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Houston’s neighborhood initiative gets $10M funding, director

March 25, 2019

Mayor Sylvester Turner’s signature neighborhood initiative got a $10 million boost Monday with the establishment of a new fund to help revitalize targeted local communities.

Turner announced the Complete Communities Improvement Fund with initial funding from Wells Fargo and Cadence banks and the countries of United Arab Emirates and Qatar, among others. The goal is to reach $25 million, he said.

“Complete Communities is a public-private collaboration leveraging private investment, philanthropic gifts and public funding to develop neighborhoods that have been under-resourced for far too long,” Turner said Monday. “People want to see improvements yesterday — so for them, we can’t move fast enough.”

The program launched in 2017 with five pilot neighborhoods — Third Ward, Near Northside, Second Ward, Acres Homes and Gulfton. Four additional neighborhoods are expected to be added in coming weeks.

A new director, Shannon Buggs, has also been tapped to head the program.

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Turner, speaking at a press conference at City Hall with two “Complete Communities” sheet cakes, cited several successes of the program: a microlending program in Gulfton, restoration of a library flooded by Hurricane Harvey, home buyer education and a homebuilder training program.

Critics of the program, however, say they’ve seen few tangible results.

“The spirit of it is nice,” said Jeff Trevino of the Near Northside super neighborhood council. “It would be nice if some of this stuff would get done. But, it’s nothing new that they shouldn’t be doing already.”

‘It has to be ambitious’

The initiative has brought some other tangibles to neighborhoods, including Workforce Solutions Centers to Acres Homes and Third Ward and a poetry project to each neighborhood by Houston’s Poet Laureate Deborah “DEEP” Mouton.

Third Ward put on a neighborhood health summit. Second Ward put on clean-up nights. And the City Health Department partnered with private organizations to create a training program for 18- to 30-year-olds.

“Some of the things that are the least measurable are the most impactful,” said Susan Rogers, director of the Community Design Resource Center at the University of Houston. “That includes things like civic engagement, active civic clubs, the leaders’ knowledge of and accessibility to people who are decision makers.”

The implementation of the program officially kicked off in August 2018 with the release of five action plans and 371 proposed projects.

Councilwoman Amanda Edwards, who was on the initial advisory committee for Complete Communities, said part of the program’s strength is that the goals came from the communities rather than top-down.

“When you think about investment in communities, my experience has shown time and time again that when the community feels like it’s being imposed upon, it’ll reject the change,” she said.

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Rogers said some of the action plans’ goals were ambitious: An Acres Homes metric for success, for example, requires a 50 percent reduction in the unemployment rate by 2023 from its 2015 rate of 13 percent.

“It has to be ambitious, because if it’s not ambitious, we’re not going to change anything,” Rogers said.

The newly appointed advisory board for the Complete Communities Improvement Fund has five members: One from Wells Fargo, which pledged $525,000 Monday to the fund; one from Cadence Bank, whose president brought a $500,000 check to the press conference; and one each from Regions Bank, Microsoft and the Urban Land Institute.

Work ahead

Buggs said she’s still distilling information from various city departments but said her first order of business is fundraising.

“The city doesn’t have the money to do that, we really don’t,” Buggs said of the 371 goals outlined in the action plans. “That’s why it’s important for my job to leverage philanthropic gifts and corporate investments.”

Turner said the program must rely mostly on private financial contributions.

“We have to approach financial institutions,” Turner said Monday. “In the absence of their support, you can’t have the necessary funds in the Complete Communities Improvement Fund to make these projects happen.”

Houston has not traditionally been a planning city: Unlike other large urban areas, Houston has no zoning. But the city does have a general plan, aptly titled “Plan Houston,” adopted in 2015 that has 32 broad-brush goals.

Jeff Lowe, a Kinder Fellow at Rice University who was also on the initial advisory committee, said the city can’t just rely on private partnerships.

“I applaud the mayor in terms of Complete Communities in the respect that it’s bringing attention to neighborhoods that need it,” he said. “There’s still much work through policy that’s needed to institutionalize and provide the structure necessary for Complete Communities to have the desired impact.”

‘We are getting things done’

Critics, however, say the city is trying to take credit for work already being done in the neighborhoods.

Several programs cited as “early successes” — a $750,000 grant for Near Northside and a private grant for Third Ward’s art nonprofit Project Row Houses, for example — were approved before the Complete Communities program began.

Some of the overarching goals, like cleaning up weeds and vacant lots and repairing sidewalks, are already city ordinances and work the city should’ve been doing anyway, said Trevino, who is on the Near Northside super neighborhood council.

“We’re trying to get things done,” Trevino said. “We are getting things done.”

Buggs said the mayor is trying to support the work being done.

“He’s trying to do something that makes sure he shines a spotlight on what’s been happening,” she said.

sarah.smith@chron.com

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