant workers and house cleaners, mothers scooping up children from school, families heading to the Baker-Ripley Center for a monthly food bank.

For these regular riders, who don’t own a car or whose husbands use the family’s only vehicle to get to work, the Magic Bus is a lifeline.

Without the service, operated by the nonprofit Neighborhood Centers, many of the families would lose connections that bolster chances of upward mobility: getting to health care and social services, community programs and extracurricular activities, English classes and computer training.


For more than a century, the Neighborhood Centers has worked to lift people out of poverty by asking them a simple question: What do you need?

In Gulfton, a predominantly Latino and immigrant community where nearly half of residents have a household income under $25,000 and most families live paycheck to paycheck, one thing many asked for was reliable transportation.

About one-third of Gulfton residents depend on something other than a car as a primary means of transportation. Yet there, as in many low-income neighborhoods, streets are often dangerous to cross on foot, sidewalks are nonexistent and public transit can be relatively costly and unreliable.

About 122,000 households in the Houston region do not have cars; about three-fourths of those are low-income. Many more, unable to afford the $8,000 to $10,000-a-year cost of maintaining a vehicle, make do with one car.

The Magic Bus – named for a song by The Who – was launched to help plug the transportation gap, said Angela Blanchard, president and CEO of the nonprofit, which serves half a million people a year at 70 sites across the city. The weekday service is available to Neighborhood Centers clients, who pay a membership fee based on a sliding scale for a range of classes, social services and vocational training.

Neighborhood Centers also assists clients with securing car loans and finding reputable used car dealers – a nod to the critical role of transportation in breaking the cycle of poverty, Blanchard said.

Without a car, people miss out on job opportunities because they can’t get to interviews, pre-employment screening or the job site. If they do secure a job, it takes longer to get to work using public transit. Buses running late means people clock in late, and that can lead to job loss and instability.

In the Houston region, residents of low-income neighborhoods are more likely to have a public transit stop within walking distance, but they can reach only 30 percent of the area’s jobs within a 90-minute morning rush-hour commute – a lower share than higher-income residents, a 2010 Brookings Institute report found.

Houston’s jobs are more spread out than in most major metro areas, with the bulk of growth more than 10 miles from downtown, another Brookings study showed.

“The more decentralized the jobs base, the more challenging it can be to effectively connect people to jobs,” said Elizabeth Kneebone, one of the authors of the 2010 study.

Research by Harvard economist Raj Chetty shows that areas with less sprawl – and shorter commute times – have much higher rates of upward mobility.

I like it. The service clearly fills a need, and if it makes life for these folks a little easier, so much the better. It’s a bit like the various trolley/circulator services we’ve had at various times downtown, with enough demand to make it worth doing but not enough to make it viable as a full-fledged bus route. Regardless, I hope Neighborhood Centers has worked with Metro to optimize their service and the connections. Transportation always works best as a network. Maybe if this continues to be a success there will be the possibility of duplicating it in other parts of town as well.