A look back at the Sunnyside planning process, and our next steps

Melissa Beeler, Texas Housers community planner

Melissa Beeler, Texas Housers community planner

In Houston, the Sunnyside neighborhood’s community planning process is moving into a new phase. After months of community and steering committee meetings, days in the library archives and countless hours compiling data and best practices, we unveiled our progress at a plan review meeting last Saturday in Sunnyside.

How we got here

Sunnyside’s community plan was borne out of the Fair Housing and Neighborhood Rights campaign, a partnership between us and our partners at the Texas Organizing Project (TOP). The campaign emphasizes four rights of low income, minority neighborhoods:

FHNR Rights

The Sunnyside plan focuses on the Right to Equal Treatment, since it presents an argument for neighborhood improvements based on historical documents and current data.

We decided to create a plan for one of the neighborhoods that TOP represents, in order to take a “deep dive” into the history of disinvestment and discriminatory municipal actions that could explain why many low income, minority neighborhoods in Houston are at such a disadvantage today. Sunnyside rose to the top of the list because it reflects many of the challenges facing TOP neighborhoods: High crime, high poverty, concentration of subsidized housing, poor housing and infrastructure quality and failing schools.

The main purpose of the plan was to develop an argument for better conditions and more public and private investment in a distressed community  by identifying specific city actions that have contributed to the current state of the neighborhood, gathering data on issues deemed important by the community and listing specific municipal policies and community actions that should be taken to address these concerns.

Throughout the planning process, the purpose was also to engage and organize Sunnyside, a community that, overall, has been less active in TOP’s political involvement at the city level. Community engagement was always at the center of this planning process, from identifying the challenges the community faced to envisioning the community’s goals and possible solutions for change.

Sunnyside residents present what was said at their table during a community meeting.

Sunnyside residents present what was said at their table during a community meeting.

As a young professional engaging in my first full planning process, the most eye-opening part of the process was realizing how caring and inclusive neighborhood residents were while they envisioned Sunnyside’s future. Around the table, community members mentioned the need for safe, affordable housing for all, including formerly incarcerated people, senior citizens and those in poverty. We also heard how they wanted the neighborhood’s housing to attract people from outside the area, especially those who had lived in Sunnyside but left years ago. They recognize that there needs to be a place for everyone in a neighborhood, not simply those who can afford what developers choose to build.

There was also a sense, through the engagement process, that Sunnyside had received some “bad press” for its crime and safety issues, and I believe their sentiment should be relayed in the plan.

The plan review meeting

Last Saturday, we unveiled the Sunnyside plan and welcomed any feedback from attendees to ensure the document truly reflected their input. The historical review of Sunnyside’s unequal treatment was well-received, as it emphasized community involvement and protests of city actions in the past, particularly when two city dumps were placed in Sunnyside at a time when no other dumps existed in any other part of the city.

TOP organizer Terrance Koontz explains what implementation could look like.

TOP organizer Terrance Koontz explains what implementation could look like.

Discussing existing conditions brought up some frustrations from community members, and some voiced issues that need to be addressed. However, tensions subsided once we demonstrated that we had addressed some of these issues in the plan, and have strategies to begin tackling them.

Where we go from here

After the plan feedback, attendees moved on to brainstorming ideas about how to get organized and get more people involved with the help of TOP.

Based on what attendees suggested, we will have multiple opportunities for those new to the plan to get involved, and for those who have been with us to stay involved and help lead the plan’s implementation. We will use monthly TOP chapter meetings as mile markers to spread the word and increase involvement.

For those already familiar with the plan, we are starting to form subcommittees around each of the identified issues: Youth and Education, Crime and Safety and Housing, Infrastructure and Community Development. By the end of the plan review meeting, we already had leaders stepping up to fill spots in these subcommittees. Within each group, action steps from the plan will be chosen and refined to make the work manageable and winnable.

Now that the plan is complete, I cannot wait to begin supporting the community as they embark on their collective vision to revitalize Sunnyside. I picture this as taking the form of additional surveys of parents and administrators to understand the main problems in Sunnyside schools, key meetings between officials and community leaders to begin a dialogue to understanding the barriers to improvements and presentations and panel discussions to learn more about housing and infrastructure processes and where we can intervene.

Keep up with our progress by liking Sunnyside Neighborhood Plan on Facebook.