Companies seeking tax breaks from the city of Houston must give construction workers safety training, advertise jobs to ex-offenders in the city’s re-entry program, provide affordable housing if the project is a residential development, and try to hire workers from poor neighborhoods and the area around a project.
The city council passed the new guidelines 13-2 on Wednesday, with council members Mike Knox and Greg Travis opposed.
The proposed guidelines also require firms to choose one of eight community benefits from a list, several of which overlap with the ordinance’s other requirements. Those other requirements include paid internships for low-income students, site designs that aim to reduce crime by, for instance, adding extra lighting, and site improvements that benefit more than the business itself.
Progressive advocacy groups long have pushed Mayor Sylvester Turner to embrace "community benefit" reforms for the city’s business incentive programs. Advocates continued to lean on the mayor this week, hoping the guidelines also would mandate companies receiving subsidies to give higher wages, carry workers’ compensation coverage, and give independent groups access to work sites to confirm compliance with the new rules.
Still, advocates praised the vote as a “historic shift,” as Michelle Tremillo, executive director of the Texas Organizing Project, put it.
“The city of Houston today took an important step in bringing balance, fairness and equity to our economy,” she said. “We all want our economy to thrive, but not at the expense of working families who fuel that growth. We look forward to continue working with Mayor Turner to ensure that the city maximizes its return on our tax dollars in a way that benefits all Houstonians.”
Workers Defense Project Executive Director José P. Garza said he was disappointed the additional items his group had sought were not included, he said he looked forward to continued talks with city leaders “to ensure the men and women who build Houston can go home safely each night with enough money to live in the city they help build.”
Knox had offered an amendment in response to criticisms contractors had raised Tuesday about a provision that requires firms getting tax breaks to try to hire 30 percent of their construction workforce from U.S. Department of Labor-certified training programs. The contractors said federal rules are too rigid and prefer their own, similar training programs.
Knox said requiring DOL registration could “limit the city’s ability to get the best bang for the buck.”
Turner noted that he has placed only one tax abatement on the agenda in his two-and-a-half-year tenure and said the guidelines, per state law, must be renewed every two years.
“What we’re voting on today does not rule out any other apprenticeship programs in any other area,” Turner said. “This is just dealing with tax abatements.”
Councilman Michael Kubosh referenced a handful of speakers who had addressed the group this week, asking Turner whether he thought “a good bill is one nobody’s happy with.”
“I don’t think it’s perfect from different points of view, but what we’ve tried to do is strike a pretty healthy balance,” the mayor said.