Thursday, January 12, 2006

Houston lessons from the updated "Dallas at the Tipping Point"

First, Otis White from Governing magazine with the update and recap (again, no permalinks, so this is the whole thing), then I'll get into some excerpts from DMN and my thoughts.

Why the Facts Are Not Enough
How to Create Change in a City

What does it take to cause significant change in a city? For some, it's simple: Just lay out the facts. If the problems are made clear enough, leaders will change, and so will the city. For those who believe that, we'd like to introduce you to Dallas.

In April 2004, the Dallas Morning News published what must be the strongest case for change in a city of the last three decades. Simply put, the series (titled "Dallas at the Tipping Point") announced that the city was on the road to becoming the next Detroit, with soaring crime rates, an underperforming school system, a rapidly fleeing middle class and a dwindling tax base. Worse, it said, city officials, including city council members, seemed unaware of the trends. "It was as if Dallas City Hall were an aircraft flying blind and in the clouds, in a steep nosedive, with a disoriented pilot," the newspaper said recently, looking back on its 2004 report.

Just a bunch of newspaper hysteria? Top city officials tried to spin it that way, but the Morning News had done something clever: It had hired the corporate consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton to look at Dallas as if it were a Fortune 500 company, sift through the numbers and decide whether Dallas was headed in the right direction. Result: If anything, the Booz Allen consultants were more pessimistic than the reporters. (You can view the 2004 Booz Allen report by clicking here.)

But surely things have changed since 2004, right? A few months ago, the newspaper and Booz Hamilton revisited the numbers, interviewed elected officials and took measure of the changes. The good news: The politicians are starting to talk the right talk. The bad news: They aren't walking the walk. Going back to its airplane analogy, the Morning News said, "The flight crew has begun to get its bearings. But without an altimeter, or a full sense of the impending crisis, the pilot is fiddling with the flaps instead of pulling back on the stick." Translation: Dallas is still hurtling toward disaster. (For the update report, click here.)

What explains the inaction of the past year and a half? Well, don't underestimate the power of denial. But there's something deeper here: To use a 1980s phrase, it's the difficulty of making paradigm shifts. Dallas' mayor and city council were elected with one view of the city and its future, the Morning News has presented them with a very different view, and the politicians are having trouble moving from one to the other. Hence, their incessant bickering about details, such as whether the mayor needs more power and whose ward is being favored, rather than dealing with the gathering crisis.

So what does it take to turn around a city? The facts certainly help, and for this the Morning News should be thanked. And a few extraordinary politicians may find their way to the new paradigm. But the greatest opportunity for change lies with future candidates who can explain the crisis and the opportunity for change in ways that leave the voters feeling both frightened and hopeful. When enough of these new candidates are elected and enough of the old politicians are gone, change will happen.
And then, from the Dallas Morning News overview story:

The study uncovered a series of startling government failures and offered a sober conclusion: If Dallas does not reverse its course, the city will spiral into a cycle of decline that could gut services and hollow out civic life.

A year and a half later, a similar study anchored the original findings – Dallas has sky-high crime, bottom-dwelling schools and a middle class that's stampeding for the suburbs – and made a double-helix sort of discovery.

Dallas City Hall does not have a plan to fix the mess. So, even though City Manager Mary Suhm has recalibrated city government in important ways over the last 18 months, even though the city is benefiting from the ideas and leadership of a new police chief and economic development director, even though there is fresh energy and optimism in the Dallas Independent School District under Superintendent Michael Hinojosa, the city's underlying problems remain.

Key findings in the 2005 Booz Allen report:

•Dallas has the highest crime rate of any large city in the nation. And, even though the city is projected to spend more money than ever on public safety, Dallas spends less to fight crime than its peer cities around the nation.

•Dallas public schools have among the highest-paid teachers and the lowest standardized test scores in Texas.

•Dallas residents are migrating from the city to the suburbs at a faster rate than anywhere else in the nation, taking businesses and tax dollars with them.

Certainly a sobering and cautionary tale for Houston. Lessons for us?
  1. Aggressively stomp out the recent crime spike, before it becomes a trend - the same way the Federal Reserve pulls out the stops to stamp out inflation at the first whiff, before it grows out of control - even at the risk of slowing down the economy. This means hiring and training more police and putting pressure on hot-spot apartment complexes to increase their security. I'd also like to see an active exploration of new technology, like ankle-bracelets with GPS tracking and wireless reporting for ex-cons on probation or parole (since most crimes, esp. violent ones, are repeat offenders). Crime reported? Check the database logs to see if any ex-cons were in the vicinity at the time, then look up their current location and pick 'em up.
  2. HISD is making slow but steady progress - evolutionary change - but they're not experimenting with radical, revolutionary change like the YES and KIPP state charter schools. They need to establish their own district charter school program and push innovation when it comes to educating poor, minority, and immigrant English-as-a-second-language students.
  3. Invest aggressively in mobility to keep jobs in the core, while also moving forward on annexations to keep up the tax base (and before the state takes the power away). The most critical mobility investments are congestion-priced, always-fast, EZ-tag toll lanes combined with a high-speed, point-to-point, regional express commuter bus/van system, ideally with subsidized but competing private operators (competing on comfort, schedule, reliability, route, and amenities like wireless internet).
Consider that Houston Strategies' official 3-point immunization program against a nightmare "Houston at the Tipping Point" future scenario.


At 11:28 AM, January 13, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A related issue to these points that I see affecting Houston is suburban decline. Disturbingly large swaths of the region, mostly between Loop 610 and the SH 6 / FM 1960 "ring", that were perfectly acceptable residential and business locations when I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s are now considered risky or declining even though they're less than 40 years old - in some cases only 25 years old. This appears to stem from perceptions and realities regarding the school districts (not just HISD - Aldine, Alief, Spring, North Forest, parts of Spring Branch and Humble, etc.) and crime, plus probably some unfortunate racial and class attitudes, especially on the part of Anglo middle class and affluent families.

It's not that there's no bright spots in this part of the region - you've got the Memorial corridor which never lost its affluence, continued economic vitality in the Westchase / Chinatown area and along the Beltway, and stabilization of some single family subdivisions like Westbury and Garden Oaks (due in no small part to investments by the gay community). But I can't help but fear that if most of this area is perceived as unattractive by upwardly mobile families, who prefer the outermost suburbs, and who also comprise a key labor force component of our most important employers, then even strong mobility investments to help core-area commuting won't be enough to stop hemorraging of quality jobs and tax base to the periphery.

Are the strategies Tory proposed the answer to this issue? I don't really know, but I think it's worth thinking about.

At 3:54 PM, January 13, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I have the same concern, but this may be inevitable. The middle ring isn't appealing if you want to be in the core, and you might as well go a little farther if you want a bigger, newer home. If you keep the jobs in the core, it gets more and more attractive, and gentrification will spread slowly outward, reversing some of the declines (the Heights and Meyerland being good examples).

I don't think we're doing too bad, though. The front page of the Chronicle today has a very nicely sloping graph of home values (not too much or too little), which increased another 5% last year.

Still, I'm all for efforts to introduce some innovation into the near-in school districts to make them more appealing. Not sure what else we can do beyond that. The middle rings may be fated to be the lower-middle class rung on the home ownership ladder.

At 7:37 PM, January 13, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

...while also moving forward on annexations to keep up the tax base...


At 5:11 AM, January 14, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

All Dallas needs to do is annex the suburbs like crazy (as Houston did) and most of its problems will be solved...

At 6:06 AM, January 14, 2006, Blogger Gritsforbreakfast said...

With one in twenty Texan on probation, parole or in prison, your ankle bracelet idea is a) unworkable and b) totalitarian. Those are tools to use for folks who need high-intensity supervision -- typically as a last stop before revocation -- but aren't appropriate for everybody. Looking past rhetoric, supervision is expensive so it occurs on a continuum; it's not a one-size-fits-all deal.

Parole and probation should focus scarce resources on supervising the truly dangerous. Especially for probationers, some need less supervision, and all should be given a chance to earn their way off supervision, giving incentives for good behavior that in the long run work better than increased enforcement. Finally, perhaps the greatest public safety benefit might come from revamping evaluations for probation and parole officers and departments to hold them accountable for employment and recidivism rates.

Also, all those are county and state issues, BTW -- the city has nothing to do with any of it. Best,

At 9:06 AM, January 14, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

1) Unfortunately, Dallas is pretty much surrounded by incorporated cities - annexation is not much of an option for them.

2) All the probation/parole reforms sound reasonable. Maybe not everybody needs the ankle bracelet, but it should be an option where they think it is needed. I'm sure there are good stats on which ex-cons are at highest risk for recidivism. It could also be used to release more prison inmates earlier, freeing up space and reducing incarceration costs. If parole/probation conditions require some time at home - like a curfew - the bracelet could also easily monitor that - as well as monitor that they actually go to the job every day they say they're going too. Certainly, once they've shown extended good behavior, the bracelet can be removed and the supervision backed off.


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