Panel talks revitalization in the Fifth Ward
Published: Friday, September 7, 2012
Updated: Friday, September 7, 2012 22:09
In an effort to educate the Rice University community about urban revitalization in the Fifth Ward neighborhood of Houston, the Rice Habitat hosted a panel on Tuesday including Houston community leaders involved in the development of the Fifth Ward.
The Fifth Ward neighborhood of Houston has drawn particular attention from Rice University Habitat for Humanity chapter because of its history and current state: More than 50 percent of the residents of the Fifth Ward are under the poverty line and do not have high school degrees, according to the panelists.
The panel, moderated by sociology professor Michael Emerson, featured Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation President and CEO Kathy Payton, Houston Habitat for Humanity Executive Director Algenita Davis, Houston Housing Authority President and CEO Tory Gunsolley, and City of Houston Housing and Community Development Department Government and Public Affairs Officer Marc Eichenbaum.
Rice Habitat president Maria Nunez organized the panel as a part of Habitat for Humanity’s revitalization goals in the Fifth Ward, including the dedication of the Rice Centennial House in two weeks.
“The Centennial House is the biggest thing the club has ever done, so I wanted to teach the Rice community what’s going on where we built the house,” Nunez, a Sid Richardson College senior, said. “The area is so full of history and is only 10 minutes away from the Rice campus, but students don’t know what’s going on there.”
Payton’s group aims to redevelop the Fifth Ward neighborhood through special commercial and residential building projects, according to Payton. During the discussion, Payton said she has future hopes for urban revitalization in the Fifth Ward but only if public policy on the subject becomes more active.
“I think urban revitalization would look like a very integrated, very mixed community where people would have the opportunity to live there, work there, play there and welcome visitors,” Payton said. “Revitalization has not always been something our city has focused on in the past 20 years or so, and I think we need an active and assertive public policy to revitalize the community.”
Davis, who grew up in the Fifth Ward and attended Wheatley High School, said organizations like Habitat for Humanity are important in the revitalization of the Fifth Ward and other similar neighborhoods in Houston.
“We play the role of rooftops,” Davis said. “We have a different type of substandard [house] in Houston. We are willing to make a commitment toward people, and no community is sustainable without rooftops. You have to have the housing and residence component.”
Panelists also discussed the relative merits of gentrification in neighborhoods like the Fifth Ward. Gunsolley said gentrification is an inevitable outcome but that responsible gentrification needs to be encouraged.
“Gentrification will happen whether people want it or not,” Gunsolley said. “Largely, the people who make out well are original homeowners who sell and choose to leave, and the early gentrifiers who move in and pay to homeowners what seems an amazing amount, and the people who really lose are the low income renters. Gentrification is about learning how to welcome new neighbors and introduce them to the old neighbors.”
Eichenbaum added that it is sometimes difficult to attract new businesses and homeowners to an economically struggling neighborhood.
“Some people don’t want to be pioneers because it has [the] negative connotation of moving somewhere people don’t want to be, someplace undesirable,” Eichenbaum said. “They will move into a block of all new houses, but not be singular. Once we start doing volume, we can start seeing that community change.”
Nunez said she was happy to see a collaborative attitude emerge from the panel.
“We all concluded that our four entities need to work together in urban renewal,” Nunez said. “We’re all in agreement about what should happen next — there needs to be support for all income levels. Gentrification and people moving into townhomes is fine, but you need a mixed income balance and also a balance in diversity and age group.”
Emerson, who also serves as co-director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice as well as chair of the board of directors for the Fifth Ward CRC, said he hoped the panel educated students on the efforts currently being taken in the Fifth Ward.
“It helped introduce students to the challenges of the Fifth Ward and poor neighborhoods in Houston in general,” Emerson said. “I hope it showed that there are many complexities to meet the needs of the current residents of neighborhoods like the Fifth Ward.”
Emerson said the impact of the houses Rice Habitat for Humanity builds extends past their practical purposes.