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Talking Headways Podcast: Houston Mayor Turner’s Complete Communities

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This week, we’re chatting with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner about the city’s Complete Communities program, which seeks to coordinate each city department to support historically under-resourced neighborhoods.

For those of you who prefer to get your information through your eyes rather than your ears, we've provided a transcript of the conversation below the player:

Jeff Wood: You've been working on this program for several years now. I'm curious what something that surprised you about the results and the outcomes that you've seen so far?

Mayor Turner: Well, people are hungry for the transformation. They want the improvements. They don't want to be displaced, but they also recognize that if you don't have the improvements, people are going to go someplace else and they are going to lose their communities, their neighborhoods as they have known them. So it's important, for example, they want affordable housing and mixed-income housing, housing at all income levels, because you don't get the quality grocery stores unless you know, they see the rooftops. So they want the improvements, but they want to also hold on to the character, the character and the personality and the culture of their neighborhoods.

And then I will say to you, when we're talking to financial institutions, they are doing a lot of good things, but it's kinda difficult to get people to engage in a paradigm shift, to get them to utilize another model other than the model that they have become accustomed to. And what I said, for example, to financial institutions, you know, "I'm not saying you're not doing a lot of good things — you're done a lot of good things — but in many ways, you're missing the mark because these communities and they both have remained the same, which means we need a paradigm shift."

And that requires a lot of community engagement and working directly with people in these communities. They know what they want and they know what they need and they just haven't had the investments in these communities and the resources in order to get to the things they need to improve their communities. And that's what we are attempting to work with them on. So when we were taking contaminated space, for example, in a neighborhood, 300 acres, and turning it around and we repurposing it that will change the whole character of that neighborhood and they will benefit.

When we were putting in these financial and economic empowerment centers, like in Acres Home, that will help people to take the resources that they have and really utilize their resources in a way that can benefit not only themselves and their families, but the community as a whole. So that's important. Building affordable housing allows a lot of people to stay there. Building mixed-income housing allows, for example, the children who have grown up in these areas who are now working in a good paying job, to return to their neighborhoods so they don't have to go outside of the city to find that house and product.

Putting in quality grocery stores help the community out medically because it's hard to tell people to eat healthy if they don't have the healthy options. And so that would cut down on the diabetes and a lot of other physical and other elements that will come because their diet is just not a good one. So it all fits. It all ties together, but it's not an overnight thing. It will take time to reverse what it's occurred to address the inequities or the fact that these communities have been ignored in terms of a major investment over decades, not just individually.

There's a lot of environmental issues in these neighborhoods because over the decades they've been used as dumping grounds. And so you really, there are a lot of things that we need to address, but we need to do it in a very holistic fashion.

Jeff Wood: In the future, when you look back at these neighborhoods and what improvements that have been made, how will you know if the program has been a success?

Mayor Turner: For one, you will know is whether or not the people are living there and want to continue to live within these communities. You don't want the gentrification, so you want to look at these communities five years, 10 years, 20 years from now, and see whether or not the generations are still there. That's one way of judging this success. Whether or not when you look at these communities, you are looking at a totally different set of people in these communities. The makeup of the communities has dramatically changed. If that happens no, we have not been successful. We've led to gentrification. But you want to see people who have been in these communities for decades continue to remain in these communities and at the same time you want to see the improvements. You want to see the quality grocery stores. You want to see not just parks with the name on it, but you want to see quality parks that quite frankly, you can place these parks anywhere in the city and they would be value added. That would be a plus. Sound good infrastructure, if you see that of roads, streets, that would be a plus.

The removal of, for example, of illegal dumping trash that can pull down communities, abandoned buildings. If you see less of those, less of the illegal dumping, then that would be a noticeable improvement. And when you see the quality of neighborhood schools improve, because people want to be close to quality neighborhood schools, then that would be important. And quite frankly from my vantage point, when we see many people who are no longer living outside of the City of Houston, but they are returning back to the neighborhoods in which they were born and bred, then that would be a positive sign as well.

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