Last night at the Metropolitan Multi-Service Center, Lara Cottingham gave what I perceived as a stellar presentation regarding Houston's governmental efforts to stay in compliance with the targets of the Paris Climate Accord. The principal target, to which more than 400 US municipalities of various sizes have committed, is net carbon neutrality by 2050. Here is the PDF of the PowerPoint that she has used at a series of community meetings.
You may know that our alleged president unilaterally withdrew the United States from the 2015 agreement. The Republican-controlled 114th Congress never acceded to President Obama's wish that the Accord be given the force of a treaty, so His Orangitude and his oil-soaked cronies decided in 2017 to ditch it. However, cities and states have gone out of their way to affirm their commitment to the agreement and actually do something about it—including our own Petro Metro, under the leadership of Mayor Sylvester Turner.
In the ensuing months, the City came up with a plan and gave it the no-nonsense name "City of Houston Climate Action Plan." Cottingham announced last night, as she has at other community meetings, that implementation of the CAP is scheduled to begin in late 2020.
I remember going to the disappointing "climate march" two years ago, at which Turner announced the City's intentions to stay Paris-compliant. It wasn't a protest march like the kind to which I'm accustomed: We marched around the exercise track of Clinton Park, where the public was unlikely to actual see us.
Turner seemed sincere in the speech he delivered—sometimes it's hard to tell whether he's in politician mode or he means what he's saying—and from all indications he had enough of a consensus on City Council to pull it off. It was just a matter of whether he could get a team together to turn his words into action.
To my pleasant surprise, Turner & Co. have not been cowed by the energy tycoons and the vast presence of the petrochemical industrial complex in this area. It doesn't appear as if Big Oil & Gas has even tried to water down the proposal. But then, it also doesn't appear as if the proposal is putting any actual restrictions on Big Oil & Gas's operations. Instead, the CAP aims to make housing, public buildings, and transportation in Houston vastly more energy-efficient and less carbon-spewing.
What was so impressive about the community meeting, Cottingham's presentation in particular?
- Cottingham demonstrated clearly that she knows the importance of the climate battle and communicated that knowledge effectively. Most of the 60 or so in attendance also demonstrated some knowledge of that importance, but she seemed able to communicate it to people unfamiliar with the territory.
- She also demonstrated a firm grip on what the city can do, what it can't do (legally or logistically), the scope of the CAP (finding and implementing ways to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions), what other cities, county governments, and agencies such as Metro might do to help, what other departments within city government might do to address matters outside that scope, and what resistance the CAP might encounter.
- The centerpiece of the Plan is the City of Houston's intent to lead by example: e.g., all new city buildings must meet LEED standards, the percentage of hybrid and all-electric vehicles in the City's fleet will increase, and Houston still leads the nation (linked article is five years old today!) in the percentage of its electricity coming from renewable sources.
- A major component of the Plan is equity: i.e., steps taken should affect everyone equally, whether positively or negatively, and not benefit wealthy residents or businesses to the detriment of everyone else.
- The breakout sessions in the second half of the meeting addressed the various aspects of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in this large and growing city, giving attendees a chance to rate the importance of various steps the city might take. Intentionally or not, these sessions were an opportunity to discuss matters intersectionally, to bring to light how policy in one arena has direct impacts on other arenas (and people in those arenas).
Between the presentation and the breakouts, there was about a half-hour of questions and answers. As happens with most Q&A sessions, some attendees took the opportunity to get on their personal soapboxes rather than ask questions. I tried to avoid soapboxing when I asked about the relationship between housing policy and transportation policy: specifically, the City doesn't seem to be pressuring developers to stop building so much unaffordable housing inside Loop 610, destroying affordable housing stock in the process and driving service-sector workers to seek housing farther from their jobs, thus increasing aggregate commuter miles. As the Chronicle noted this past Sunday, too much of that housing is turning into investment property for exorbitant leases or AirBnB locations. The more affordable apartments and starter homes, meanwhile, keep getting pushed into the exurbs.
Sometimes I Enjoy Being a Progressive Pest
I did not get a satisfactory answer to my question, which was a minor disappointment. But Cottingham did agree, without hesitation, that artificially inflated housing costs are a problem that needs addressing. Just before the end of the meeting, I casually mentioned to her that the only proven way to buffer the effects of gentrification was for the city itself to go into the affordable housing business—not just Section 8 projects and housing for the homeless, but sub–market rate dwellings that may not be converted into investments and might allow Montrose baristas to live comfortably in or near Montrose. For starters, the city can buy or lease long-vacant loft townhomes or high-rise apartments and rent them out at subsidized rates.
At the breakout session on transportation, I was approached by a young woman whose life I literally described in my question: She works as a barista in Montrose but lives in Tomball, a 35 mile commute each way.
The policy matrix for the transportation session did mention current City initiatives such as increasing and improving bicycle infrastructure (Houston Bike Plan) and Metro's Bus Rapid Transit routes such as the one under construction on Post Oak Boulevard. There was some folks in attendance who were unaware of these developments, and it felt good to spread the word about them. There was also an item on the matrix regarding encouraging Transit-Oriented Development, and I seized the opportunity to caution that other cities have had TOD destabilizing local housing and commercial markets, raising property values too much and too quickly for residents and small businesses to remain there.
There was talk of the City offering incentives for developers to install solar panels, 220V outlets for electric cars, and other carbon-reducing features in all new construction. I remarked that the long-term survival of humanity and other life on the planet should be incentive enough. Unfortunately, too many business leaders can't see past the dollar signs to understand that.