EXCLUSIVE Q&A: Houston Mayoral Runoff Candidates Detail Their CRE-Related Platforms
The two candidates vying to become Houston's first new mayor since 2016 have big plans for development, flood prevention, expediting permitting and affordable housing as the race tightens in the waning days of the campaign.
After a crowded general election earlier this month, Democratic U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and Democratic Texas Sen. John Whitmire will face off in a runoff Dec. 9. Both agreed to be interviewed by Bisnow on their real estate priorities.
In a low-turnout race Nov. 7, Whitmire earned 107,078 votes, or 42.5%, to Jackson Lee’s 89,749 votes, or 35.6%.
But the newest poll shows potential for a close finish next week, with Whitmire having the support of 42% of likely voters compared to 35% for Jackson Lee and 22% undecided.
Both candidates have earned significant support from members of the local commercial real estate community, though Whitmire touts major endorsements from top CRE organizations, including the Houston Association of Realtors, the Houston Building Owners and Managers Association and the Greater Houston Builders Association.
Whitmire cleaned up in terms of donations from commercial real estate. The Texas Association of Realtors donated $20K to Whitmire’s campaign, his campaign’s largest donation. Other top donors include Madison Fine Properties broker Shahin Naghavi, Brizo Construction President Cody Lee and longtime multifamily developer Steve Ford, who each gave $10K.
Jackson Lee also amassed her fair share from real estate professionals, including $5K each from Roxann Chargois, owner of JMC Realty, and Sohail Hassan, a real estate developer with Marketspace Capital, her campaign finance report shows. Including those donations, Jackson Lee received at least 20 donations of $1K or more from people identified as working in real estate or development since March 29.
With early voting already underway, Bisnow posed a number of CRE-related questions to the two candidates to get a sense of how they would tackle the issues most pressing to the industry. Whitmire responded in writing, while Jackson Lee was interviewed by phone.
Their answers are presented in alphabetical order and were minimally edited for length and clarity.
Bisnow: What policy changes are you eyeing that could impact commercial real estate/development?
Jackson Lee: I want to make sure that commercial real estate and developers are comfortable in this city and that they are comfortable in working with the different, unique neighborhoods that we have. And that they are compatible. I will look to have meetings with those who propose, over the next year or two, to raise development in our city.
I think a good working relationship, knowing that the mayor is committed to their success and committed to them being successful but also compatible with neighborhoods, would leave them with a sense that if they have problems, we can work on them. And also the sense of the neighbors, the civic clubs that we are concerned about them as well. So developing a good working relationship with our developers and our neighborhoods, that they are not at odds, but working together to beautify the neighborhoods, improve services in the neighborhood, improve affordable housing in the neighborhood [is what] I want to encourage.
Whitmire: Houston is a great city. But reaching our full potential requires solving our problems. I want residents to live without fear of crime, drive on streets that won’t tear up their cars, have garbage picked up on time, live in homes that don’t flood and have a city government that is honest, transparent and fiscally healthy. And I believe our economy and business climate will continue to grow and prosper as Houston reaches the expectations we all have for our city.
Bisnow: Texas House Bill 14 now requires local development authorities to hand down decisions on permit applications within two weeks of their review deadlines. Houston has struggled with months-long wait times for construction permits in recent years. Do you think this legislation will improve or fix Houston’s permitting delay problems, and what more do you plan to do on a local level?
Jackson Lee: One of the chief commitments I have is to build effectively, environmentally safe, and compatible with our city and our neighborhoods. I will be a mayor that will not want the regulatory structure to undermine the creative work of our business community developers.
My effort would be to streamline the permitting department ... to ensure that developers can meet their timely goals, their financing goals, and that they don't lose the project. My intent is to do a complete overview of the permitting department to look at the kind of technology that they're using, to make sure that it works and that it works efficiently. And then to prioritize projects.
If there is a crisis, if a developer has a financial deadline that is necessary to make sure the project continues, we should have a structure that responds to those urgent matters and proceed with prioritizing that project for it to go forward. We should not lose the economic boost that comes from a well-reviewed project … because our permitting department is not efficiently processing those permits that are necessary. Permits are part of the lifeline of a city because it is a source of protection for Houstonians. We don't want it to be one that undermines good projects that so many in our community are working on.
Whitmire: We’re not going to quickly improve the permitting office’s performance to make decisions on applications within two weeks. The problems in that office are too serious. But we can make a start. The Houston Real Estate Council has made some excellent suggestions that I will work to see implemented.
- Reinstate customer-paid overtime.
- Streamline how plans are routed, making sure they are only reviewed by relevant departments/sections.
- Allow more flexibility in recruiting and maintaining staffing by allowing Permitting to determine appropriate salaries, work hours and location.
- Speed up the process to implement a new computer system.
Jackson Lee: We want people to be comfortable in purchasing and developing all over the city. We don't want any neighborhood to be left out. Public safety is extremely important, and that's [emergency medical services], fire and police. In high-crime areas, it is good to work together, with the constables, the sheriff’s office, [the Houston Police Department] … to clean out violent criminals or actions and ensure that there is high visibility, and leave that neighborhood well protected by visibility and the awareness that the crime elements have been moved out.
Federal law enforcement agencies are more than willing to collaborate with our local law enforcement as requested. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms could work on getting illegal guns and gun trafficking off the streets … which have nothing to do with regular citizens’ guns. We want to be able to protect Houstonians by making sure that illegal guns, ghost guns, are off the street.
I have worked extensively on anti-sex trafficking and anti-human trafficking legislation. Houstonians may not be aware, but we are a centerpoint for sex trafficking and human trafficking. I want that to be something that our [local] law enforcement would work with our federal law enforcement to extinguish here in the city of Houston.
Public safety will be a priority. I just brought $6M to Houston in the last three weeks specifically to hire more officers from the federal government and the U.S. Department of Justice.
Whitmire: All you have to do is look at The Galleria area, where crime has caused property values to decrease. Public safety affects every area of our community, including real estate. There are many things we can do to improve public safety and therefore protect our residents and real estate:
- Put more officers on the street with more emphasis placed on response times. One way we can do this is to replace many officers in administrative jobs with civilians.
- Community policing needs to be prioritized and expanded. Locating officers in neighborhoods and in high-risk areas like The Galleria and other commercial areas will reduce crime and allow police to respond quickly when a crime does occur.
- We should add to the Department of Public Safety officers already assisting the Houston Police Department, especially with specialized services such as air support.
- We need to coordinate and work together with the dozens of other law enforcement agencies in Houston and Harris County, including the sheriff’s department, constables, schools and metro.
- The police department has been limited in the number of cadet classes they can hold each year; we need to see if we can increase that number. I will get personally involved in helping recruit candidates, with an emphasis on diversity and work to improve morale within the department.
Bisnow: What are your plans to address flooding issues within the city, and how would those plans be funded?
Jackson Lee: Flood mitigation is extremely important. We need to be able to use the money that's collected by the drainage fees to collaborate [on] fighting flooding. I will make sure that we do a complete inventory of the flood drainage dollars to make sure that those dollars are actually utilized for flooding prevention and street repair.
At the same time, we want to make sure that we take advantage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, $1.7T. I’d like to immediately put forward a plan that could be submitted to the U.S. Department of Transportation, Army Corps of Engineers that could fund some major work to complement the work that's already being done.
I've already provided federal funding for Greens Bayou. We should see a better response to flooding with Greens Bayou. I've given federal dollars to White Oaks Bayou, to Sims Bayou. There's work being done on Hunting Bayou, work being done on Brays Bayou. So in the next years, we should see the federal dollars along the Harris County Flood District working to mitigate their flooding and also mitigate the flooding in the Buffalo Bayou.
I know how to work with agencies here on the ground to ensure that flood mitigation is the No. 1 priority.
Whitmire: Flooding is a regional problem, and we need to work with all government agencies in a coordinated effort to prevent flooding. Something as simple as maintaining ditches can make a big difference, and I’m glad to see that the city is now spending more money to do that. We need more flood mitigation projects like the innovative Willow Waterhole Greenspace Park, which has helped prevent flooding in the Westbury area while creating a beautiful amenity for the community. I secured $1M in state funding this year for the expansion of that flood mitigation/greenspace.
Bisnow: Why do you think most past efforts to address Houston’s flooding have fallen short, and how will your plan differ?
Jackson Lee: My plan is going to be focused on flood mitigation. Many fellow Houstonians know that I am committed to saving their lives and saving their property. That means that we must do an effective job in working with the federal agencies and local agencies focused on that.
I'll also work on getting a report, working with the county government. I have a great relationship with the county. I've been endorsed by Judge [Lina] Hidalgo and have a working relationship with all of the county commissioners. I can expect to collaborate with the judge on these matters so that we're working in tandem to prevent floods and do flood mitigation for Harris County and Houston. And that's the ability that I will have, having developed relationships between the county government, the city government, certainly the federal government, and however we can work effectively with the state government.
Whitmire: I would differ from previous administrations by abiding by the will of the voters. Build Houston Forward (formerly ReBuild Houston), funded by a drainage fee, has been in existence for 10 years with no meaningful improvements being made towards making the city more resilient to a major natural disaster. The funds were supposed to be in a lockbox for needed projects but have been used to pay salaries of Public Works employees. We need to honor the spirit of that ballot initiative and use the money for priority projects to make the city more resilient.
Bisnow: What other infrastructure challenges in Houston do you plan to address, and how might that impact commercial development?
Jackson Lee: We have to directly fix our water challenges. That is a water system that is not stable, is leaking, increasing local residential water bills that are astronomical. I am planning on a complete review of our water system and will begin to find resources. The private equity community could help rebuild or restore Houston's water system and begin to bring down those water bills.
In commercial development, water is extremely important. And a wastewater system that is effective is extremely important. I want to make sure that we survey all of our wastewater systems. One of them is under a federal consent decree. And we want to make sure that we finish that and that Houston's infrastructure is working at this top-notch ability. That’s the commitment I make to developers and commercial developers and homeowners, homebuyers, homebuilders: They will have an infrastructure system that is effectively equal to a city that is the fourth-largest city in the nation.
Whitmire: We have to admit we have a problem before we can solve it. Houston city officials have put off needed maintenance for years and we are seeing what results from that with video on the TV news every night of cars mangled by potholes and water leaks flooding our neighborhoods. The fourth-largest city in America should not have a boil water notice for two days. Our streets are in poor condition and dangerous for not only drivers but also pedestrians and bicyclists.
We need to design streets with safety as a priority — to control vehicle speeds and to allow drivers to be able to see other vehicles, pedestrians and bikers. We need to build more sidewalks. To resolve traffic issues, we need long-range planning and cooperation among all the governments and agencies in the region. Better streets help residents easily access businesses and help businesses move product. A better water system will allow businesses to build more homes and commercial buildings.
Bisnow: The current administration has made strides in housing homeless people, while the majority of renters in the city are considered cost-burdened. What affordable housing policies would you continue from the current administration, and what would you alter or add?
Jackson Lee: A lot of the work of cities has been with federal dollars. I’d like to build more senior housing. As more people in the community and in the nation age, we need to have comfortable, compatible housing for them. They're on fixed incomes, but they're still contributing to the economy of the city.
I want to encourage what I call small-size development: 20 units, 10 homes, so they can fit inside neighborhoods. And then we want to do big projects with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to build affordable housing and also work with community development corporations on tax credits to build housing.
And then lastly ... I want to incentivize developers to also build housing for the homeless, people who are unhoused — some of that and single-room occupancy. Some of that is working with an organization called NACA (Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America), where they work with us on the down payment for families that are without a home. When I say without a home, [I mean] living in apartments but want to get a home. We can look at ways of improving down payment assistance to move these people into their homes.
I've been working with Habitat for Humanity to encourage more opportunities for it to be in the city of Houston. They have successful projects. I'd like to encourage them to do even more.
Whitmire: The city must make affordable housing a priority. We need to ensure Houstonians have a broad span of housing options at a variety of prices from which to choose. This includes more and better-funded programs to assist homebuyers with down payments and incentivize new construction of affordable homes.
We should also provide help to people who are in danger of losing their homes. Currently, Houston is experiencing escalating rental rates, which is increasing evictions. We need to improve our permitting office and streamline our review process so builders and homeowners can move forward with their projects in a timely fashion. But we must ensure new development does not drive out the original residents of a neighborhood due to increased property taxes or rents. We cannot lose the neighborhood history and variety that make Houston such a vibrant city.