Maya Ford: Making Noise For The Voiceless And Helping Developers Build More Livable Places
Maya Ford has a vision of a connected, walkable, resource-rich world free from poverty.
It's a world that remains far away, but is coming into closer focus thanks to footwork Ford carried out during the depths of the pandemic and a partnership that is now beginning to help her organization speak for those with the quietest voices.
Ford is the founder and principal of Houston-based FordMomentum, a data and communications firm working to help residents — especially those from minority and disadvantaged communities — be heard in major city redesigns.
“You can't have a working economy that doesn't have a place to live, you can't have a productive economy that doesn't have stability that's always interrupted by [flooding and] nature,” Ford said. “We have to make some big decisions. Houston has a lot of good opportunities.”
FordMomentum, in tandem with the Kinder Institute for Urban Research and Harris County, carried out "My Home is Here," a housing needs assessment and 10-year strategy study. The firm won the bid for the county's first-ever housing strategy study.
The joint project started in January 2020, just before the pandemic cut its disastrous global path, highlighting many of the same issues of inequality and housing affordability the assessment was meant to address.
The timing could have put a damper on data collection. But Ford leveraged time spent waiting in line for Covid-19 vaccines to help complete 5,600 surveys in a month. The study collected 17,510 total responses that will be used to inform municipalities within Harris County, Ford said.
“In spite of Covid, it was really successful,” Ford said. “We identified that the region needs 200,000 homes, new units to be built to support Harris County … from condominiums to townhomes to single-family [and] apartment complexes.”
Now the county is trying to identify how it can start to pull funds and work with the private market, developers and homeowners to do that, she said. The top five housing issues residents are concerned about, per the study, include safety, affordability, proximity to parks, being centrally located and neighborhood amenities.
These align with Ford’s vision for a better city and county. And the partners are now ready to use their findings to forge public-private partnerships and empower real estate developers to create more livable communities.
Ford lost her car to Hurricane Harvey. She also happened to be at the Fort Lauderdale airport during a mass shooting that same year. Both events made her passionate about rebuilding a more resilient society.
“It was just like nature came for me personally,” she said.
“Rebuilding needed to be done in a way that was not the minimum standard, or our old standards, we needed to rebuild in a way that projected us, catapulted us into a future that is more safe. So we needed to increase the standards.”
While collecting survey responses, Ford said, “we intentionally gave credence and attention to persons who are hard to reach, which are historically Asian, Black and Hispanic. And still, every ethnicity responded.
"And so I think that that really goes to show that Harris County is a space that really wants to get it right. That was a big surprise. Another surprise was how desirous of walkable and bikable spaces residents are.”
Henry Chapman met Ford as an asset manager with Kensinger Donnelly, which leases its property at 5603 Navigation Blvd. to BCycle. Kensinger Donnelly leases to several nonprofit organizations at discounted rates, he said.
“She’s incredibly passionate, I think that is probably the thing that stands out to me the most,” Chapman said of Ford.
As someone who grew up in Houston, then returned to start working at Kensinger Donnelly after graduating from college in 2014, Chapman has seen the difference people like Ford and public-private partnerships can make.
“The one I would say sort of led the charge and has been impactful showing Houstonians what is possible is the Buffalo Bayou Partnership,” Chapman said. “Everything they've been able to achieve with the Kinder Foundation. I live right across the street from the bayou and I walk it every day. When I grew up here, it was never something that you would have seen as an amenity.”
These kinds of developments are possible because of agreements like tax increment reinvestment zones, which is what is being utilized in the East End, or Second Ward of Houston.
Ford said the development happening in the East End, including minority-owned businesses, public transportation connectivity, affordable housing and bike-sharing stations, can serve as an example to other developers.
“I love the diversity of use of the shops, the diversity of ownership,” Ford said. “It gets a few things right. I don't have to have a single occupancy vehicle to get here. I can take the Metro rail, or I can take the Metro bus, or I can take Bike Share, or I can walk. There are sidewalks all around.”
Ford hopes her work with data and communications will help spread this model throughout the county.
“[We are] helping people to slow down, and really help people not just to think it through, but for you to be a good listener as a developer,” she said. “Oftentimes people give you ideas that you may not have had.”
Going forward, Ford is passionate about eliminating poverty, the first pillar of which is inequitable distribution of tools, resources and assets.
The second pillar is policies that allow for that inequity, she said. And the third is the inappropriate use, or the devaluation of a geography's natural assets.
“So when we talk about what that means, in development, from the real estate perspective, or infrastructure perspective, if you can balance or mitigate those three elements, then you're also solving for social distribution, social equity, appropriate balance of natural use of resources and tools, and the capacity for that area to sustain and support itself," she said.
"So it's solving very common issues with a mix of modern concepts from development and policy, but also the age-old guides of what makes humans human. And how do we build and create spaces for humans?”