The Waco City Council is taking a hard look at how to use economic development, housing and homelessness policies to fix racial disparities baked into the city’s past and present.

At a council retreat on “racial equity” Tuesday morning, staff from the city’s economic development, housing and purchasing departments presented suggestions for narrowing those disparities, highlighting the ways poverty, housing and race intersect.

The council held its first meeting focusing on racial equity in May, looking at the gaps between minority and white residents in economic status, education and health. Members discussed the lasting economic legacy of racially exclusionary housing policies in the 20th century.

Assistant City Manager Bradley Ford said Waco’s housing costs started growing much faster than wages after 2015. Before that, housing costs and wage growth had been closely linked in Waco, Ford said.

“You see multiple ZIP codes in the (city) core going up 40 to 60% over the course of four to five years in housing value,” Ford said. “Mind you, not much is changing to those houses, except maybe they’ve actually declined in condition.”

He said the number of “housing-burdened households,” which spend more than 30% of their income on rent or mortgage, has barely changed since 2010 and remains consistently higher among minority communities. In the city core, 75% of households are considered housing-burdened. By contrast, outlying parts of Waco, with largely white populations, tend to have a housing-burdened rate closer to 10% or 20%.

“What that shows is a big disconnect between what’s happening in the core of our city versus what’s happening on the edge of our city,” Ford said.

He also presented data showing 71% of McLennan County’s “quality jobs,” defined as paying more than $40,000 per year, are far from the city core. Of the 12,600 quality jobs in the city core, 69% are held by white people.

“People who need jobs are far from those jobs,” Ford said.

He said the city could address the issue by offering incentives to draw employers into the city core and by providing better transportation from the core to the far-flung employers.

Economic Development Director Melett Harrison said wages could be increased by adjusting requirements for the economic development incentives offered by the Waco-McLennan County Economic Development Corp. It is funded by the city and the county and gives grants to businesses that meet certain criteria. Its general purpose is to encourage employers to choose sites in McLennan County over other options.

The current guidelines require recipients to pay a $12 base hourly wage, a requirement set in 2000. The average wage throughout the county has increased to $22.16 from $13.58 in that time.

“I don’t believe it will be difficult to go up,” Harrison said of the base hourly wage for local Economic Development Corp. incentives. “I think it will take some discussion to land on the right number.”

Councilman Dillon Meek said he agrees wages need to increase, but said the city should consider different kinds of incentives for different businesses, based on what they have to offer.

“There are some entities that are really going to contribute from a property tax perspective, because of the amount of infrastructure they add,” Meek said. “I want to reward someone more for paying high wages, but if they come in and do a really significant capital improvement … and that is going to pay for our infrastructure needs that we have, is there a justification for some sort of incentive for some of that?”

Councilman John Kinnaird agreed, suggesting a model that provides incentives for high-paying jobs and tax-generating businesses differently.

Harrison also recommended city officials work more closely with Waco’s chambers of commerce.

Members of both the Cen-Tex African American Chamber of Commerce and the Cen-Tex Hispanic Chamber of Commerce are on a waitlist for a Texas Economic Development Council class that will help get them acquainted with the programs and incentives cities use so they can be more involved in the city’s equity efforts.

Galen Price, housing and community development director, discussed rehabilitating the city’s existing housing stock, suggested developing an affordable housing plan and eventually developing more affordable housing to lower the number of housing burdened households.

“Within the core, there’s a lot of opportunities to develop,” Price said.

He also suggested establishing Neighborhood Empowerment Zones in certain parts of the city, which would allow the city to waive impact fees and municipal liens, enter tax abatement agreements and set environmental standards for building materials.

Price also discussed creating a strategic homelessness plan that would involve more direct coordination between the city and nonprofits. The city will post a new homeless coordinator position under the housing department in the near future.

Councilwoman Andrea Barefield suggested creating a single equity officer or coordinator role, a city administrator who would oversee the citywide effort.

Six months ago, staff started tracking the number of minority- and woman-owned businesses involved in the city’s procurement processes. Since then, the vendor base of such firms has increased from 57 to 207. The council also discussed recruiting for city jobs in majority-minority school districts including Waco Independent School District.

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