Article by Jasper Scherer, Staff writer for Houston Chronicle
A working group of community, business and civic leaders is recommending Rice University put millions of dollars toward affordable housing and support for Black, Latino and women entrepreneurs as part of the university’s new Ion tech hub in Midtown.
The recommendations are included in a report to be released Wednesday that calls for Rice to dip into its $6.2 billion endowment fund to help preserve affordable housing around the Ion and ensure Black and brown communities are represented within the school’s planned tech district.
The report was produced by a 13-person working group created by Rice Management Co. — which oversees the university’s endowment — in response to concerns raised by residents, students and advocates that the Ion development will displace nearby Third Ward residents by spiking home values and accelerating gentrification of the predominantly Black neighborhood.
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The recently completed Ion facility, located at the site of the former Sears department store on Main Street, will serve as a gathering place for startups and venture capitalists while anchoring a 16-acre “innovation district” in the surrounding blocks.
The group’s proposals include the creation of a fund to preserve and construct affordable housing in the Third Ward through low-interest loans for nonprofit and small private developers. The effort “will likely require an investment of several million dollars,” the group wrote, without specifying an exact figure.
The recommendations, if approved by Rice and Houston city council, would go into a legally binding community benefits agreement between the city and university.
The working group also recommended Rice put several million dollars into a venture fund that would provide startup financing for Black and Latino entrepreneurs. And it proposed that the university spend at least $1 million to create a tech job training program for Black, Latino, women, low-income and formerly incarcerated workers, along with $500,000 for a so-called accelerator program to support minority-owned startups in the early stages.
Sam Dike, manager of strategic initiatives for Rice Management Co., said the group generally supports all of the recommendations. Rice and city officials soon will begin negotiating the terms of the agreement using the report as a “foundation,” said Dike, who led the working group.
“We had really strong community and civic leaders who are very familiar with these topic areas, and they helped us come up with a great set of recommendations,” Dike said. “We believe that these are things that we’re well-positioned to do.”
Members of the working group include Laura Murillo, president and chief executive of the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce; Rev. Rudy Rasmus, co-pastor of St. John’s Church; and Paul Charles, executive director of the Neighborhood Recovery Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit focused on housing and economic development in the Third Ward area.
The group also recommended that Rice provide $500,000 to $1 million in one-time funding for groups that provide supportive housing for the homeless population and low-income residents around the Ion district, along with $250,000 for eviction protection and housing counseling services in the area.
Dike said Rice Management Co. could end up spending $15 million out of the university’s endowment on a combination of grants, loans and other direct funding related to community benefits around the Ion district.
Other recommendations include setting certain baseline requirements for hiring minority- and women-owned businesses for design and construction of the district, and having Rice put $250,000 toward local organizations dedicated to Mayor Sylvester Turner’s neighborhood revitalization program, Complete Communities, in Third Ward.
Under the working group recommendations, Rice would form a “community advisory council” to monitor and track progress on each part of the community benefits agreement, and publish annual reports containing metrics on affordable housing loans and development, job training and placement, and other areas.
The report recommends putting the affordable housing fund under the management of a “Black-led financial institution” or a lender designated as a community development financial institution, which provide loans to low-income communities.
Dike said the city also would be responsible for enforcing the provisions of the community benefits agreement once it is signed.
A spokeswoman for Turner said the mayor’s office received a copy of the recommendations Tuesday but Turner had yet to review them.