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Turner looking to private sector for Complete Communities funding

August 30, 2018

Houston City Council on Wednesday approved “action plans” for the first five neighborhoods in Mayor Sylvester Turner’s signature community development plan, a move the mayor hopes will spur outside groups to pitch in much-needed funding.

The council’s approval comes 16 months after Turner kicked off the Complete Communities program, which he described as a concentrated effort to improve living conditions and enhance the quality of life in five low-income neighborhoods. At the time, he did not commit to additional money for housing and community development, saying the city instead would redirect 60 percent of its local and federal housing dollars to those neighborhoods.

Though it remains unknown how much Turner’s initiative could cost, the mayor on Wednesday said his focus now is looking to outside entities — namely banks and endowments — to underwrite projects through an improvement fund.

So far, Complete Communities covers Acres Home, Gulfton, the Near Northside, Second Ward and Third Ward, low-income neighborhoods that some say have been underserved for decades. It is intended to revitalize the neighborhoods through public works, affordable housing and other community investments.

Turner said he plans to add five new communities to the initiative at the end of the year.

Neighborhood and housing advocates had applauded the Complete Communities idea when Turner first announced it last year, but raised concerns that without additional funding, it could amount to a reshuffling of already-scarce tax dollars committed to community development across the city.

The city’s current capital improvement plan does not include Complete Communities funding. Margaret Wallace Brown, the city’s deputy director of planning and development, said it is possible future plans could include money for the initiative.

The proposed 2019 fiscal year budget does not include funding for Complete Communities either, though Turner and city officials say that is a function of the plan’s focus on adopting community input. The city conducted a series of Hurricane Harvey-delayed public meetings to gain community input and form the action plans.

“It’s based on the idea that we’re not there to tell the community what it needs,” Turner spokesman Alan Bernstein said.

A few months ago, Turner met with presidents and executives of 29 banks and asked them to redirect some community reinvestment funding to Complete Communities projects.

Turner said the Houston Endowment also is giving “serious consideration” to funding what would be an eight-person staff, including an executive director, to run Complete Communities.

“What my focus is now is to look outside the city of Houston and to establish this Complete Communities Improvement Fund that will be funded by endowments, financial institutions, grant funding,” Turner said. He added the contributors could form an advisory board that would approve funding for city-backed projects.

“I’m really going to be asking them to join with us in a very major way in providing funding that they will oversee,” Turner said.

A Houston Endowment spokeswoman said Turner’s goal of transforming under-served neighborhoods “very much aligns with our vision of a vibrant region where all have the opportunity to thrive. We would like to see Complete Communities be successful, and we look forward to further conversations with the Mayor about our role in the initiative.”

Turner cited a partnership between JPMorgan Chase and the city of Detroit as something of a model for what he is trying to do in Houston.

In Detroit, where JPMorgan owns more than half the consumer banking market share, the bank is pouring money into a wide-ranging project to boost small businesses and real estate, among other areas. By September 2017 the bank had committed $150 million to the project, Fortune reported, though a large portion of the funds came in the form of loans.

Turner is hoping that the plans approved Wednesday present a compelling case to companies willing to put community reinvestment dollars into what also would be a sweeping development plan.

“We will be out their foraging for dollars in a whole bunch of ways,” said Andy Icken, the city’s chief development officer.

The plans vary by neighborhood, but, generally, they each break down into several broad priorities split into many goals and projects. Gulfton, the Near Northside and the Third Ward listed civic engagement atop their list of priorities, while all five neighborhoods listed education, health and housing.

Some goals and projects are more immediate — the low-hanging fruit, Turner said — while others require additional studies and actions that will take years.

For example, the Near Northside plan includes the idea of partnering with a pair of local groups to enroll youth in summer jobs and internships, but also surveying residents to figure out the neighborhood’s skills training and education needs.

In Acres Home, residents wanted to develop West Montgomery as a town square-type destination.

“We heard kind of a consistent desire to have a main street business district of sorts,” Brown said. “Everybody wants more commercial development in their neighborhoods, more grocery stores, more neighborhood-oriented development.

“Mobility issues are also important, whether it’s the compactness of a Second Ward or the expansiveness of an Acres Home — how do we get to where we need to be?”

Many of the projects that appear to be shorter-term ideas include partnerships with outside groups. Other high-priority items in multiple neighborhoods included street and sidewalk improvements and building affordable single-family and rental housing through partnerships with local organizations and the city’s Housing and Community Development Department.

jasper.scherer@chron.com

Twitter.com/jaspscherer

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