The Third Ward, today is fundamentally defined by what is missing rather than what is there. And there seems to be more missing every day. The population today is less than a third of what it was in 1950, a percent population loss greater than that of Detroit. There are no grocery stores, full-service banks, dry cleaners, movie theaters, or pharmacies. Even the traditional pariah businesses that prey on struggling neighborhoods—such as pawn shops, check cashing outlets, game rooms and auto repair are absent or few. This wasn’t always the case—but that is a story for the historians.
But, what is happening right now in the Third Ward is far too similar to what happened in Freedmen’s Town a decade ago, even while being different. Speculation (presumably in the wake of the light rail construction) is wreaking havoc, generating widespread destruction. Speculation is rule of law in Houston, and we seem to have neither the political will nor the policies to stop it. What could work? We could start by appraising land at the value being asked on the marketplace, so in other words taxes are paid on what the owner believes is the “true” value of their property, what it is listed for—but I suppose this too is a story for another profession, the politicians maybe?
What can be done to stop what seems to be the inevitable? Vacant land makes up over 25% of all land area, nearly five million square feet, and this number is rising. The same amount of housing is vacant, just under 25%. There are nearly 1,000 vacant lots in Third Ward, and an additional 134 lots are vacant and owned by the Midtown TIRZ, purchased as part of the required affordable housing set asides. The siting of the lots owned by the TIRZ is wishfully strategic—a lot on nearly every block. We are daydreaming that this a strategy, a super block strategy, to eliminate the possibility of wholesale redevelopment and the displacement of residents? We hope so.