Five Questions Facing Houston in 2018

What’s next for Houston depends on how it answers these five questions.

Houston skyline

What’s next for Houston depends on how it answers these five questions.

At the start of 2017, Urban Edge writers gathered some of the major questions facing Houston, including whether flooding will be the new normal here. Some of those questions seem to have been answered, while others, like how will Houston address affordable housing needs, are still looming large.

With that in mind, here are some of the major questions facing Houston in 2018.

How will Houston recover after Harvey?

It’s hard to overstate the importance of this question. Will the recovery be equitable? Will underserved communities get their share? Will lingering mental health concerns and other health inequities truly be addressed? How many homes will be bought out? How much green space will be added? Will the region rethink its approach to development entirely? Will the people charged with these decisions continue to be part of the system themselves? How serious is Houston about not just recovering but becoming more resilient?

How will the city respond to gentrification concerns and environmental inequities?

Eyes are on the east side of Houston for very different reasons. During Harvey, the uneven exposure to environmental risks became top of mind for many beyond the neighborhoods along the Ship Channel. On the front lines of this fight, Yvette Arellano, research and policy liaison for Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, told the Urban Edge:

When we went out to the communities, even though folks’ homes were devastated and we were worried and anxious and stressed, all they could say is, we’re glad to be alive. And they weren’t complaining. Nobody was upset or angry or frustrated and that was something, it blew my mind and to this day it just does not make sense because I have this resentment and anger and I feel like a lot of people, especially younger people, have this anger and resentment towards entities and folks that could’ve done more.

At the same time as those communities wonder whether business as usual will change, communities in the Greater East End will soon see the transformation of the Buffalo Bayou as the Buffalo Bayou Partnership looks east. With accolades rolling in for the Buffalo Bayou Park to the west of downtown, the partnership is at a critical moment. Mentioned in the same breath as New York City’s High Line, which saw property values rise alongside its development, the east side branch of the partnership’s reimagining of Buffalo Bayou brings with it the specter of gentrification.

Thus these neighboring communities represent two very different, very Houstonian experiences: as one sees new esplanades, investment and parks projects that some longtime residents welcome but watch cautiously, on the other side of Clinton Drive, neighborhoods hemmed in by rail and truck traffic from the port, wonder whether the disproportionate environmental risks they face and that earned national attention following Harvey will be addressed.

What will the Complete Communities mean for its five pilot neighborhoods and broader concerns about access to opportunity?

The mayor’s Complete Communities plan was much anticipated when he unveiled it in 2017. With meetings underway, its impact is still fuzzy as community members express a range of desired outcomes from new business to affordable housing to safer streets. Plans were originally supposed to be finalized this month but following Harvey, that’s been pushed back. The mayor also made some specific promises at the initiative’s launch, including dedicating 60 percent of the available $46 million from Houston’s tax increment reinvestment zones’ housing funds to the effort.

In addition to serving long underserved neighborhoods across Houston, the initiative is important for the mayor’s legacy because it reflects his assertion that all neighborhoods should offer opportunities, an argument that he’s used to push back against a fair housing complaint against the city that found it did not locate enough affordable housing in “high opportunity” areas. Though the federal housing department now seems uninterested in previous efforts to affirmatively further fair housing, the finding still highlighted what are ongoing concerns for housing advocates.

How will federal immigration policies impact Houston?

A repeat from last year, this remains a pressing question. When the federal government decided to revoke Temporary Protected Status for immigrants from El Salvador this month, the mayor responded with a statement saying;

There are over 80,000 people from El Salvador who live in Houston, and 19,000 of them will be directly affected by the end of TPS. Many of them own businesses and work in our service industries. They contribute more than $1.8 billion to the Texas GDP. Also, more than 20,000 Houston children who are U.S. citizens because they were born in our country have parents from El Salvador in the U.S. under TPS. When TPS ends, these families could be torn apart.

Just the latest life-changing policy change for a group of immigrants and their families, this isn’t the first group to lose its temporary protected status and likely won't be the last as the administration considers whether to extend the status for other immigrant groups.

Then there’s the up-in-the-air status of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients. And the noticeable drop in international students coming to the country and to Houston to study, which impacts university budgets, research capacities and student body. In a place as diverse and international as Houston, these moves matter in measurable and immeasurable ways.

Can the Houston Independent School District address long-standing inequities?

When Richard Carranza took the helm of the largest school district in Texas, he faced huge expectations and responded in kind, prioritizing equity in conversations with concerned communities. So when it became apparent that a number of schools were at risk of a state takeover without improvement on the state’s accountability ratings, the first large test of his commitment – and the district’s more generally – to tackling the issue of underperforming and underserved schools began.

With the clock ticking, the district came out with its Achieve 180 plan with turnaround goals through 2022 with almost $22 million in promised investment. So far, the effort has brought changes like a new screening tools meant to identify students “who need interventions in reading and/or math” and, as part of another initiative with some overlap with Achieve 180, new wraparound resource specialists who help fill gaps relating to students’ social and emotional needs.

But in many ways, Achieve 180 looks to address inequities faced by most school districts across the country. Its fate will resonate as part of this national conversation.

Others issues, like mobility, remain a constant priority for the region and with Metro planning to unveil its latest long-range plan in the summer that’s another area to watch. But it’s those five questions that capture some of the most pressing concerns for the city and for the region in the year ahead.



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