Rahsaan King Sr. cannot get over the number of medical buildings sprinkled around his Spring neighborhood. He seemingly cannot drive more than a few minutes without spotting a hospital, a medical center or an urgent care facility. 

Each one leaps out at him because of their stark contrast to the lack of medical resources in the area where he had lived for most of his life — Settegast, a northeast Houston community with the dubious distinction of having the shortest life expectancy — 65.7 years — in Harris County, according to the 2018 U.S. Small-area Life Expectancy Estimates Project based on data from the National Center for Health Statistics.

Rahsaan King Jr., at left, and his father Rahsaan King Sr.
Rahsaan King Jr., at left, and his father Rahsaan King Sr. pose for a portrait at the Eden Event Center in Houston. The center is located in the Settegast neighborhood, where there are no urgent care centers, hospitals or clinics within the 2-square-mile community. Members of the Mt. Canaan Baptist Church and Prestige Partners are in the process of converting the empty event hall into a health clinic. (Antranik Tavitian / Houston Landing)

The predominantly minority community of Settegast — where the 2018 study shows the average resident can expect to live around 20 years less than their counterparts in affluent areas like Clear Lake or Upper Kirby — is what King calls a health care desert. Demarcated by Interstate 610 and Highway 90 in the south and the Union Pacific Rail Yard on the west, Settegast has no urgent care centers, hospitals or clinics within its 2-square-mile community.

King’s father, who is 79 years old and lives in Settegast, requires dialysis treatment, meaning that King has to drive him to a hospital half an hour away. 

Members of the community are making plans to change that. King, with the help of his son, Rahsaan King Jr., and the Rev. Samuel Compton Jr., the pastor of Mt. Canaan’s Missionary Baptist Church, is among those who want to repurpose the Eden Event Center at 7450 North Wayside Drive. Their mission is to transform the community venue into a medical facility for the neighborhood. 

In doing so, the group is making a bet that real estate investors without ties to the community have long avoided: That if medical office space is built, medical providers will come – and that if medical providers come, their ventures will prove financially sustainable and transformational for the quality of life of those living nearby.

“We have what is considered a health care desert,” King Sr. said. “[Facilities like] mainstream health care urgent centers, pediatricians, gynecologists and the like? That’s just not present.” 

According to a Harris County Public Health official, the Settegast Health Clinic, the Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital and the Harris Center Northeast Community Service Center service the area but the facilities are located outside the neighborhood’s boundaries. 

‘Why can’t we have a health care facility here?’ 

Built in 2010, the Eden Event Center used to hold banquet halls, concerts and wedding receptions. The center stopped hosting events in 2017 a week before Hurricane Harvey ravaged the city, said King Sr. After the calamity, the center sat in disrepair for nearly half a decade. 

“Hurricane Harvey shut all that down. And since then, we’ve been left to pick up the pieces,” King Sr. said. 

In December, the Kings secured a 49-year-lease for the event center in a joint venture with the church, according to documents the Kings provided. The church obtained an insurance payout in the wake of Hurricane Harvey after a four-years-long process but the idea to turn it into a community investment has materialized steadily in recent months. 

For Compton, who has led the church for over three decades, making the project a reality is a foremost priority, a legacy effort. 

“The development in the area just hasn’t been equal to that in other areas. Settegast lacks health care amenities,” Compton said. “A poor person in Settegast has to call 911 and get taken over to the Harris Health Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital. Why can’t we have that here?”

To turn the currently nonfunctional Eden Event Center into a health facility is no small feat. Rahsaan King Jr., a Settegast native and 2019 Harvard graduate, hopes to transform the center within the next year and half by obtaining millions of dollars in funding through philanthropy funds, grants, equity and debt.

“We will need certain types of public-private-partnerships, and in some cases we need volunteers,” said King Jr., who runs his own consultant firm, Kings Consulting Co.

In recent weeks, the Kings have partnered with Bill Walczak, the co-founder and former CEO of the Codman Square Health Center, a Massachusetts-based, outpatient health center that opened its doors in 1979. As a co-founder, Walczak said he wanted to make the Codman Square Health Center a community-focused institution, providing financial and wellness programming to the neighborhood’s most vulnerable residents. Currently, most of the center’s 300 employees are residents in the surrounding area. It’s the model organization to emulate, King Jr. said. 

Walczak ran the Codman Square Health Center from 1980 to 2011, according to his resume. Though he’s retired, Walczak told the Houston Landing that he met King Jr. earlier this year in Boston and became enthused about the community health care aspect of the project, something he himself did in his 20s. 

“This is my recommendation: you can have a bigger impact if you create a community federal health care center as a federally qualified health center allows you access to federal funds and gives you a base to do other things as well, like start a nonprofit or a school,” Walczak said. 

Ron Brown, CEO of Prestige Partners, at left, and Steven Breault, board member, tour the Eden Event Center
Ron Brown, CEO of Prestige Partners, at left, and Steven Breault, board member, tour the Eden Event Center on Tuesday in Houston. Members of the Mt. Canaan Baptist Church and Prestige Partners are in the process of converting the empty event hall into a health clinic. (Antranik Tavitian / Houston Landing)

Walczak said that he would work to help the Kings on their project, especially engaging with federal bureaucracy to obtain funds and the regulatory permits to establish a community health center like his own in Massachusetts. Having the venue center as the space for the health care project is helpful, Walczak added. 

“There’s a lot of things to do but there’s a lot of help for those things because everyone recognizes that medical facilities in low-income communities can really make a difference in the lives of the families and individuals,” Walczak said.  

To fund the project, the Kings are applying for grants from companies such as Google, said King Jr. He estimates the construction costs at around $2 million.

King Jr. is in charge of managing a feasibility study, especially as the center will require complex renovations. To prepare the building for a health facility with the infrastructural integrity required, the Kings are attempting to turn the one-story building that has 30-foot high ceilings into a two-story building. 

According to the 2021 U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, there are 4,194 people in the Settegast census tract. The median household income is $25,543, and 39 percent of the residents are below the poverty line. A 2021 Houston city planning report estimated that Settegast was 72 percent Black and 26 percent Hispanic. 

King Sr. wants to make health care accessible to working class members of the community. 

“If you’re working class and you have insurance, then you have to go out of the community because there’s nobody in-network here. My mother has insurance through her job but none of her service providers are near the community,” King Sr. explained. “She has to pack up and leave and drive for 10 miles just to get health care that is in-network.” 

Linda Woods, another church trustee and resident of Settegast since she was 16, said a medical facility in the community would benefit the people in ways currently unavailable. 

“There’s a medical clinic a few miles away from our church but that’s not enough to serve the people of Settegast,” Woods said. “The facility would mean that we could help our members and others that live here — it would mean a big deal to me and a service to others.” 

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Humberto J. Rocha is a London-based energy sector reporter specializing in the European carbon markets. Raised in Houston, Rocha graduated from Cypress Falls before studying at Harvard and the University...