Politics

Houston City Council approves an agreement with Ion developers despite community pushback

Three council members voted against the plan.

The Ion

For two years, community organizers and neighbors with the Houston Coalition for Equitable Development without Displacement have pushed developers of the Ion innovation district to enter into a community benefits agreement in hopes of reducing potential gentrification around the Third Ward, a historically Black neighborhood.

On Wednesday, Houston City Council approved an agreement between the city and the technology hub’s developer, Rice Management Company.

But those organizers — many of whom spoke at the council's public session the day before the vote, asking council to vote against the city's agreement with Rice Management — have argued it should have been negotiated between the city and members of the surrounding community, not between the city and the developer.

"We are not against the Ion building. We are fighting for the citizens, taxpayers and the poor living in a community that has been forgotten, until it became profitable," resident Dolores Rodgers said to the council on Tuesday. "We want a fair, accountable agreement that honors the negative impact on Third Ward. We are not asking more than the community deserves."

A community benefits agreement, or CBA, details how a project would positively impact a given community through measures like job programs, affordable housing and other investments. Some of those measures are in the $15.3 million agreement between Rice Management and the city, including a $5 million investment fund for minority and women-owned tech businesses, $2 million in tech sector job training split between Rice Management and outside funders, and $4.5 million to invest in affordable housing.

But the deal’s critics say it’s missing one crucial piece to a community benefits agreement: buy-in from the community itself.

The agreement calls for the creation of a community advisory council to provide oversight of the CBA's implementation. Members of the advisory council are to be selected by the mayor, a point that raised concerns for some at Tuesday’s meeting.

"We need to have conversations about ethics and deciding who's on these advisory committees," said Uyiosa Elegon, co-organizer of HCEDD, "because if the mayor decides who's on them, and he's already decided for such a long time what his position on these things are, then what are the ethical concerns of who's going to be on these advisory committees?"

Three council members voted against the agreement — At-Large Councilmember Letitia Plummer, District F Councilmember Tiffany Thomas, and Carolyn Evans Shabazz, who represents District D, home to the Ion.

“I just want to say that I fully support the Ion, but I believe that CBAs should be between the developer and the impacted community,” Evans Shabazz said, explaining her vote against the agreement.

Supporters of the deal argue there has been sufficient community input. Rice Management’s Sam Dike said on Tuesday that the company reached out to HCEDD to participate in the group working on the agreement, and they chose not to join.

HCEDD responded with a letter outlining the conditions under which they would participate.

"We invited the coalition to be part of our working group," Dike said. "Despite what anybody may say, we invited people to be part of a collaborative effort. And I've always had an open door. I've not turned down any meetings."

Carol Guess, chair of the board of the Greater Houston Black Chamber of Commerce, was part of the working group that wrote the agreement and spoke in favor of the plan, which she said would support minority and women owned businesses through millions of dollars in grant funding.

"We've been working extremely hard with this community benefits agreement and the chamber has some programs that have been presented to the Ion that we will continue to work on to make sure that the residents in the area are part of a good working force," Guess said.

Council members supporting the plan, including District K Councilmember and Vice Mayor Pro-Tem Martha Castex Tatum, insisted it's a true community benefits agreement that sets a historic new precedent for Houston developers to work with community members.

"What they have done is more than any developer has ever done in the history of development agreements," Castex Tatum said. "The Ion did not create gentrification and it's unfair for us to put the onus only on the Ion instead of us all playing a part in moving the city forward."

As council debated the item Wednesday, Plummer moved to amend the agreement so that nomination and approval of members of the council would go before council for a confirmation vote. Mayor Sylvester Turner partly accepted her amendment – allowing council to confirm the final list of members, but not nominate them.

Council unanimously approved the amendment.

The mayor also added that debate between organizers, the city and developers resulted in a “healthy exchange,” but again threw his support behind the deal before its ultimate passage, saying it would help Black and brown businesses that historically have the hardest time getting funding.

“We have some brilliant folks in these communities throughout the city with some huge ideas,” Turner said. “But in the absence of funding they can't get off the ground."

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Jen Rice

Reporter

Jen Rice is the City Hall reporter at Houston Public Media, where she covers topics like Houston City Council and housing. Jen was born and raised in Houston's 100-year floodplain. She graduated from Barnard College at Columbia University and has a master's degree from the LBJ School of Public Affairs...

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