On Gentrification in Houston

On Gentrification in Houston

by Brant Roberts

I have read many articles on gentrification that present the issues surrounding the displacement of people from a highly idealistic perspective. This approach overlooks the way gentrification develops and what factors push this issue. I will address gentrification in Houston, Texas from a strictly materialist point of view, analyzing the situation itself rather than hypothetical contributing factors; art is a common scapegoat for gentrification, but it is not the cause.

Houston is the fourth most populous city in the nation and is slated to surpass Chicago within the next decade.(1)http://www.businessinsider.com/r-americas-city-rankings-set-for-texas-sized-shake-up-houston-to-edge-past-chicago-2015-9 It is the most ethnically diverse city in the nation.(2)http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/05/houston-most-diverse_n_1321089.html It is considered among the top job-creating cities in the nation.(3)http://www.forbes.com/sites/kathryndill/2014/11/04/the-top-10-cities-and-states-for-job-growth/ It is home to three community colleges, six universities, and a vibrant intellectual culture that reverberates from the Museum District to the small coffee shops you can find in almost every neighborhood within the 610 Loop. Yet it is becoming one of the most unequal cities in the nation in which to live.(4)http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/special-reports/article/Opportunities-abound-at-the-top-of-the-income-6366673.php 

For a few months, several apartment building projects that followed oil industry success halted construction due to difficulties attracting emerging young professionals in a local real estate climate that considered the projects unprofitable.

To understand how gentrification functions in Houston we must not overlook the effects of the petroleum market and its influence on the local real estate market. Houston, the “Energy Capital of the world,” is home to several of the world’s most prosperous petroleum and natural resource extraction corporations including Halliburton, National Oilwell Varco, Conoco Phillips, and Baker Hughes.(5)http://www.houstonchronicle.com/business/economy/article/Houston-is-home-to-half-of-the-Fortune-500-5523181.php These corporations play a major role in employment, city funding (infrastructure through local taxes), funding the Museum of Fine Arts, and the overall circulation of capital in Houston.(6)http://www.mfah.org/site_media/uploads/attachments/2015-10-19/FY16_October_CP_Website_Listing.pdf Given the number of people employed by the petroleum industry in Houston, we would be remiss to ignore this impact on the local real estate market.(7)http://hereishouston.com/?q=node/40

During the oil crash of the 1980’s, Houston found itself crippled by the fundamental problem of a single-industry based economy. In 1986, the price of a barrel of oil dropped from $31.82 to $9.75.(8)http://business.financialpost.com/news/energy/oils-1986-collapse-signals-rebound-from-this-supply-shock-could-be-years-away The flooding of the petroleum market swallowed up many sub sectors of the Houston economy—especially the real estate market.(9)http://www.houstonchronicle.com/business/energy/article/Crude-calculation-Another-decade-another-oil-5969736.php

katiehaugland_thumb_560x372Since the 1986 Oil Crash, the city of Houston has made strong attempts to diversify its economy, resulting in the expansion of the largest medical district in the world and the opening of more financial institutions within the city limits.(10)http://hereishouston.com/?q=node/40 This has decreased the city’s economic reliance on the strength of the petroleum industry, and increased the city’s reliance on the strength of the consistent medical industry. The medical industry does not have the same fluctuations as the petroleum industry so it allows the economy some stabilization. The petroleum industry is now second only to the medical industry in terms of city employment.(11)http://hereishouston.com/?q=node/40

When the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) made the decision to continue oil production in November 2014, it had a strong effect on the apartment construction industry in Houston.(12)http://www.aljazeera.com/news/europe/2014/11/oil-prices-plummet-low-after-opec-decision-20141127235444114939.html For a few months, several apartment building projects that followed oil industry success halted construction due to difficulties attracting emerging young professionals in a local real estate climate that considered the projects unprofitable. Upwards of 50,000 layoffs in the petroleum industry in Houston alone cut short these young professionals’ move into the city.(13)http://www.houstonchronicle.com/business/energy/article/Houston-area-oil-layoffs-came-quickly-cut-deep-6336575.php While development has slowed—due in large part to the current status of the local petroleum industry—monthly rents have not lessened but plateaued.(14)https://www.rentjungle.com/average-rent-in-houston-rent-trends/

The local government’s role cannot be left out of the conversation. It shapes the real estate market with tax increment investment zones that divide the city into 22 tax zones.(15)http://www.houstontx.gov/budget/05budadopt/XIII_PI.pdf These tax zones influence which neighborhoods feel the wrath of gentrification the most and to what degree they feel it.

One cannot fully understand the process of gentrification in Houston without understanding each neighborhood both inside and outside the 610 Loop. For instance, in the historically LGBTQIA friendly district of Montrose, few places remain affordable for working class people. Montrose was once a safer space to which LGBT youth could turn in times of crisis but has now become one of the fastest gentrifying neighborhoods in the city.(16)http://www.salon.com/2014/11/28/how_oligarchs_destroyed_a_major_american_city_partner/ Many in the LGBT community have found themselves in vulnerable or socially compromising positions as a result. 

There are upwards of 50 different neighborhoods in Houston alone that are feeling the effects of gentrification. Each of these neighborhoods is divided along economic, cultural, and geographical lines.

Montrose isn’t the only neighborhood feeling the effects of gentrification in Houston. Fourth Ward, also known as Old Freedman’s Town, was the first neighborhood affected when it was wiped out by the redevelopment of the Allen Parkway Village housing project. Within the past two years, gentrification has shown its ugly face outside of the 610 loop in Gulfton, where residents have been resisting and organizing against rent hikes.(17)https://swdnetwork.wordpress.com/2013/08/28/defend-o-u-r-house-picket-against-evictions-on-sept-4th/ There are upwards of 50 different neighborhoods in Houston alone that are feeling the effects of gentrification. Each of these neighborhoods is divided along economic, cultural, and geographical lines. Regarding overall neighborhoods, I will henceforth focus on Montrose since the fight against gentrification there is clearly demarcated.

Since gentrification has affected historically bohemian neighborhoods most efficiently, I will address those who argue that art impacts the development of gentrification in specific neighborhoods.(18)http://temporaryartreview.com/on-art-and-gentrification/ The claim that art drives gentrification is an idealist understanding of how gentrification develops. To understand the development of gentrification is to know that gentrification is strictly rooted in a real estate market that sees land as potential development to be commodified and increase revenue, and views those who live on the land as mere interferences that need to be removed either economically or by force. Materialism renders us the ability to use this socio-economic influence not to point the finger at artists, but at the actual causes of gentrification.

Then there are food deserts: poor neighborhoods in Houston that do not have local grocery stores, forcing residents to commute for food and everyday items.(19)http://www.houstontx.gov/health/NewsReleases/van.html While the city has attempted to combat this problem, it remains a hot button issue for many Houstonians who incur inhumane conditions that lower the standard of living for many people.(20)http://thetsuherald.com/2014/03/hope-for-food-oasis-in-houstons-third-ward/ In lieu of local grocery stores that provide healthy food alternatives, these neighborhoods have small local stores that offer unhealthy snack foods and alcoholic drinks. While some people have the means to visit a different neighborhood to purchase healthy commodities, most people in these neighborhoods frequent these local stores out of convenience. This has led to devastating health problems in these communities, primarily for those who cannot leave their neighborhoods to purchase healthy foods on a regular basis.(21)http://www.chron.com/opinion/editorials/article/Food-deserts-We-need-more-grocery-stores-in-the-1684906.php  

Given the fact that so many people in Houston are forced to work long hours every week to survive and live in fear of a hike in rent that could displace their families, it is safe to say that gentrification is an act of economic violence against poor, and working-class communities. As local writer Anis Shivani says, “We are real people who make up a real community, only to be displaced by unoccupied zombie high-rises—pure investment vehicles for global investors. People like us find our lives irreparably damaged by gentrification.”(22)http://www.salon.com/2014/11/28/how_oligarchs_destroyed_a_major_american_city_partner/

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. http://www.businessinsider.com/r-americas-city-rankings-set-for-texas-sized-shake-up-houston-to-edge-past-chicago-2015-9
2. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/05/houston-most-diverse_n_1321089.html
3. http://www.forbes.com/sites/kathryndill/2014/11/04/the-top-10-cities-and-states-for-job-growth/
4. http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/special-reports/article/Opportunities-abound-at-the-top-of-the-income-6366673.php
5. http://www.houstonchronicle.com/business/economy/article/Houston-is-home-to-half-of-the-Fortune-500-5523181.php
6. http://www.mfah.org/site_media/uploads/attachments/2015-10-19/FY16_October_CP_Website_Listing.pdf
7, 10, 11. http://hereishouston.com/?q=node/40
8. http://business.financialpost.com/news/energy/oils-1986-collapse-signals-rebound-from-this-supply-shock-could-be-years-away
9. http://www.houstonchronicle.com/business/energy/article/Crude-calculation-Another-decade-another-oil-5969736.php
12. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/europe/2014/11/oil-prices-plummet-low-after-opec-decision-20141127235444114939.html
13. http://www.houstonchronicle.com/business/energy/article/Houston-area-oil-layoffs-came-quickly-cut-deep-6336575.php
14. https://www.rentjungle.com/average-rent-in-houston-rent-trends/
15. http://www.houstontx.gov/budget/05budadopt/XIII_PI.pdf
16, 22. http://www.salon.com/2014/11/28/how_oligarchs_destroyed_a_major_american_city_partner/
17. https://swdnetwork.wordpress.com/2013/08/28/defend-o-u-r-house-picket-against-evictions-on-sept-4th/
18. http://temporaryartreview.com/on-art-and-gentrification/
19. http://www.houstontx.gov/health/NewsReleases/van.html
20. http://thetsuherald.com/2014/03/hope-for-food-oasis-in-houstons-third-ward/
21. http://www.chron.com/opinion/editorials/article/Food-deserts-We-need-more-grocery-stores-in-the-1684906.php