I think Turner and his administration can do a lot better than this.
If you didn’t read the story on our front page today, the plan is to invest city resources into five communities in Houston that desperately need help. Two of those areas, it turns out, border our area of Houston – Acres Homes to our north and Near Northside, east of the Heights.
If I’m reading things right, the city has a few specific plans in place to better the lives of the people who live in these “incomplete (?)” communities.
First, residents in Acres Homes and Near Northside, among others, will meet with the city to map out a long-term vision for their neighborhoods.
Second, these neighborhoods will get some immediate attention – called “Quick Delivery Projects” – where the city will pick up heavy trash, kill some of the weeds in the area and enforce deed restrictions.
Next, the city has begun working with the private sector to determine the “barriers to investment” in those neighborhoods. In other words, the city wants to ask detailed questions like why Whole Foods won’t open a concept store on W. Montgomery Road.
Some of the private sector meetings will be held with home builders who, the city says, will build new homes in these neighborhoods. Another set of meetings will be held with a funding company that apparently will work to finance some of the new construction in the area.
Last, the city plans to use money from the TIRZ discretionary fund and another $14 million in capital improvements over the next five years.
The purpose of this column isn’t to give you all the details. You can read our story or visit the city’s website, where they have an entire page devoted to the Complete Communities program.
Instead, I’m concerned Turner’s plan will be little more than an afterthought in a couple of years, and that’s no way to leave a signature.
First, let me tell you that the announcement and the intentions are wonderful. All the neighborhoods selected for this first phase of special attention desperately need it, including the ones closest to us. The axiom goes that if you pay attention to something, that “something” always improves. If you pay attention to your weight, you’re more likely to keep it under control. If you pay attention to your expenses – even without some grand plan of saving 20 percent of your income – by nature you will spend less money.
That, I’m afraid, may be the only positive I can see from this Complete Communities program. And let me be the first to tell you I hope I’m wrong. I only have personal experience from which I can draw.
For the first decade of my journalism career, I earned my newspaper stripes in the Black Belt of Alabama – a heavily minority swath of small towns that hovered around 12 percent unemployment and couldn’t get new businesses or industries to give them the time of day.
I was the most outspoken editor in the entire state of Alabama about the issues that plagued us. I wrote stories about infrastructure problems. I wrote about crime problems. I wrote about the pride we took in our communities and how, if we’d just do a little more to show some pride in where we lived, the investments in our cities would improve.
For a few years, I had a direct pipeline to the Democratic governor of the state, and I have no idea how many times we talked about ways to improve our area. (That governor ended up in jail, but I don’t think that was my fault.)
The work I did reporting on the Black Belt of Alabama eventually earned me a spot on a task force charged with developing programs that could bring those communities out of poverty.
We had one group that worked with private businesses to ask them to invest in our cities. We had another group that focused on the aesthetics of the communities, thinking that if we could make these areas prouder of themselves, they would take more pride in where they lived. You know… Forced pride, if there is such a thing.
We had education committees, crime committees, and we had a committee that sought to work with residents to develop their own vision for the future.
Any of that sound familiar? By any other color, we could have called it Alabama’s “Complete Communities” program, because the five neighborhoods selected by Turner all suffer from the same issues we saw in central Alabama.
After six years of meetings and blue ribbon task forces and a lot of good people talking about tough problems, I don’t know that I could point to one major success of that group. In fact, some back home tell me the cities are worse than they’ve ever been. And we had nearly 200 people working on the problems.
Mayor Turner should be commended for trying something – anything. But the solution isn’t to talk about a vision. Instead, we can’t sugarcoat the problems.
In the last three months – yes, just three months – Acres Homes had 37 violent crimes and 105 property crimes committed, according to HPD. Near Northside had 13 violent crimes and 47 property crimes. There are a combined 284 registered sex offenders living in those two areas of Houston.
If I could go back and serve Alabama’s Black Belt region, I’d suggest we make our streets safer first. Then I’d suggest we invest every private dollar and mentor in our schools.
Ask somebody looking for a neighborhood what they want for their families: Safe streets and good schools. Proximity to work probably comes in a distant third.
I’m pulling for Turner and his administration. But if this is going to be Turner’s signature issue – his legacy – we should encourage him to tackle the most critical issues first, regardless of how difficult that task may be.