Rice University Students to President David Leebron and Board of Trustees: Not In Our Name
Dear President Leebron and the Rice University Board of Trustees,
Today, we come together to remember the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who reminded us that “the function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education.” Right now, the Rice Board of Trustees and Rice Management Company (RMC) have a crucial opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to the Rice character traits of Responsibility, Integrity, Community, and Excellence by leading the City of Houston in establishing responsible, meaningful, and sustainable relationships between real estate developers and neighboring communities.
At the beginning of this academic year, President Leebron wrote that “we cannot build [the Rice] community by ignoring issues that ought to concern us either here at Rice or outside our campus.” Three months later, the Task Force on Slavery, Segregation, and Racial Injustice was established and charged with identifying suggestions for the future of not only the Rice community, but also Rice’s “relationship with our home community of Houston,” suggestions “that will more fully realize our aspirations for a more diverse and inclusive university.” We call on all of Rice to apply both the intention and values of the task force in acknowledging, responding to, and engaging with the historic Black community of Third Ward as Rice Management Company develops the South Main Innovation District at the edge of their neighborhood.
Through the exemplary coursework, research, and civic engagement opportunities offered at Rice, students learn to think deeply and critically about the social, political, and economic manifestations of racism and anti-Blackness embedded in our cities. We learn how slavery, redlining, criminalization, and the severing of neighborhoods by highways have created conditions seen in Third Ward where, as the Baker Institute for Public Policy explains in the Third Ward Comprehensive Needs Assessment Data Report, residents are increasingly threatened by displacement and cultural erasure due to rising rental rates and costs of living driven by new real estate developments. Furthermore, some of us students are lifelong members of the Third Ward community who have shared our concerns about the social impact of the innovation district with our peers. In the 2019 Survey of all Undergraduate Rice students, long before the formation of the Houston Coalition for Equitable Development without Displacement, hundreds of students elaborated on their concern that the innovation district might exacerbate the displacement of the low-income communities in the area.
Rice students with disabilities have also shared with their peers the importance of making accessibility a core facet of the innovation district. A considerable number of Rice students with disabilities face the challenges of navigating significant and systemic infrastructural accessibility issues on campus, even three decades after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The innovation district can and must become a space that welcomes both Rice community members and Houstonians with any and all forms of disability and impairment. Additionally, disability studies and medical humanities scholars at Rice have taught us to consider how the social factors of race, disability, and illness compound and intersect. About 20% of respondents to the Third Ward Comprehensive Needs Assessment reported receiving Social Security Disability Income, and among respondents who reported being unable to work, health problems were by far the most commonly cited reason. The innovation district is a new opportunity to demonstrate Rice’s commitment to diversity and inclusion by not only adhering to all manners of accessibility laws and requirements, but also by implementing accessibility in every aspect of the innovation district infrastructure, programming, and hiring.
Every day, we learn from our professors and academic leaders how to boldly respond to injustices and challenges with critical thinking, innovative collaboration, and careful problem solving. That is why students have deeply engaged with and enthusiastically supported the Houston Coalition for Equitable Development without Displacement (HCEDD) in their goal to develop, secure, enforce, and sustain a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) with Rice Management Company as they develop the innovation district at the edge of Third Ward.
CBAs benefit both developers and the communities their projects may impact. For developers, CBAs reduce financial risk by uniting community groups behind a project, streamlining project approval processes, and increasing the reliability of local subsidies. This reduces uncertainty, allowing developers to avoid costly time extensions to approval processes and convince creditors of a more reliable income stream, reducing interest rates. Additionally, CBAs ensure that project stages are approved by the community, which saves developers litigation costs from lawsuits incited by dissatisfied community members. For months, community members have poured their energy into developing their unified vision for a CBA that reflects the needs documented in Mayor Turner’s Third Ward Complete Communities Action Plan, the Third Ward Comprehensive Needs Assessment, and the unique and exciting opportunities that the innovation district promises.
Neighborhood-specific analyses indicate that CBAs will be effective here in Houston, where historical precedent, ongoing displacement, and a lack of zoning laws leaves the Third Ward community with little trust in developers’ stated intentions to include and benefit their community throughout the development process. The Third Ward Policy and Program Landscape Report, prepared by the Kinder Institute for Urban Research for the Emancipation Economic Development Council, found that “properly negotiated CBAs lower transaction costs, promote civic engagement and benefit taxpayers” (p. 14). When discussing the feasibility of a CBA for Third Ward specifically, the Kinder Institute suggests that “community perception [of the policy] is likely to be positive based on rising public awareness of some of the negative externalities of development for the taxpaying public and desire for social equity” (p. 15). Indeed, the Third Ward Complete Communities Action Plan recommends Community Benefits Agreements as a mechanism for “expanding local opportunities for employment” by “partner[ing] with anchor institutions and other agencies to hire locally” (p. 19).
In Rice’s Vision for the Second Century, Second Decade (V2C2), one of the core goals of the university is to “Engage Houston and Empower its Success.” Entering into the CBA with the Houston Coalition for Equitable Development without Displacement will enable Rice to reach its V2C2 goal of effectively “us[ing] its off-campus properties strategically to benefit both the university and the city” (p. 21). A CBA will better equip Rice to develop lasting partnerships and grow with the community. As the V2C2 also states, “many of the best students, motivated by a desire to better society and engage directly with current issues, want a university experience that engages them in the challenges and resources of world-class cities” (p. 20). Securing, enforcing and sustaining the first CBA in Texas will show prospective students that Rice is truly dedicated to engaging Houston in a meaningful and innovative way. We know that to achieve the goals of the V2C2, we need to “embark on new collaborations and partnerships, within Rice and with partners in our city and around the world” with “determination, optimism, and creativity” (p. 22). The Houston Coalition for Equitable Development without Displacement is inviting us to do just that.
Rice Management Company representatives have accurately stated that the financial benefit from the innovation district project belongs to us, the students of Rice University. Therefore, we must be clear that not in our name will Rice frame the innovation district development as socially responsible because of its benefits to students and future students, particularly low-income and first-generation students, when there is a risk that this benefit could come at the expense of low-income Black residents of Third Ward. Not in our name will Rice continue to promote its research partnerships with low-income communities of color without supporting those communities when it counts.
As a coalition of diverse Rice students who care about our University’s impact on the broader community, we call upon you to address the concerns we have raised regarding the innovation district by placing discussion of this issue on the agenda for your February 2020 meeting. We further ask that at that meeting, you dialogue towards a consensus to direct the RMC to enter into negotiations with the HCEDD with the goal of arriving at a legally binding CBA that is sustained and enforced by both parties.
We also ask that you take steps to increase accountability and transparency surrounding this project so that Rice students, faculty, and staff can engage in the types of critical conversations about the project that would be reflective of a prestigious and open academic environment. We call on you to publicly release all building and development plans, including information regarding building accessibility, the racial equity impact assessment of the development, any existing and future labor contracts with subcontractors, and monthly reports from all financial contributors towards the development project.
Finally, in order to ensure Rice’s longstanding commitment to just relations with neighboring communities, we ask that you direct the RMC to create a formal process through which it will actively engage all communities impacted by any future development projects that the RMC pursues.
Civic Duty Rice
Hispanic Association for Cultural Enrichment at Rice
Jolt Texas at Rice University
Rice African Student Association
Rice American Civil Liberties Union
Rice Black Graduate Student Association
Rice Black Student Association
Rice Creative Society
Rice Disability Advocates and Allies
Rice Filipino Association
Rice InterVarsity Christian Fellowship
Rice Medical Humanities
Rice University American Society of Civil Engineers Student Chapter
Rice Young Democrats