We have so many elections—and with campaigning now a year-round activity, it’s tough to tell what we’re voting on. This November, Houston residents will have a ballot before them allowing them to decide on leaders at the local level—the level of government that has the most immediate impact on our lives.
“This municipal election is important because whoever is mayor in the city of Houston in 2020 is really gonna have some say,” Mayor Turner recently said.
And he’s right. The mayor has over 10 challengers, ranging from former and current Houston City Council members to a professional wrestler. In the coming weeks, they’ll participate in public forums, town halls and debates. Pay attention; it’s important.
The issues we face as Houstonians are complex. From flooding problems to budget issues to affordable housing, Houston is at a crossroads. We can take the fiscally responsible path before us, or we can go the way of many cities that find themselves in decline. To help voters decide which, here are some things to ponder.
In more recent times, Houstonians—and their metro area neighbors—have been forced to become FEMA experts. They’ve rebuilt their homes time and time again, as the incentives of our nation’s disaster recovery and mitigation system have failed to build long-term resilience and promote mitigation efforts.
This is not merely the fault of our municipalities, of course; the disaster recovery and mitigation system is a complex mess, run from Washington D.C. But our next mayor must lead a regional effort, because flooding events are not exclusive to a single municipality—there are nine counties in the metropolitan area, more 30 cities in Harris County, and more than 800 MUDs in the region that often act as first order governments.
The city’s budget, another pressing concern, has grown from roughly $3.4 billion to over $5 billion from the FY2011 Budget to FY2020 Budget—an increase of 49.9%. At the same time, the city’s population has only grown by 9.6%. The disparity of growth rates is shocking and should cause us to question where all of this new spending is going.
The city’s growing unfunded liabilities and structural budget deficit also bear watching. According to Houston’s City Controller Chris Brown, the city balances the budget by “drawing down on savings, deferring maintenance, selling assets, and a variety of other one-time funding sources…” Brown wrote in an op-ed this summer that city services, vital investments in infrastructure, and storm preparation will be in “serious jeopardy” if the city continues to pass structurally imbalanced budgets.
Houston has long been known as a relatively affordable city. But the reality is a bit more complicated. While there are affordable homes in low-income areas, rents and mortgages in medium to high-income areas of Houston rival those of other cities. Houston is a geographically large city; the average housing cost is not representative of every neighborhood in Houston.
Houston’s housing policies have created a disparate city by neglecting to follow well-documented upwards economic mobility strategies, such as moving-to-opportunity strategies with Housing Choice Vouchers or measuring success (or lack thereof) in policies designed to revitalize dilapidated neighborhoods. While Houston doesn’t have traditional city zoning, one-size-fits-all city regulations fail to provide adequate incentives to tailor development to the needs of places or people.
Young professionals, many in the millennial generation, are interested in homeownership, but they face long-term debt obligations in an economy with stagnant wages for the past 15 years. This generational group prefers to live in cities and urban counties, much like Houston and Harris County. But high rent paired with educational debt makes it difficult to save for a down payment where they want to live.
There is huge opportunity for the city to improve affordable housing policy and help build the livelihood of Houston’s young professionals.
It’s easy to tune out talk about local elections. But the choice Houston voters will make on Nov. 5 will have a lasting effect on our city—and our region—for years to come.