How is Houston's infrastructural development actively contributing to gentrification?
by Carlos Campos, Jr.
"An enviable combination of physical location and property characteristics make the East End District an attractive area of Houston—nowhere else can one find such an abundance of vacant and underutilized properties immediately adjacent to downtown Houston. As a result, no area within the city of Houston is as ripe for redevelopment." (East End District 2013:3)
The process of gentrification begins in two notable ways. First, it's well documented that private developers and land speculators have been the dominant form of gentrification. Land is bought up, amenities and general beautification is installed via private companies, and poor-quality apartment complexes are raised with the sole purpose of attracting middle-class professionals to rent and drive up the value of land. Speculators then turn a profit, luxury apartments are never fully occupied, and the original community—mainly working class/poor families—are pushed out or displaced. This process of gentrification generally occurs in locations that are deemed “fit” for redevelopment, where developers feel confidence in returns on investment.
Photo credit Mark Mulligan/Houston Chronicle
The second process is for areas that are either deemed “high-risk”, or in which developers are less willing to invest. The secondary process’ end goal is to change the area from seeming too risky towards being a worthwhile investment. This is done using government officials and government funding (Rucks-Ahidiana 2022). In practice, the approach the city takes within Houston is through creating a Development Council; establishing a plan for redevelopment and investment in infrastructure and beautification; and turning around neighborhoods to seem viable for upscaling in a span of 5+ years . Telephone Road and the Greater East End region as a whole are good examples of this process.
The second process is for areas that are either deemed “high-risk”, or in which developers are less willing to invest. The secondary process’ end goal is to change the area from seeming too risky towards being a worthwhile investment... Telephone Road and the Greater East End region as a whole are good examples of this process.
PLANS FOR THE EAST END
The East End has been split into several different regions for redevelopment. The main actors: the City of Houston, the Greater East End District (formerly known as the Greater East End Management District), the East End Chamber of Commerce, and a whole list of others. The goals: utilize the land in the East End more effectively. The method: rework infrastructure, beautify, and carry out a strategy with partners to create the East End into a “foodie” district, with a particular emphasis on food trucks and with flavors of the district’s history.
How do we know? The Greater East End created two strategic plan documents through Avalanche Consulting: a 2013 competitive evaluation, and a 2017-2020 Economic Development Strategy. While it is worth looking at the 2013 competitive evaluation given it established the foundations for how redevelopment would work in the area, the 2017 strategy is the most relevant to the actions undertaken by the city presently. In the document, strategic corridors are marked for development, focusing on the four target clusters for industry they marked: Creative and Culture Industries (e.g. artisan and maker goods), Light Manufacturing (e.g. food processing), Retail and Personal Services, and Logistics and Distribution. The Greater East End is developing the Creative and Culture Industries, and Retail and Personal Services within the Lockwood and IH-45 Corridors to enact their vision of “a model of urban revitalization and balanced economic development” (2017:37). Through these developments, the management district aims to “sharpen the brand of the East End” (2017:37) as a means of building a thriving region for residents and businesses. In other words: gentrifying the commercial before the residential.
Kosta (2019) provided a new perspective to gentrification studies. In the general literature, gentrification is seen as primarily a residential act with businesses and other commercial services being studied as an after-effect if mentioned. Kosta, however, turned the process in its head. Studying districts within New York City, the process of gentrification was found to occur through businesses and other storefronts while residential gentrification would operate either in tangent or afterwards. In other words, the strategy to bring in Creative and Cultural Industries, as well as Retail and Personal Services (which falls in line with the ‘foodie’ district plans previously discussed), all fall in line with Kosta’s commercial gentrification analysis. If the city can successfully create an image of the East End as a place for foodie culture and, in some parts, as a university district, then developers can deem the district as a less risky venture and pour money and resources into the district. This would mean higher tax revenue for the city, increased housing for (primarily) middle-class professionals, and a revitalized district that can be flaunted by city boosters as a means of highlighting Houston as an up-and-coming world city. There’s precedent in this city that can be pointed to as examples of gentrification occurring and the displacement that came with it.
Photo credit eastendhouston.com
CASE STUDY: EAST DOWNTOWN
Although there are plenty of examples to point to for gentrification in Houston, I’ll focus on East Downtown for two reasons: First, EaDo’s borders with the Greater East End points to similar conditions and collaboration. Second, EaDo saw shifts from having a dominant Asian-American population to a Latinx population, and presently to a White population within a 40 year timespan. The first population shift comes from disinvestment and a migration towards southwest Houston beginning in the 80s. The results from disinvestment and a general flight to the suburbs left ‘Old Chinatown’ as “substantially vacant, substandard and deteriorating property into commercial and residential uses” (City of Houston 1999b:19).
EaDo underwent a 20 year process to change from a district with a 43.9% poverty rate to a 6.9% poverty rate and from a 3.11% white population to a 40.15% white population. In addition to population statistics, the Cole Directory's rating of the region’s wealth raised from an “E” to an “A.” This is very clear when comparing adjusted median incomes, which sees an increase of $91,861.37 a year. These drastic changes came in two waves: city-focused redevelopment in the early 2000s, and developer-focused investment in the 2010s.
Photo credit Yi-Chin Lee/Houston Chronicle
EaDo underwent a 20 year process to change from a district with a 43.9% poverty rate to a 6.9% poverty rate and from a 3.11% white population to a 40.15% white population.
The first wave of redevelopment came in 1999 with the establishment of the East Downtown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ). The TIRZ was formed with a short-term goal of rebuilding infrastructure and working with Enron to build parking space next to Enron Park (now Minute Maid). These short-term redevelopment aims were designated as a stepping stone for reinvestment in the area, given that East Downtown “substantially arrests and impairs the sound growth of the City, retards the provision of housing accommodations, constitutes an economic and social liability and is a menace to the public health, safety, morals, and welfare in its present condition and use” (City of Houston 1999a:4, author’s italics). While TIRZ financing officially focused only on infrastructural redevelopment and support for community organizations and companies to invest in, it was clear that the revenue to repay the bonds used for infrastructure was precisely in property values rising through commercial and residential development.
“The purpose of [TIRZ] is to facilitate the construction of water/storm/sewer lines, streets, and sidewalks for new commercial and residential development within the boundary of the [TIRZ]. As a result of the planned new infrastructure, new land development within the [TIRZ] is expected to occur, including a parking garage, major retail facility, conversion of warehouse facilities to residential lofts, and construction of an indoor, open-stall market.” (City of Houston 1999b:30)
In a 20 year span: the East Downtown district transformed into EaDo, the TIRZ established by the city achieved their stated aims, Enron fell into disgrace with an economic crisis, and the city began to change their tune by opting away from considering itself as a “city with no history” and towards building its historical narrative and culture. Houston wants to become a global city and wants to bring in scores of middle-class professionals that will build the city into the “Green Energy Capital of the World” and, in turn, bring in a comfortable amount of revenue in taxes. New Urbanism is dominant: suburbs, polluting individual cars, and anti-pedestrian layouts of streetscapes are viewed with disdain.
The proposed redevelopment layout of Telephone Road within the Greater East End region plays into the plans to develop strategic corridors. While Telephone Road connects the different corridors with TIRZ, the city itself highlights the importance of the street for the redevelopment of the area. Much like the proposals for EaDo in the late 90s through 00s, and their broad strategic plans for Greater East End, the infrastructure development will establish “a safe and connected corridor that allows for mobility choice and supports investments and redevelopment within the area, which will be provided once this project is complete” (City of Houston 2022:10). Infrastructure is, unfortunately for a majority of residents, a Trojan horse for gentrification.
Infrastructure is, unfortunately for a majority of residents, a Trojan horse for gentrification.
Infrastructure redevelopment is inherently a good thing. This paper is not an argument towards resisting infrastructure per se. Rather it seeks to establish how infrastructure in Houston is used for capital gains rather than the well-being of people. Before proposing general topics for resisting gentrification, it’s important to highlight why this matters for Houston Tenants Union. I will provide brief questions and answers as to why we should pursue this thread in organizing in the East End
How does this affect tenant unionism? – With gentrification on the horizon (or already in play in districts such as Second Ward and Eastwood), rent hikes are bound to occur and general displacement will change the makeup of the region. This can affect our organizing because it would displace a primarily Spanish-speaking, working-poor tenant base, and would create frictions within neighborhood relations that may affect our success rate in organizing campaigns.
How does this build HTU power? - As a class struggle organization, highlighting gentrification creates opportunities for us to raise the consciousness of tenants from participating in struggle solely for their apartment-specific conflict, towards a general cross-neighborhood struggle. In addition, the struggle against gentrification can point to a symbolic downtrodden vs. elite narrative, the working class residents of the East End against the businesses and financial organizations supporting gentrification. This supports our broader aims of building class consciousness and gives tenant committees or other such organs a reason to exist after a campaign/struggle is won.
Is this deeply and widely felt? - While it may be unknown how deeply felt gentrification is among residents right now—given that it is still in the early stages—gentrification and displacement will be felt as rent and property values rise.
Is this winnable? - I am unsure if there can be a conclusive victory over gentrification, given the financial forces’ constant demand for growth and expanding revenues. However, organizing community has the power to resist immediate gentrification and the displacement that comes with it.
How do we win? Given the time frame of this paper, I cannot give any conclusive statements over strategy. That said, winning is centered around our capabilities of organizing a mass of residents to operate as a class. It is far more difficult to displace and gentrify a united bloc of residents, than it is to a thoroughly alienated non-community (which is typical for districts in Houston). Muñiz (1998) studied gentrification resistance in Sunset Park, NY led by Puerto Rican women and highlighted the intersection between organization (led in part by the local tenant association/union) and the already existing informal networks in the neighborhood. Success was built through the former tapping into the latter and formalizing already existing rumors and discussions about displacement. It helped that many residents have already faced displacement in other areas, and so were conscious of the processes.
The critical goal we'd need to achieve is to organize and build community.
It’s worth discussing how we can study our community and map out points of struggle. In addition, when we are in the process of recruiting tenants and building campaigns, it may be worth researching social networks and seeing how many connections exist within the community already, and how the union can plug itself in. The most important thing we can do as a union is to develop spaces for mass education and raising consciousness. In short, we need to connect the dots between the things tenants already know informally, generalize their experience with the district as a whole, and help everyone work through examples of successful resistances towards gentrification. This can take the shape of mass meetings, study groups, speaker panels, etc. The critical goal we’d need to achieve is to organize and build community.
About the author: Carlos is a member of the Houston Tenants Union's Language Justice Committee and studies sociology at the University of Houston.
City of Houston. (1999a). Ordinance 1999-708 [An Ordinance Designating A Contiguous Geographic Area Within The City of Houston Generally Bounded By Preston Street On The Northeast, Dowling Street On The Southeast, Interstate 45 On The Southwest And US Highway 59 On The Northwest (East Downtown Area) A]. https://www.houstontx.gov/ecodev/tirzdocs/15/creation.pdf
City of Houston. (1999b). Ordinance No. 1999-757 [An Ordinance Approving The Project Plan And Reinvestment Zone Financing Plan For Reinvestment Zone Number Fifteen, City Of Houston, Texas (East Downtown Area); Authorizing The City Secretary To Distribute Such Plans; Containing Various Provisions Related T]. https://www.houstontx.gov/ecodev/tirzdocs/15/projplan.pdf
City of Houston. (2022). Telephone Road: Main Street Revitalization Project. https://ehq-production-us-california.s3.us-west-1.amazonaws.com/e8da761f5bd05c931212312ee10b913855f4cdb3/original/1650553130/7c531dff876f2ee39591e8a0195e3055_Narrative.pdf?X-Amz-Algorithm=AWS4-HMAC-SHA256&X-Amz-Credential=AKIA4KKNQAKICO37GBEP%2F20220919%2F
East End District. (2013). Greater East End Competitive Evaluation. https://eastenddistrict.com/wp-content/uploads/Competitive-Evaluation-Report-1.pdf
East End District. (2017). East End 2017-2020 Economic Development Strategy. https://www.eastenddistrict.com/wp-content/uploads/East-End-Strategy-2017-FINAL.pdf
Kosta, E. B. (2019). Commercial Gentrification Indexes: Using Business Directories to Map Urban Change at the Street Level. City and Community, Vol.18(4), 1101-22.
Muñiz, V. (1998). Resisting Gentrification and Displacement: Voices of Puerto Rican Women of the Barrio. Garland Pub.
Rucks-Ahidiana, Z. (2022). Theorizing Gentrification as a Process of Racial Capitalism. City and Community, Vol.21(3), 173-92.