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By Ginny Goldman, Elsa Caballero, Amanda Cloud, Claude Cummings, Brandon Dudley, Quianta Moore, Assata Richards, Susan Rogers, Kyle Shelton, Karun Sreerama, Juliet Stipeche, Alex Triantaphyllis and Barron Wallace
Houston is one of the most inequitable cities in the United States. Households with incomes in the top 5% earn nearly 10 times more than households in the bottom 20th percentile. Thus, it is not surprising that while Houston ranks as the second-most prosperous city in the United States and the fifth fastest-growing, it only ranks 64th on a list of most economically inclusive cities. This staggering contrast between general wealth and individual welfare in our city creates both an enormous challenge and a great opportunity to improve lives through effective public policy.
Mayor Turner is the best-situated elected leader in the South to embrace equity as a driving principle of his administration. He has an opportunity to demonstrate a model for the region that advances transformative policy shifts, which could impact millions of lives. Mayor Turner launched the Complete Communities initiative earlier this year, a program focused on transforming historically under-resourced communities by developing solutions in partnership with residents and leaders that are tailored to each neighborhood. The goal is to expand access to quality affordable homes, jobs, parks, improved streets and sidewalks, grocery and retail stores, good schools, and transit options.
To build on this effort, Mayor Turner created the Mayoral Task Force on Equity, charging it with developing actionable policy recommendations to make Houston a more equitable city.
The Task Force aimed to propose policies that would:
improve economic outcomes and quality of life for traditionally marginalized populations;
increase civic participation among these communities; and
maximize the revenue available for critical city services and programming.
In conducting its research, the Task Force drew insight from three primary channels: data analysis, review of best practices, and engagement with everyday Houstonians. Our work began with comprehensive policy research evaluating the best local and national models, along with thorough data analysis. This was aided by a thorough review of previous reports created by advisory groups such as the Mayoral Transition Teams and Welcoming Houston, which provided expertise and recommendations on diverse topics. Through an additional layer of robust public opinion research, including focus groups and polling, the Task Force ensured that its recommendations would address the actual priorities and concerns of Houstonians. A separate document produced by Lake Research Partners, titled “Houston Mayoral Task Force on Equity: Findings from a Citywide Survey on Economic Priorities,” is publicly available and contains all findings from the public engagement research.
The Task Force viewed solutions through a racial- and gender-equity lens throughout the process. This approach was reinforced by the demographics of the task force members, most of whom were women and people of color.
Members of the Task Force recognized that sound research leads to effective action. Policy proposals drafted out of context do not produce results, just as policy decisions based on political expediency do not address systemic problems. Thus, the Task Force aimed to deliver actionable recommendations based on sound policy and rooted in the current political and financial context of Houston. When the Task Force was convened, Mayor Turner was advocating for pension reform before the Texas Legislature and considering an appeal to voters for the removal of a cap on municipal revenue. The Task Force’s process took these political and financial factors into account, only considering recommendations that would be viable and support the mayor’s overall priorities.
The Task Force considered the breadth and depth of Houston’s inequality, which is present in every facet of our society, from unemployment and public health to housing and incarceration rates. This report is not, nor is it intended to be, a comprehensive list of all possible avenues to address inequality; rather, it is a focused roadmap to address areas wherein the city could most immediately and effectively use its financial and administrative authority to achieve long-term impacts.
The Task Force honed in on family-sustaining jobs and quality early childhood education as the most impactful drivers of change, because our research demonstrated that helping adults provide for their families and ensuring that the next generation of Houstonians is prepared for the modern economy would have the most impact. These recommendations are intended to complement Mayor Turner’s Complete Communities initiative by being integrated with the program in the five communities it currently serves and providing a way to expand its benefits throughout Houston. The Task Force also identified the need to reframe budgetary decisions and governance practices to focus on equitable growth.
The result is a report with three categories of recommendations that together create a road map to increased economic and racial equity in Houston by 1) establishing a Houston Works! jobs program, 2) expanding early childhood education, and 3) advancing governance practices focused on equitable growth.
Visions and Recommendations Overview
The Task Force envisions a city where all can work and prosper, where every child has a chance for success, and where local government prioritizes equity. This means that all Houstonians would have access to family-sustaining jobs, all children would enter kindergarten prepared and ready to learn on day one, and all city decision-makers would hold equity as a core value of their work.
A City Where All Can Work and Prosper
Recommendation: The City of Houston should launch a public, ambitious Houston Works! jobs program with an initial goal of generating 20,000 new or improved jobs by 2022. The program would focus on making a direct impact through city expenditures and a long-term impact through cooperation with other public and private institutions.
As an immediate first step, the City of Houston can transform the lives of the 5,700 to 8,700 low-wage workers who are hired by the city directly, by city contractors and subcontractors, or by companies that receive funds, subsidies, or preferential treatment from the city. For these workers, the Task Force recommends the following: a family-sustaining minimum wage of $15 per hour plus benefits, targeted local hiring practices, and apprenticeship programs for sectors with accredited apprenticeship programs (or paid on-the-job training for sectors without accredited apprenticeship programs). The Task Force also recommends that the mayor continue to expand existing initiatives with a proven track record of providing employment to underemployed populations, such as Hire Houston Youth.
Three subsequent long-term steps would build on the results achieved by the Houston Works! jobs program:
Work with other public institutions, such as Harris County or the Houston Independent School District (HISD), to implement similar policies.
Work with public and private institutions on new investments, such as transportation and child care, that create more quality jobs and increase job access.
Enlist a group of business leaders within the private sector that would create quality jobs paying at least $15 per hour plus benefits, hire local Houstonians, and provide apprenticeships and on-the-job training.
A City Where Every Child Has a Chance
Recommendation: The City of Houston should pilot a scalable early childhood education program that could reach up to 40,000 children by 2025. Such a program would ensure that the next generation of Houstonians would have the potential to perform well in school and become productive members of our economy, and that parents could afford to attend school or return to work.
We propose the Early Childhood Education Pilot, which would run for three years in one or more of the neighborhoods selected for the Complete Communities initiative. The pilot would provide scholarships for 1,500 economically disadvantaged children ages 0–4 in the targeted neighborhood and comprehensively track metrics to demonstrate its impact. If successful, this pilot should be expanded in a rapid and sustainable manner to the tens of thousands of economically disadvantaged children across the city.
A City Where Local Government Prioritizes Equity
Recommendations: The city should make equity—the equal provision of opportunity—a cornerstone of its governing model and budget priorities, creating a concrete action plan that includes five components:
1. Creation of specific equity goals
- Set measurable goals to increase equity
- Establish an Equity Office
2. Tools to increase equity
- Give public funding priority to neighborhoods marked by systematic underinvestment
- Create an equity atlas and use it to inform investment
- Change the ReBuild formula to address the “worst road conditions first”
- Implement performance-based budgeting within city departments
- Continue implementation of equity-enhancing recommendations from transition committees and other advisory groups
3. Metrics to track progress on equity
- Establish progress-tracking standards and benchmarking
- Produce an annual Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) report
4. Equitable revenue generation
- Make Houston’s tax system less regressive
5. Public engagement
- Increase voter registration
- Expand access to voting
- Deliver a State of the City speech to a public audience