Saturday, January 28, 2012

What Houston Needs to Look For in a New HDHCD Director

Houston Department of Housing and Community Development (HDHCD) Director James Noteware resigned earlier this month to seek employment in the private sector. It’s very sad to see him go. Mr. Noteware was keenly attuned to Houston’s unique needs when it comes to housing and community development. He understood that the job is much bigger than just to meet the Department’s primary objective. His successor will face a very steep learning curve.

Houston is the largest city in the US to lack a traditional, comprehensive zoning ordinance. This is good because our neighborhoods have developed organically to be mixed use and mixed income. But the down side is that neighbors often feel that they lack protection from undesirable development. Our new HDHCD Director needs to be sensitive to neighborhood concerns; and not simply write them off as NIMBYs.

This City went through a building boom in the 1950s through 1970s. Multifamily housing was overbuilt. Those complexes are now at the end of their useful lives. Whole neighborhoods are dragged down by complexes that were once upscale, but are now dangerous slums. It behooves the new HDHCD Director to know all about these complexes, and he has to be driven to help the neighborhoods around them.

The State of Texas has extremely weak laws regarding urban blight and substandard housing. Those laws were made even weaker in 2011. Recent experiments have used low-income housing funds to help mitigate blight, while providing safe, decent housing for the poor. We need an HDHCD Director who believes in this approach.

The primary function of the Houston Department of Housing and Community Development is “to provide decent housing, create a suitable living environment and expand economic opportunities, principally for low and moderate income persons.” But we also need an HDHCD Director who really understands our City, is sensitive to local concerns, and helps neighborhoods solve their problems.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Changing the Culture of Lost Opportunities

Re-examining Zoned Schools

Helen Ladd, a professor at the Duke Sanford School of Public Policy wrote “Education and Poverty – Confronting the Evidence.” Almost on the same day, a study was published in the Houston Chronicle which gives Sharpstown High School the second worst dropout rate in the City.[i] I can’t help but break my rule against writing about education on this Blog.

It’s tempting to blame choice for the failure of schools like Sharpstown High. The assumption is that if you give kids the chance to leave their local zoned schools, those schools will fail because they’ll lose their best and brightest students. But the assumption is overly simplistic and very dangerous. It helps cause the failure of zoned schools, and it has been proven wrong by Ms. Ladd[ii].

When a zoned school starts to lose students to Magnet and Charter Schools, it creates unique opportunities. If the school can keep its teachers, students who stay can benefit from smaller class sizes and one-on-one attention. Furthermore, the school can focus on the issues facing its remaining students. Do most of them have parents who are too busy to help with homework? An after-school tutoring program could be established to help fill the gap. Is teenage pregnancy a problem? Programs could be set up to address it. Most of all, zoned schools can take stock of the neighborhoods around them. They can work with neighborhood groups, to make their curriculum fit with the needs of the surrounding community. Then they can market that curriculum to parents in the neighborhood, to help stem or reverse the exodus of students.

These opportunities are very often lost; and from what I can tell, part of the reason is that zoned schools are used for political reasons. Opponents of school choice hold them up and say “I told you so,” instead of seizing on opportunities to improve them. A culture of lost opportunities has been created, and it has been especially damaging to Sharpstown High School. Two decades of deterioration have left it one of Houston’s worst. The school has been named to HISD’s Apollo 20 Program, which offers a glimmer of hope, but which might fail[iii]. It’s a real shame, because there are beautiful, vibrant neighborhoods around the Sharpstown High School, with parents who are afraid to send their kids to it; and there are students attending the school, who deserve better.

[i] I had initially thought that Sharpstown’s poor graduation rate in the study was the result of faulty methodology on the part of Children at Risk. But in fact their research is sound.

[ii] Ms. Ladd’s work is important because it throws a wrench in the common wisdom that was behind The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. No Child Left Behind created a culture of ‘teaching to the test’ and did not address the problems it was supposed to fix.

[iii] The Apollo 20 program’s goal is to improve student performance with a longer school day, a longer school year, and one-on-one tutoring. But Apollo 20 labels schools as failing – in turn making it more difficult for them to attract students. The damage done by this label, could far outweigh any benefits from the program. To be fair, the schools are failing, but that’s not something that we should continuously remind people of. It’d be better if there were Apollo programs in all HISD schools, to help students who are struggling academically, regardless of what campus they are in.