Scores of people braved the rain at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts Tuesday night for Houston Landing Live, a celebration of civic engagement and empowerment featuring legendary H-Town rapper Bun B.
In the lobby, groups ranging from Air Alliance Houston to the League of Women Voters offered Houstonians ways to engage as the November mayoral race heats up. On the stage inside, Bun B and former mayor Annise Parker talked about why getting involved matters.
Audience members waved glow sticks to declare their priorities for the next mayor, performance artist Ebony Stewart delivered a poem about using her voice and Bun B presided over a live quiz show as “Bun Trebek.”
Here are five key takeaways from the Houston Landing’s first live event since it launched in June:
1. Bun B wants Houston to step up its game
Turnout in the last mayoral election in 2019 was pitiful: Less than one fifth of all adults went to the polls. That means that the pool of people picking the mayor skews much older, whiter and more conservative than the average resident.
Bun B said Houston’s level of engagement is “nothing to smile about.”
In a conversation with Houston Landing reporter Monique Welch, Bun B traced his personal involvement in local politics. In the 2000s, he said, a mayoral candidate invited him to attend a speech at a university and proceeded to make a ham-handed attempt at rapping.
“I didn’t appreciate him looking at me at a very surface level,” he said. “Basically, what it did was make me make sure the other candidate won.”
Bun B said his civic engagement is rooted in his upbringing in Port Arthur, which is dominated by the “double-edged sword” of the oil and gas industry.
“There’s a lot of toxicity that comes from these refineries, and Port Arthur found itself in a little bit of a cancer cluster,” he said. “We want jobs, we want to be able to take care of our homes and our families and we want to give our children the best opportunities in life, but it shouldn’t be at the sake of getting a life-ending disease.”
2. You still have time to register – but not much
The last day to register to vote is Tuesday, Oct. 10. That means the days are running out to get on the rolls ahead of early voting for the mayor’s race, which runs Oct. 23 to Nov. 3. Election day is Nov. 7.
If you are registered, there will be plenty of places to vote. Voters can cast ballots at any one of Harris County’s more than 1,100 voting centers. Just remember to bring a photo ID.
Even if you already are registered, the time to start paying attention is now. This year’s mayoral election features 17 candidates plus a write-in. If you need help sifting through it all, visit the Houston Landing’s comprehensive voter guide at vote.houstonlanding.org.
“I’m voting because generations of women fought really hard to allow me the opportunity to vote,” Parker said. “If I choose not to vote, I have voluntarily muted myself from the issues that matter.”
3. Houston’s got potholes and problems
If you have grumbled to yourself about how gnarly Houston’s roads and sidewalks are looking, you are not alone. Marta Diaz, a retired Channelview High School teacher, told the crowd about how the sidewalks in her neighborhood are either missing or all broken up.
“If you have children and they’re going to school, that’s a major problem,” Diaz said. “I have a sidewalk in front of my home, but if I look to the right and I look to the left, there is no sidewalk.”
Then there are the open ditches that make parking a nightmare at her friend’s house, Diaz said.
“I’m afraid to fall right into the ditch, and then what’s going to happen? Who’s going to take me out?” Diaz said. “Those open ditches have trash. And you know, we’ve had rain all day long, so guess what? That trash is all yucky right now.”
Diaz is not alone, Dan Potter, a researcher at Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, told the crowd. Forty percent of Houston residents said their streets and sidewalks were poor or failing in a recent survey conducted in partnership with the Houston Landing, Potter said.
Houston residents are even more concerned about public safety despite falling crime rates, surveys show. Fred Woods, president of the Northwood Manor Civic Club, spoke about his frustrations with 911 response times in his neighborhood.
“Seniors in my neighborhood should not feel like they have to hide behind locked doors, burglar bars and only venture out at certain times of the day,” Woods said. “I should see police patrolling my area with the same frequency and responsiveness as more affluent neighborhoods.”
4. There are 39 billion reasons to get involved
That is how many dollars more Houston will need to solve its housing affordability problem, Potter said. To put that number in context, the entire city’s annual budget is $6 billion.
Overall the average rent has risen by 30 percent since 2015. In some neighborhoods, it has gone up by 100 percent.
“Our incomes have not doubled since 2015,” Potter said.
Potter said that means the next mayor will have to team up with nonprofits, developers, the state and the federal government to tackle Houston’s housing problem.
Outside in the lobby, audience members had ways to get involved at tables for Beacon Homeless Services and Houston Food Bank.
5. Voting is about more than politics
On most days, Jorge Gonzalez is a gallery attendant at the Menil Collection. On election days, Gonzalez is a proud voter who became a naturalized citizen after moving from Venezuela in 1969.
Gonzalez told the crowd about voting for Jimmy Carter in his first presidential election.
“That day, the most important thing was not winning or losing,” he said. “Actually voting for the first time here in the United States made a drastic change in my life. I stopped being a number and I had become an American citizen.”
Gonzalez said elections in his native Venezuela, which have been marred by low turnout and allegations of fraud, are a reminder of why it is so important to vote in the United States.
“It kind of bothers me because every time I go to vote, especially local elections, I’m the only one in there,” he said. “If you want to complain, you’ve got to go and spend your time and put your vote in there.”