Example essay

Houston communities are using their voices to push for change

This was originally featured in the Houston Chronicle’s HouWeAre newsletter on race, culture and identity. You can register here.

Ground. Property. Ownership.

From the Constitution’s earliest stipulations about who had the right to vote to Manifest Destiny, sharecropping and redlining, land and property — and more importantly, who owns and controls it — have also reinforced systemic injustices. and helped create access to mobility and freedom.

RA Schuetz, The Chronicle’s real estate and business reporter and Looped In podcaster, covers real estate, development, and entrepreneurial trends in Houston — where diversity is a cornerstone of the city’s potential.

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Q: Tell us a bit about yourself.

A: I come from San Antonio, where I was introduced to newspapers by the San Antonio Express News. They have a program called the Teen teamwhich gave me the chance to follow a veteran journalist Vincent T. Davis as a high school student (Spurs were on their way to a championship, so we watched what it was like to live next to the stadium). As a somewhat shy teenager, I loved having an excuse to go out and tell people about their lives, and I started doing that whenever I could, joining my high school, then college papers – even though it wasn’t until almost a decade later that I decided to pursue a career.

Shout out to Davis, who’s still in San Antonio, and whose stories you’ll occasionally see in the Chronicle!

Q: What got you into covering business and real estate?

A: Real estate shapes every aspect of our lives – where we live, eat, work, relax, go to school. The fabric of our cities is linked to our identities and our quality of life. So the decisions and policies and market forces that impact this fabric really grab me.

Q: Over the past two years, and particularly after the murder of George Floyd, there seems to have been an increase in more intentional investment and diversified development. Based on real estate trends, do you think this was part of a natural push that was already starting to happen in underrepresented communities or do you think there was a connection to George Floyd and the racial reckoning that was happening?

A: That’s a very good question. I definitely hear more about developers trying to give the community a voice and maybe a chance to share the wealth. Technology and new laws create new techniques to achieve this, such as crowdfunding. But there have long been people in real estate who have more in mind than just profit.

For example, when I was writing about Christopher Senegal, a developer who recently bought a cluster of houses in the Fifth Ward with the promise of not raising rents, his approach struck me as unusual. In an effort to keep tenants in place in a low-income area where he expects property values ​​to rise, he found a property that included both shotgun rental homes, which generated enough revenue to cover monthly costs, and vacant commercial space, which could be developed to increase profits.

But as I reported the story, I discovered that Senegal’s promise to do good by long-time residents was a big part of the reason former owners Birdie and Albert Stevens decided to leave him. sell the property first – they too were making decisions with the community in mind. And the reason Birdie Stevens’ father, a former sharecropper, even owned the property was because the landlord before that recognized how much he helped tenants. That landlord, Dr. Samuel Dittman, offered financing to Birdie Stevens’ landlord father — and while many landlords in Houston have offered black families unfavorable financial arrangements with terms designed to prevent them from taking full ownership of their deeds , according to government reports, Dittman was as good as his word.

That’s all to say that there are many examples of people who have opened doors in real estate historically. While it’s hard to track this over time, I hope more and more thoughtful people become Guardians.

Q: The real estate market is probably one of the main indicators of disparity and inequality, whether racial, gender or socioeconomic. What do you personally see as house prices continue to soar?

A: During the last years, house prices have risen much faster than incomes, widening the gap between those who can buy a home and those who cannot. Those who had already purchased a home saw their wealth increase as the value of their home skyrocketed; those who hadn’t seen the prospect of it getting harder and harder. The ratio of house prices to income in the Houston area is still not as bad as in other parts of the country where I have lived, such as San Francisco and New York. But some of the things I’ve seen in those cities, I’m starting to notice a lot more here than when I moved to Houston in 2018. People are making smaller spaces and moving to less convenient places to work. . The stress around housing is becoming more and more palpable. And the organization of tenants becomes more visible.

Q: There are disparities, but you’ve also covered a lot of really interesting and hopeful stories, from Third Ward development to the Sixth Ward project for elderly people displaced by Harvey to anti-homelessness campaigns. Which of these stories really stood out to you?

A: This is such a difficult question! I loved all these stories. A lot of people in Houston are doing really cool things. A recent story I wrote involved Houstonians cracking the code on a national issue — how to make Housing Choice Vouchers, a federal program that subsidizes rent for low-income families, palatable to landlords. The nonprofit NestQuest makes arrangements with the management of zoned apartments at high-performing schools, agreeing to take care of payments and maintenance, among other headaches. NestQuest then sublets them to families in Housing Choice Vouchers with school-aged children, to whom they provide additional support.

Q: Do you have anything else to add?

A: If you all love real estate, listen to our podcast, Looped In. Thanks for having me!

Do you have a story to share or do you know of one that needs to be told? Share it with us here.

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