Saturday, June 26, 2010

An Open Letter to Apartment Developers

It has been a bad week for Houston’s apartments.

On Sunday morning, a man was found fatally shot at the Tall Timbers Apartments, in east Houston. On Tuesday, a man shot his wife while his daughter watched in front of a small apartment complex at 910 Adele in north Houston. On Thursday, a man was shot just steps from his home at the Arbor Ridge Apartments in north Houston; and another man was found dead at the City Parc II at West Oaks in southwest Harris County. On Friday, two separate apartment complexes caught fire – one in Northwest Houston, and another near The Galleria.

As if this week’s mayhem weren’t enough, the news also reported two stories from earlier this year. Joshua Leon Marshall is still on the run for his role in the May 9 shooting of Reginald King at the Pine Ridge Place Apartments in northwest Houston; and in the most tragic of stories, a 14 year old girl is in jail after she gave birth and killed her baby at the Greyfield Apartment Homes in southwest Houston.

Horror stories like these drive a wedge between neighborhoods and apartments. Nobody wants to live next door to a complex that’s notorious for crime. And the stories sit in the back of neighbors’ minds when a developer plans to build apartments near them, too – but developers don’t always listen.

A few months ago, I came across this post on the blog. Caution – it’s not fun to read. The author spares no effort in insulting the valid concerns of neighbors. Traffic, flooding – he laughs at those. Public hearings are “kangaroo courts,” and developers are constantly having their ‘perfect’ projects shot down by little old ‘Aunt Sally’s.

The developer who wrote the post might have good reasons to be frustrated. Maybe he missed the required drainage and traffic studies on a project, and a neighborhood group called him on it. Or maybe he’s just venting after being on the wrong side of one too many canceled projects. I actually agree with what he wrote about meeting with neighbors – even if he suggested it for all the wrong reasons.

The vast majority of apartments in Houston are fine places to live. Most development is good. But we constantly hear about the bad apples: the developers who are at war with neighborhood groups; the apartments where people are getting shot. Developers would be wise to read these stories carefully, and work with neighborhood groups (not against them) to do projects that benefit everyone.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

In My Hiatus

I haven’t forgotten this blog. I was just too busy to write over the last two months. Things have settled down a little now, so you can expect some more blog posts in the near future. In my hiatus, the airwaves have been abuzz with Arizona’s new immigration laws, and the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. For Houston, the two stories have more to do with each other than you might think.

The BP disaster should be treated as a harbinger of things to come – namely, the end of oil as the driving force in Houston’s economy. Public sentiment was already shifting away from oil – and the spill in the Gulf will only accelerate that. The stakes for Houston are almost as high as the stakes for the Gulf. If we don’t guard ourselves, we risk becoming Detroit. It’s not just about building a diverse economy (though that’s a big part of it). According to this blog post by David Frum, a political commentator and a speech writer for George W. Bush, we also need to push the arts and education in our City. Most of all – we need to make sure that Houstonians of all backgrounds can live together in peace.

Houston should avoid the temptation to pass illegal immigration laws like Arizona did. Our Nation needs to secure its borders, and Washington DC is doing a very poor job at it. But Houston also needs to be very careful for the safety and trust of everyone who lives here. We need to find a middle ground between Sanctuary City policies (which don’t work), and Arizona’s laws. I suggest Jamiel’s Law, an idea which has been proposed in Los Angeles. Rather than opening the door to inquire about the immigration status of everyone who looks or acts like an illegal, Jamiel’s law would limit it to gang bangers. Cities already keep lists of known gang members. Jamiel’s Law would allow local police to check the immigration status of people on those lists. If Jamiel’s Law came to Houston, we could check our sex offender lists, too – and parolees. Because Jamiel’s law is limited to people who are in gangs, it is a much more targeted approach than what they’re doing in Arizona. It could just be the middle ground we need.

Houston should fare well when oil goes into decline. We already have a diverse economy and strong education and arts in Houston. Texas is the biggest producer of wind power in the United States, and many of those companies are based right here in Houston. We have one of the largest conglomerations of hospitals in North America. We have the third most theater seats of any City in North America. And we have top-ranked universities including Rice University, and the Baylor College of Medicine. But we’ll be even better if we tread very carefully on immigration law.