State of the city: Mayor Sylvester Turner warns Houston’s recovery could be slow, inequitable

houston skyline from afar
The Greater Houston Partnership has found a divide between the economic recovery of rich and poor residents amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Courtesy Visit Houston)

The Greater Houston Partnership has found a divide between the economic recovery of rich and poor residents amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Courtesy Visit Houston)

Mayor Sylvester Turner’s annual State of the City address took on a different tone Oct. 2 as he reflected on a year upended by the worst pandemic the U.S. has faced in a century.

“What you cannot foresee and, in some cases, prevent, you simply must manage,” Turner said.

He noted some successes, such as securing federal funding for the city’s largest flood mitigation projects, publishing Houston’s first Climate Action Plan, setting up relief funds for residents affected by the coronavirus-induced economic downturn and establishing a $10 million city- and county-led health facility for homeless residents.

But unlike his 2019 address, Turner did not spend much time promoting new initiatives.

Instead, he and Greater Houston Partnership President Bob Harvey narrowed in on the city’s prospects of recovery in the face of over 150,000 unemployed residents, over $100 million in lost city revenue, increasingly urgent calls for racial justice and uncertainty in Houston’s pivotal energy sector.

So far, the Greater Houston Partnership has found the city is following a K-shaped recovery, meaning that those who were in a better financial position prior to the pandemic are recovering faster, while those who were less financially stable are continuing to struggle.

The employment rate for those making over $60,000 is currently down 1.5% in Houston, as compared to a 15% drop for residents making less than $27,000.

Houston was down 220,000 jobs at one point this year, the partnership found, but has since recovered about 145,000 jobs.

“As we work to rebuild the economy,” Harvey said, “we could instead see a K-shaped recovery with minorities suffering the brunt.”

In response to job losses Harvey pointed to a push for energy leaders to transition to alternative energy faster than the partnership predicted in 2019 due to low demand.

“[The pandemic] has altered the dynamic in ways that few had foreseen and [has] accelerated the energy transition," Harvey said.

In May, when the full impact of the coronavirus-related shutdowns on city sales tax revenue was still unclear, officials were considering placing every city employee on a furlough schedule. However, an infusion of $400 million in federal funding from the CARES Act prevented that from coming to pass.

Further on, Turner doubled down on his support for the Houston Police Department, including his $20 million boost to its budget for fiscal year 2020-21, which included funding for five new cadet classes.

“Meaningful investments and reforms are needed,” he said. “[The policing reform task force] recently submitted its report with over 100 recommendations, ... and most of them, I wholeheartedly support.”

He added that an increased focus on vulnerable communities amid protests against police brutality did not translate to outside financial support of his signature Complete Communities program. The initiative, which he began during his first term, focuses on community-led improvements or under-resourced areas of the city.

“I asked business to invest in my complete community initiative, and the response has been slow,” he said.
By Emma Whalen
Emma is Community Impact Newspaper's Houston City Hall reporter. Previously, she covered public health, education and features for several Austin-area publications. A Boston native, she is a former student athlete and alumna of The University of Texas at Austin.


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