In Joetta Stevenson’s part of Fifth Ward, pedestrians dodge cars on streets without sidewalks. In Jessica Castillo-Hulsey’s corner of Second Ward, some neighbors won’t go for walks at all thanks to the sound of gunshots. Both women worry that newcomers are pricing out longtime residents.

With candidate filing for this year’s mayoral election set to begin July 22, the Houston Landing spoke to more than a dozen neighborhood leaders, political professionals and academics about the issues that will define the race.

Crime dominated recent mayoral races in New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago, and many expect it to loom large here as well. State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, has made public safety a signature issue during his decades in Austin. But another leading contender in the crowded mayoral field, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, also nodded to crime during her kickoff speech.

The cost of living and city infrastructure emerged as two more common themes in the conversations. Some observers said there’s another looming issue that candidates may try to avoid – how the city will balance its budget once federal pandemic relief funds run out.

“Any new program that anyone is going to talk about is going to come at a cost, or it is going to come at a price to existing operations,” said Adrian Garcia, the Harris County Precinct 2 commissioner who made a run for mayor in 2015. “Candidates have to be real, real clear and transparent and honest with the voters.”

Violent crime in Houston dropped 10 percent in 2022 compared to the year before, according to police, but it still ranks high on the list of resident concerns. (Antranik Tavitian / Houston Landing)

Crime ranks as top issue

After a surge at the onset of the pandemic, violent crime dropped 10 percent in Houston last year, but the issue still worries Houstonians. Harris County residents surveyed for the recent Kinder Institute’s Houston Area Survey placed crime and safety as the biggest problem facing people in the area.

That doesn’t surprise Grant Martin, the political consultant who helped guide Mayor Sylvester Turner and his predecessor, Annise Parker, to victory.

“There’s always a lag between those stats and when the fear starts to become less for the general public. I’m sure crime and public safety will be a major issue by November, but I don’t know if people are going to be as freaked out about it as they were last November,” said Martin.

Barbara Quattro, president of the Alief Super Neighborhood Council, said she follows the stats more closely than the average resident, but a personal brush with crime still had staying power.

“My car was broken into December a year ago. Of course, I was mad for a year. I think that your perception of crime is directly related to how it has affected you,” said Quattro. “I thought, who are these hooligans?”

Crime dominated last year’s Harris County judge race, as Martin noted. In the end, however, Democrat Lina Hidalgo narrowly eked out victory over her Republican opponent, Alexandra del Moral Mealer.

“I think any candidate who can articulate state-of-the-art, community policing will have a head start on those candidates who simply suggest either we need to increase law enforcement or we need to simply try to lobby against bail bonds, which the city has no real role in,” said Gene Locke, the 2009 mayoral candidate who served as the Harris County Precinct One commissioner in 2016.

Castillo-Hulsey rated public safety as the No. 1 issue she hears from Second Ward residents. They often complain that they never see police pass by their houses. But some people also have a sense of distrust for law enforcement, said Castillo-Hulsey, who added that she often tries to bridge the gap.

“They need to do more in communicating with people in the community. We could achieve more if there was more communication,” said Castillo-Hulsey, a former president and current board member of the Second Ward Super Neighborhood Council.

Silhouette of a person riding a bicycle
A man passes by an advertisement for homes for sale by InTown Homes in their Eastwood Green location in the East End neighborhood in Houston. The houses are priced between $530,000 and $699,000. (Antranik Tavitian / Houston Landing)

Housing emerges as ‘a major problem’

Houston has long prided itself as a place where anyone can buy a house if they work hard enough. But amid gentrification, inflation and rising interest rates, the shine has started to come off Houston’s success story.

Even though the metropolitan region remains one of the nation’s most affordable housing markets, paying the principal and interest for a median-priced home purchased in April costs 66 percent more than it did three years ago, according to the Greater Houston Partnership, an influential business group that releases regular economic updates.

Mustafa Tameez, the political strategist who worked on campaigns for former mayors Bill White and Lee Brown, said that while housing might not be as flashy an issue as crime, it should feature high on the agenda.

“Housing affects traffic. Housing affects how we develop the city,” he said. “I think it should be concerning city leaders.”

Though the Houston area’s unemployment rate is near historic lows, about half of Harris County residents cited housing or the economy as the biggest problem facing the city in the Kinder survey, which was taken in January and released in May.

“I see a major problem in housing,” said Stevenson, president of the Greater Fifth Ward Super Neighborhood Council. “I just think that there has been not enough effort in helping people or preserving a neighborhood, in spite of newer condominiums being built that don’t even fit the area.”

Stevenson said housing costs and homelessness are intertwined. “Why didn’t you do some prevention? Because some of those very people in tent city, they either lost jobs, or they couldn’t pay their rent, or their mortgages or whatever,” she said.

Broken sidewalk
An unfinished portion of sidewalk on Columbia Street in the Heights neighborhood in Houston. (Antranik Tavitian / Houston Landing)

Streets, sidewalks and sewers

When Turner ran for mayor in 2015, he said fixing potholes was his No. 1  priority. A year and a half into his first term, Hurricane Harvey underscored the city’s desperate need for drainage and flood control improvements.

Broken sidewalk
A section of sidewalk that is damaged due to root growth on 27th Street in the Heights neighborhood in Houston. (Antranik Tavitian / Houston Landing)

From mega-projects to micro-problems, Houstonians are keenly aware of the need for better public works. The $1 trillion, bipartisan infrastructure law that Congress passed in 2021 represents a golden opportunity for Houston, but the city’s next mayor will also be forced to juggle the demand for better streets and sewer lines with the recurring cost of higher municipal wages.

“Every time somebody gets a pothole it’s a reminder that somebody is not on top of their job,” said Locke. “But I think that with the rising water bill rates, more and more people will be conscious of infrastructure needs that the city has, and will be receptive to hearing ideas on how you are going to meet infrastructure problems in the midst of tight fiscal availability of funds.”

The fiscal cliff

When City Controller Chis Brown gave a presentation to the City Council on May 25 about the city budget, it came with a stark warning about what will happen once more than $600 million in federal pandemic relief money runs out.

“We still have a structural budget deficit, and we will be forced to deal with that in the future,” said Brown.

That gap between revenues and expenses has loomed over city finances for years, but plugging the hole could be an even greater challenge for the next mayor, given voter and state-imposed revenue caps, plus a law sponsored by Whitmire and signed by Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday, which requires the city to hammer out a new contract with firefighters in arbitration.

Current and former politicians said many candidates won’t want to discuss the hard choices that could be required.

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“I think people are going to be wanting to talk about something else,” said Jerry Davis, the former City Council District B member. “They’re going to want it to be some other things that they can fix or they can attempt to fix. This is going to be tough to fix.”

Parker, the former mayor, also said the candidates should be talking about what happens when the federal money runs out.

“There’s no pothole fairy. There’s no magic way to pick up trash. Every service the city provides takes equipment and staff,” she said. “We’re going to have to figure out what services we want and recognize that we have to pay for those services.”

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Matt Sledge is the City Hall reporter for the Houston Landing. Before that, he worked in the same role for the Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate and as a national reporter for HuffPost. He’s excited...