Tiffany D. Thomas has represented District F on the Houston City Council since 2020. In this episode, Thomas discusses “why the west side is the best side” of the Bayou City, housing — including the difficulties around “heir properties” the term for homes occupied by descendants of a family member but who don’t have clear title to the property — the problems faced by the “permanent rental class,” and for a lagniappe, a few of her favorite restaurants in Houston. (Recorded June 16, 2022.)

Episode Transcript

Robert Bryce 0:04
Hi, everyone, welcome to the power hungry Podcast. I’m Robert Bryce. On this podcast, we talk about energy, power, innovation and politics. And we’re going to talk a lot about politics today with my guest, Houston city, Councilmember Tiffany de Thomas. Tiffany, welcome to the power hungry podcast.

Tiffany Thomas 0:21
Well, thank you so much for the invitation. I’m honored to share with you and your listeners and your followers happy to be here. It’s been a tough last couple of years. And so I’m glad that we’re in this space to talk about all things housing politics in the city of Houston.

Robert Bryce 0:38
Sure. So I warned you we are going to I told you, guests on the podcast introduce themselves. So I’ve given your title. And we met in April, at an event sponsored by the Urban Reform Institute. And so I got acquainted with you there. But imagine you’ve arrived somewhere. And I know you’re not bashful because I’ve seen you in public. But imagine you have, say, 45 seconds or a minute to introduce yourself, please, please do so.

Tiffany Thomas 1:04
Wonderful. I’m Tiffany de Thomas, I represent district app on the west side of Houston, the best side of Houston. We’re also the cultural currency of the city, where we are the most diverse and the most, the most diverse in the city of Houston. And so we are an example of what our nation will be what our nation is. And so it is my belief that if we can get it right in District, if we can get it right in our city, if we can get it right in our city, we can get it right in our county, our state, and so forth. So as the work goes in the district is a model for the entire nation. And I have the benefit of chairing the Housing and Community Affairs Committee for the city, and also serving as a faculty member a preview. So I come to my political world, with the practice and the policy. So the work that I get to do in the classroom around community development, housing, economic development, community research, I get to apply that to public policy. And then also take that public policy into the classroom and prepare the next generation of leaders.

Robert Bryce 2:04
And you were a graduate of Prairie View a&m as I read. What year was that? And what was your degree and if you don’t mind,

Tiffany Thomas 2:11
so I did my advanced training at Prairie View. i My undergraduate alma mater is Sam Houston State University. And so I am a proud Bearcat and our model of our institution is a measure of one’s life is in service. And so I believe that I exemplify that. So I’m a proud bear cat and a very proud Panther, and a faculty member there.

Robert Bryce 2:33
So well, great that it didn’t disappoint on the introduction there. Tell me but let me know about the west side. You said it’s the most diverse part of Houston. That is interesting to me, because I know I’ve been to Houston many times. My first book was on Iran. I spent a lot of time in Houston. It’s the I remember the there more languages. I don’t know if it’s New York or Houston, but more languages spoken in Houston than practically any other city in America. So when you say it’s done, diverse, tell me about District F and how, what the how you see the diversity, which are the biggest groups that are in the district, etc.

Tiffany Thomas 3:08
Absolutely. And so in District F, I have neighborhoods such as Aly Westchase of the historic Piney Point. I know we’re going to talk a little bit about them. Yeah. Brian metal Tango out in Westmont and so we each neighborhood is very distinct, but particularly in a leaf, which has its own independent school district. There are over 105 dialects spoken in the school just in the school, which is a representation of what’s happening in our community.

Robert Bryce 3:35
105 Yes.

Tiffany Thomas 3:39
Easy. And so we have a strong refugee immigrant population we have, um, that’s why I call us the cultural currency because we’re so welcoming. And just remember, like in the 80s, and the 90s, the oil that, you know, people were coming into the community, we had a lot of apartments available. It was at one point considered, you know, outside the city of Houston. So we have a strong Asian community, Chinese, Vietnamese, South Asian community Filipino, you know, we have that and I have six Council, it’s in District F, Mexico, Philippines, Indonesia, Costa Rica. And so residents and you know, from the area that live there, the council is there. So we are very diverse, we live we work we play we have gone to school together. And so that’s why I say that we are a model because we’ve been doing it out here for generations for decades. You know, my neighbors next to me and once Vietnamese once Hispanic, once Chinese once Nigerian, once from El Salvador who is behind me, this is my neighborhood. And we know each other play well together and we look and we look out for each other. So yes, we are very diverse. And we also have very deep stink business corridors. So just on Bellaire Boulevard. In my district, you can see the Vietnamese community, popular restaurants, there’s this huge, huge Asian fusion trend happening right now. So you can go to almost any restaurant and there’s a line wrapped around until they get there. But then on Beech Nut, we have a large Hispanic business presence. And then on Bissonnette, you have a strong African presence, lots of Nigerian American businesses that are there. And so that’s a part of the fabric of our community.

Robert Bryce 5:33
Great. So thanks for that. One of the things the issue that you talked about back in April, at the Urban Reform Institute, meeting in that we both attended, was the issue of air properties. And, you know, I consider myself fairly well educated and up to date on things and try and follow current events. But air properties, H E, IR air properties, you talked about the issue, in particular, and how this is a problem in Houston. So it was new to me. So I’m sure it’s going to be new to pretty much everyone listening to this. Well, most people are a lot of the people listening to the podcast, what is the issue of air properties? And why does it matter in terms of housing, particularly for low and middle income people?

Tiffany Thomas 6:16
Absolutely. And you’re absolutely right. And this is something that I, you know, introduced to students in the classroom, but I will tell you, when it really cemented for me as chair housing, you know, Hurricane Harvey, you know, we’re still dealing with that. And we were going through our programs as chair. And you know, we were really getting beat up with some bad press. And I remember specifically, maybe the second month I was elected, and I remember this public session, and an older gentleman came for a public session and was telling, you know, the mayor and council how he has was impacted by Harvey, but yet he cannot receive any help. The housing department just refuses to help him for some reason. And I’m sitting there, I’m newly elected. And I just assumed, of course, the city. Of course, we’re not doing what on tilava was reading the backup materials, and I realized he didn’t own the property. This property was it was an heir property that was assumed after the death of his my mother. So he says, Man, I’ve been in this home for 25 years, my mother gave me this property. Everybody knows my mom gave me this property. And I was like,

Robert Bryce 7:28
What’s the title? So just to be clear, this is the title the deed was never transferred from his mother’s never transferred into his name. So harangues, effectively squatter, the right term there, then he’s squatting in a home image,

Tiffany Thomas 7:42
whatever siblings, they become the heirs of that property. But this is where it gets difficult. When we have federal funding to respond to disaster recovery, the language is very clear, you must have a clear title, your taxes must be clear. I’m in order to participate in those programs, which made me think, ah, the federal language is not. It’s not making space for cultural practices, particularly in the black American community, air property airship, that’s a very common way of transferring either a home or land to fame, very common,

Robert Bryce 8:21
where you have multiple generations with some attachment, some presents some connection to property where they may have lived there for a while, or maybe not, or trying to figure those things out. But, but it will. So as I said, this was new to me. So how widespread is the problem? How many people in Houston are affected? Or nationally? Has anyone really studied? Are there any good numbers on this?

Tiffany Thomas 8:43
So I have a good colleague at Texas a&m That at the law school who studies this from a land perspective, and he’s great, but from the city’s perspective, we’re, we’re interrogating that datapoint now, because I’m really, you know, when I looked at the information, and I realized that maybe say, well, then how many of the applicants that applied for our disaster recovery for Harvey actually qualified or disqualified and I will tell you, close to 96 homes of families were disqualified simply because of their deed, simply because that deed so now when I hear I’m still living in mold, I hear it differently. I hear so now I’m like, You must be an heir property. Because the fundings there the projects have been happening. So now it’s no longer you know, what? The work is falling through the cracks? No, there was you didn’t meet a qualifier. So there were roughly like around 96 households. That did not have a clear title. So

Robert Bryce 9:42
city wide, city wide and Houston are

Tiffany Thomas 9:44
correct that qualify for hurricane Harvey funds. Right. So

Robert Bryce 9:47
those in District How many would those be of your constituents or do you know? It? No, I haven’t broken it down.

Tiffany Thomas 9:54
No, but that part of my four hurricane funds, right,

Robert Bryce 9:58
but that idea of still living in mold That’s interesting because, well, mold is can cause all kinds of health problems, and nobody wants to live with that. But if you don’t have the ability to borrow money or get some kind of work grant or something, then you’re not gonna be able to rip out the sheetrock or the or the

Tiffany Thomas 10:13
carpet or when they lay on the hole, you can’t do anything. And if you don’t legally own the property, that’s the city we can’t facilitate something on private property. In Texas, Texas, this queen and queen are private property rights. So we can’t come in and say we’re going to tear up your home because you’re not even legally obligated to this. Right? You don’t have the authority to sign. And so when you the third part of the problems, one was with the disaster recovery piece that really

Robert Bryce 10:43
was just it was the language in the relief in the rules, correct that language and the rules that need to be changed if you talk to the federal people about how that might be changed, right, because this is a difficult thing to deal

Tiffany Thomas 10:57
with. Absolutely. And those are some of the policy recommendations we’re hoping to address with our congressional delegation is to understand not just for black Americans, but there are cultural practices that happen in community around housing, that need to be accounted for in language, right. So my community, we have, it is not uncommon for Asian Americans, Hispanic American, for them to have multiple generations in a home, sure, grandparents, parents children in the home. But yet, sometimes that’s not accounted for in terms of other programs, that they’re not giving credit for that. And so we have to address that at the federal level. And then also look at the state level, which made me probe more about when we look at how we invest back in the neighborhood and the amount of the community wealth that is leaving that neighborhood because that homeownership is not there. So if a disaster a flood comes in, you don’t own the home, your options are limited in terms of recovery, you may not have the funding to go get a private, you know construction loan or rehab loan, you don’t have the deed won’t clear title. So who’s gonna leave? Right? You can’t do that the persons deceased if the property is not in probate, if there’s no formal arrangements made, and culturally in the black community, we do not talk about death. We do not do that. And we don’t do that. Because in our minds, there’s a sneaky suspicion if we talk about it, it’s going to happen too soon. So we don’t talk about it. And so there’s a there’s a resistance and what I’ve been charging some of my colleagues in the real estate industry, particularly, you know, brokers and real estate agents, and terms of you know, we’re pushing the priority of becoming a homeownership and knowing that homeownership is a pathway to generational wealth. But we can’t stop there just about acquiring the property, we have to start thinking about and what do we want this property to do for our family and our legacy and 30 years? Where do we want this to go? What do we how do we want to use this as a tool? Because we stop at first time homeownership, we have to get more black people, homeownership, we have to do these things. And that’s great. And we’ve been doing that. But then what happens 2030 years from now, right? Do you want that property to go? And how did you want that property to be preserved? It also makes it very difficult from the city’s perspective when we’re looking at development and how to come in and re invest in a neighborhood. And I’m dealing with I’m I have a freedmen’s town Piney Point in my district, and Tuesday night, we hosted a town hall about adding more single family homes to that footprint. And I had to get signatures from the 10 homes that have bought that property that the city owns. ones in a state she just passed last year was a real estate firm. And we’re in the meeting trying to figure out who’s doing who’s the executives, right, there’s none of the properties have been transitioned. And so then, without the that signature, we may not be able to add a home to that month or so the investment which they need, they haven’t had any type of development since 1959. Right? These seniors deserve to age in place, and young families deserve to stay in a community in the city that they can afford. And so we’re dealing with that now, even though this is not a hobby related project, but just having a conversation with them. Sure, like well, who’s the executor who has acquired the property they’re like, Oh, well

Robert Bryce 14:26
these folks may not have a lawyer may not know a lawyer don’t and with some distrust of the of the system be part of this. I mean, then speak frankly here just about you know whether, oh, well, you know, this, I’m worried about getting up or getting cheated out of something here and I don’t trust the system. Don’t trust the man, Lee, and you combine that with a fear of well just well ignore it. And but then when the when something happens, then there’s that if these homes aren’t improved, and there’s more more likelihood that there’ll be dispossessed or somehow the vigor rings

Tiffany Thomas 14:58
true Right, and especially in neighborhoods where they struggle with enforcing deed restrictions, right? Older communities. You know, and my neighborhood I’m working in to add just eight to 10 single family homes. The average age in that neighborhood is like 72.

Robert Bryce 15:17
And it’s right. And you mentioned and you mentioned Piney Point, which is not to be confused with Piney Point village. No, which is, as I saw is one of the richest census tracts in America which is west of west of Piney Point. But tell me about that. I thought that was interesting about the Freedmen’s town. So how long does that history go back? I was fascinated by that part of a district that you represent has a history that goes back to the Civil War era, then

Tiffany Thomas 15:45
absolutely. The Emancipation of slaves and in 1865 sister Sarah and Reverend Mack they created originally the name was called Old Town Janetta, the Janetta row, and Houston and Piney Point the overall community because they had all the pine trees in that area. Piney Point, that freedmen’s town, the original cemetery still exists, and the church and we actually met at the church on Tuesday, so that footprint is still there.

Robert Bryce 16:16
And what’s the what’s the name of that church,

Tiffany Thomas 16:19
pilgrims rest Missionary Baptist Church. It is still there. So they’re roughly six freedmen town footprints in the city of Houston. freedmen’s town in Fourth Ward gets a lot of the attention because it’s closer to the downtown core. But they’re roughly around six Piney Point being one of them. And they’re almost placed in almost every district. And so when you

Robert Bryce 16:45
freed slaves went out from downtown, then defined cheap money

Tiffany Thomas 16:49
just formed their neighborhoods and formed

Robert Bryce 16:53
congregated around that right.

Tiffany Thomas 16:54
So you have Friedman’s town there were you know, in the core, you have Pine Point that were in the West that were in the county, they weren’t even annexed, we have wiggy chapel, the town of McGee, which the church is now on Highway six nearby forests, but the original lot where they first settled was brought forests and Eldridge if you’re familiar with that area, and so those remnants are there, it’s documented, it’s in, it’s in the history. And so what was so fascinating to me, is how Piney Point had initially five neighborhoods, and now what remains is Carver crest, the last remaining neighborhood, which I get to represent, and they’re close to render 100 wood frame homes there and those elders can recall when lily white existed, and when those other areas and communities existed. And to your

Robert Bryce 17:45
point, and I’m sorry, when when lilywhite existed what is really what was

Tiffany Thomas 17:49
a another freedmen’s town.

Robert Bryce 17:50

Tiffany Thomas 17:52
right. And so most of those freedmen towns in those churches, they fellowship with each other. And still today, there’s still this connection to those certain areas and certain churches, they commune together they do, you know, Sunday’s together because of just opening up centuries of history. And so one of my commitments to them because of poor planning practices, policies, that, you know, they just became, they’re surrounded by development. And there were no protections for that neighborhood, making sure that they had new single family homes, where families can purchase between the 80 and 100% Ami, where they can add to their footprint and continue with growth, and also stop the city right away, which is the lot that we are going to develop and flip that into single family lots. And so what works in our benefit. And I told him, I said, you know, that each administration and Houston, we have a strong former mayor, this mayor has a goal of 3000 homes by 2023 3000, single family homes for purchase. And so we are on track, and this is I talked them, frankly, this is my shot. I don’t have much land in my district, we’re develop. Y’all have lots, we’re 50 by 100 feet, we can actually do something significant in this neighborhood. And you know, what was

Robert Bryce 19:17
really spurred to really spur the affordable housing because you made another point. I think it was maybe where you said on on Twitter that I’m reading here, you said we’re shorting 7 million homes nationwide. And these were the facts that rest on me, Houston has the second highest eviction rate in the nation second highest eviction rate now the number second highest eviction rate in the nation and the least amount of affordable homes in Texas and or nationally. And then he went on he said it’s doubtful hiring a lawyer for 1000s of dollars going to solve the housing crisis. So you know, kind of reflecting back about you know, that individual air of a may be living in a property but the idea of hiring a lawyer and trying to work through the title and the deed and all those, those are expenses that they’re not really thinking about that they need to incur because Because that’s not something that is top of mind for them is that

Tiffany Thomas 20:03
it’s not? Yeah, absolutely. It’s not top of mind. And I was sharing this with the Chronicle about air properties. I said, you know, if there’s a certain level of education and financial acumen one has when they’re doing the state planning, right for you to consciously look at estate planning and have multiple properties, you understand the tool of a trust, you understand these things. But if you are first generation, second generation homeownership, and you had land, it’s always been around. And we’re not openly having conversations about what happens when mom and dad passed away, what do we want to do? And it was interesting, I was at a conversation and someone, a panel, and she says, I’m having this conversation with my parents, she goes, my parents have acquired acres of land, and it’s worth a lot, and they refuse to have the conversation. She’s like, I have four siblings. Right. And so if I have four siblings, and we all have our own idea about what needs to happen, it gets messy. It gets messy. And I’m the beneficiary of an air property. My grandmother, my great grandmother owns the land that says Welcome to Louisiana. And they had contracted to drill oil. So I get $90 a month. My brother and I get nine

Robert Bryce 21:19
of the minimum from the mineral rights.

Tiffany Thomas 21:22
Absolutely. But they’re my grandmother had six or seven children, they had 11 siblings themselves, right. So it’s just you my father’s family, lots of land in Mississippi, they sold it. So it’s all of us have our own ideals about what happens with our property. And if our if we don’t have those conversations early and openly talking about the protections in place, it will be messy, and cities and city cease won’t have the ability to really come

Robert Bryce 21:52
in and do things I’m sorry. CDC

Tiffany Thomas 21:55
Community Development Corporation, our Community Development Corporation’s in the city that many of them are leading around redevelopment activities, and we’re supporting them doing that. But it’s definitely hard when there’s resistance to it because the paperwork isn’t clean.

Robert Bryce 22:10
Sure. Well, so is, you know, Houston continues to get hit. I mean, you know, we’re all looking at hurricanes in the rest of it. But where is the mayor’s talked about adding more housing? Let me ask the question this way. Why don’t Why is housing so important to wealth building? I mean, I could try and answer this question. And you met Joel Kotkin at the Urban Reform Institute and the work he’s doing on that? Why is homeownership so important? And why are African Americans low income people? Why is it so hard for them to own their homes?

Tiffany Thomas 22:42
Sure, so. So I’m gonna say so personally. So homeownership is extremely important because it’s an asset. And you can leverage the equity in your home for a variety of ways, right. And so it’s a financial tool. And so we have to change the perception of just home ownership. And really talk about how it’s a financial tool for potentially your future, there are countless a number of the parents that have said, I took out an equity loan on my home when it was time for my children to go to college, right? Because they had, and they knew they could put it back in, right? Or you needed to do some repairs, you wanted to upgrade, you have value in your home. And so one of the challenges and the things that I’m working on, are really to educate, and I believe HUD has made some adjustments around this as the private mortgage insurance, right. And if we just talk about what’s happening in the market around affordability, and the fact that, you know, African Americans and those who have lower, you know, income, you’re not able to compete at a $330,000 home when you’re making, you know, 70 or $60,000. Right? And so when we look at generational wealth, and from that, looking at it as an asset, being able to transfer that to the next generation, where the next generation can come in with equity. Yeah, you’re not starting over with wealth building you can leverage and when we think about our most wealthy families, you know, the you know, Chaves and all the bankers and the Rockefellers, this is transferred wealth, right, you know, just transferring wealth is a we have to get to the point of transferring wealth and removing every barrier to do that hood recently announced, when I say recently as a couple of months ago, they are removing the private mortgage insurance from Hood, the FHA back loans from 2015, I missed the mark on the 2014. I was looking at the details like do I qualify for this 2015 back so you can if you had not closed on your loan, and you still have an open case number, they will remove that private mortgage insurance, which is very helpful because it allows you to pay directly to your principal, and that money is not just going out of the door. So there are some some some small pivots that have been happening and so At a local level, we are investing more in our first time buyer assistance with these families so they can’t compete and actually secure a home. Because there’ll be you know, you can’t keep a home on the market these days. And so if we do not do that, we will create a permanent rental class. And so we have hot, we have got to get people into these single family homes for that with the mortgage. Because otherwise the venture capitalists that are coming in and buying go complete neighborhood that’s completely off the market, there’s no way you can compete with those types of investors. So then now you are relegated to paying $2,500 In right. And yet the finances building

Robert Bryce 25:41
and building and building no equity, and you’re building no equity, and you’re part of that permanent rental class, right, which which prevents generational wealth building. Wow.

Tiffany Thomas 25:51
I’m paying 2500. But the financial saying well, oh, you’re not credit worthy? Well, I’m paying 2500 a month, yeah, for 24 months. So we have to make sure that that aligns to address because if they’re showing the level of consistency, when you get a mortgage, they see your payment history, if they’re paying what a mortgage would be more than a mortgage, clearly, they can sustain a household. And so that is a very aggressive vote for us, for the 3000 homes. And we are tracking to make that happen by the end of 2023.

Robert Bryce 26:26
So let’s talk about Houston. It’s a city that’s famous for a lot of reasons, right, but one of them is that it has no zoning. And is that it? We’ll talk about that a little bit. Um, you know, I’ve read about it a lot. But now you’re in government, you’re a policy maker, is that good that the city doesn’t have zoning? Does it? Is it bad? Does it affect your district? How do you see it does the sea should it have zoning?

Tiffany Thomas 26:51
So we have, we have planning principles, we have guidelines that we follow, I can tell you about some of the challenges is that when because we don’t have zoning, we have bars and clubs, and that pop up and might be right next to your neighborhood your home. And we get an incredible amount of complaints around noise around parking. Parking is a huge issue in certain corridors in our city, because we have no zoning and you literally can build a commercial property on the backside of a residential and open a club. And so it really looking at how our ordinances have to, to protect, you know, resident residential communities. You know, Joe Jane Houston, but then also, how do we create space for the small business entrepreneur to create, you know, to start and contribute to the economy, we want that to happen, because that we need your sales tax, which generates to our city budget, the revenue, but we went it. Last event on Tuesday, we had complaints from someone about a club in our restaurant, again, because it’s situated around a residential area close to a residential area, it’s very close. I mean, it’s many of the complaints, they can’t get out their home because the cars parked in front of the driveway, they can’t, especially older neighborhoods that are now more trendy, right? They can’t get out. There’s increased crime, they’ve had cars robbed. They’ve had, you know, indecent behavior in the middle of the night. They have young children and that needs asleep. In my district, particularly they’ve been gunshots in the area with it, the gunshots have gone through the home of a five year old. Do it through his bedroom. So those are some of the challenges some of the pros with that is that if you are a developer, and you’re looking to you know, support small, you know, housing or even just some type of commercial small business, you have opportunity to do so, you know, with with

Robert Bryce 28:59
less friction from less government friction. Yeah. So we’re and how long have you been in Houston? Tell me about your because you have deep roots. I read on your bio that in New Orleans as well. So yeah, you have deep roots in the south. But yeah.

Tiffany Thomas 29:15
I consider myself a Houstonian though, I don’t know if my family would say that. But I can tell myself that he’s done it. And so we have been here since the 90s or so. So I finished high school out here. And you know, my parents, the first home they purchased out here was in a leaf. And my father still lives in that home and it’s my neighbors that are in their children that I grew up with. They’re still there. And so I have seen this city develop especially once I returned back from college, I realized that the city had changed just in four years and I didn’t know the city and spent a lot of my time involved in local community organizations just to get to reintroduce myself to neighborhood So I’m like what was actually happening, I’ve always been someone who was serving. And I realized I was all throughout the city, you know, doing voter registration, neighborhood cleanup, and I wasn’t in my own neighborhood. And I’m like, I need to do this in my own neighborhood, which really was the impetus for me getting deep into community work in my district that I now unable to serve. And so previously to this position, I served on the elite school board. So I was a school board trustee for four years, and really brought my community development training to that work around schools, making sure that you know, everything happening outside the schools unstable from housing to our streets, or the quality of life, you’re going to see it in the classroom. So you know, when, when kids are living in unclaimed properties, and you know, they’re there, they have no dedicated space to learn, they don’t have a dedicated room, they don’t have adequate food, you’re going to see that manifest in the school. Aggression, you’re going to see, you know, they’re going to be hungry, test scores are going to be low, they’re not going to actively participate in the school environment. So those are some of the things that I had champion, as a trustee, and then I didn’t run for reelection. And the neighborhood came back to me and they said, Hey, we want you to run for city council. And I was shocked, because I, that was not on my bingo board, as people would say. And they said we have, you have our full support, we need you to commit. And once I committed, we were out the gate. And it’s been a collaboration with community ever since.

Robert Bryce 31:38
And you ran in 2019, you took office in 2020, your terms up in 2024, you’re gonna run again,

Tiffany Thomas 31:45
every day I go up and down. It depends on you know how many crazy emails I get. That’s always like y’all can have his day. And then other days, I’m so overwhelmed. My heart is full, when we’re able to resolve the problem. And so, yes, as of today, I plan on running again, so we can continue the commitment. And the promise that I made to invest in our public safety, neighborhood revitalization, youth engagement, programming and our quality of life. And we’re doing that.

Robert Bryce 32:16
So how much did you spend in 2019? How much did you have to raise? And how much do you think you’re gonna have to raise now to win reelection?

Tiffany Thomas 32:24
That’s a really good question. How much stress then? Off the top of my head, maybe 35,000? I think, no, I don’t remember off the top of my head. 2019 seems so long ago. Um, and it’s just been a real interesting, like political climate. It doesn’t, you know, every, you know, voting season that I go out to vote no one’s outside. See when 2019 When I was running candidates, so we were out there every day. And it seems like ever since COVID happened. There’s not that same engagement. And so

Robert Bryce 33:02
that people aren’t as that’s interesting that you say that? I’m just let you say it. I’m thinking well, is it? Because it’s so easy. I mean, just so easy to be cynical about politics? And yes. And just so easy to say, Oh, I don’t care. And you know, and I admire and I’m not blowing smoke up your dress here that that you chose to serve. Right. And I’ve only had a handful of politicians on the podcast. I’ve done 100 More than 120 episodes. I’ve had a couple of local officials in Iowa from Madison County. I’ve had a California Assemblyman Jim Cooper, you, and I appreciate politicians. I appreciate that you care enough to do it. But But why do you do it? I guess is one of the questions I have here is you said that they came to you, but why? What’s that you feel a responsibility that there’s something you couldn’t avoid that you had to do it? Tell me about that motivation?

Tiffany Thomas 33:52
So yeah, so for me, I think what I think this is my political principle is that you cannot represent people without their permission. And for me, I’ve always been skeptical of people that just I’m going to do this. And but no, but you haven’t talked to the people and have they said that you are our answer, like we support you. So for me, it was really important for the community to come to me and I mean, multiple members to say, We want you to represent us because they’re like, Tiffany, you live in the area. You come up here, like you know where we are, you’ve been serving this neighborhood, like,

Robert Bryce 34:31
you’re not shy.

Tiffany Thomas 34:35
That if something’s going down, you’re gonna make it known. And they know that and every time the mayor introduced me, he’s like, listen, she’s one of the most hands on councilmembers because it’s true. I have an intimate knowledge of their issues. I will decline every outside district event if there’s a conflict with something in the district and I don’t care if it’s for people at an HOA meeting. I’m going there. I’m going to go For people, because if you are able to solve a drainage problem that they’ve had for years, the the way people, they’re relieved because they finally feel like someone actually gets it,

Robert Bryce 35:14
governments actually might actually work. Sometimes

Tiffany Thomas 35:16
they might actually do it. And I will tell you one of the first things I did in office, there were requests for simple speedbox. For years that were not funded, I funded every single one immediately. Everything that was pending, funded, get it, do it. We’ve gone through exhaustive sidewalk repair to make sure that it was up to coat and ADA accessible because we have aging seniors that need to get around. So the, you know, the fun pretty stuff that people like to do the ribbon cuttings, we do that too. But I really like to take credit, and focusing on the infrastructure investments that we’re making to enhance someone’s quality of life, even around streetlights. I noticed in 2019, when I was teaching my community research class, we were doing a public safety study, and a young girl worked at Burger King, and she says, I get off at night, I’ll try to walk home, there’s no lights on cook row, there’s no police presence, a friend of mine was wrong. And I never forgot that. And so once I had the budget to do so I budget increased. For the council office, I released a streetlight initiative, and to support our public safety efforts, because we had public spaces that were not adequately lit, people didn’t feel comfortable coming out. But what we’ve noticed, and what I’m learning going through the district looking at these lights is that we have either one, the lights don’t work, the lights don’t two, the lights don’t exist. Or three, the tree canopies are so large, that they cover up whatever lighting structure there is. So we’re doing two things, we’re turning on the lights, and that’s installing new lights, and then we’re cutting back to treat that. So neighborhoods can actually be clear. We played outside all day until the dark, and we knew when the street light came on, you come home, but today, you can’t do that.

Robert Bryce 37:10
And that’s a particularly important public safety issue for young women, for women and for everyone. But that that is that’s a key issue. So what’s the hardest part of your job, then this is something that I do I interview a lot of people and it’s one of the things when our children were younger, we take them and talk to him to entrepreneurs. And we’d asked him, you know, mechanics, bakers, you know, what’s the hardest part of your job? So, you’ve you clearly liked what you do. But you also expressed some frustration with the job, which I would imagine would be pretty common. What’s the hardest part of that being a council member in a city as big and complex as Houston? Hardest part of the job? So really good question. Well, you can think about it. That’s alright.

Tiffany Thomas 38:01
Institution side, like the city institutions. I like to say that, you know, I think the mayor is really good at this. He’s really good at crafting a bold vision.

Robert Bryce 38:13
So then we’re talking about Sylvester Turner. Here’s

Tiffany Thomas 38:16
Mayor Turner, former really good former state

Robert Bryce 38:18
senator as well, right? Yes. State Rep. State Rep. Rep. Okay, I’m sorry. Yes, that’s right. Okay,

Tiffany Thomas 38:24
State Rep. And very, what he does that very well. I don’t necessarily know if our systems match the vision. So he has very high expectations, and sometimes, which causes delay and actually getting certain things done. Because certain departments and just the way that we’ve done it, it’s always been this way. Right. So we have a younger counsel at City Hall. And so we’re thinking differently, and we’re challenging some of the ways that business have has been done. I’m particularly looking at speed, just the permitting, like, why is it so difficult just to get this permit done? And then making sure that we have the workforce we need in the city? So I think part of the challenge is from an institution or institutional place, I’m always asking the question, Well, why not? Like, I don’t understand why or why not? Like, why do

Robert Bryce 39:25
I say? So if I’m paraphrasing, what I hear, I think I’m hearing you say is that the difficult part of the job is contending with the the the the the way things are right, trying to get overcoming the inertia of the system, the way the system has been for a long time and trying to get it product to make it move more efficiently, faster, etc,

Tiffany Thomas 39:47
efficiently. And then the other side of that is educating that to the public.

Robert Bryce 39:51
To keep your expectations in check, or is that it was

Tiffany Thomas 39:55
meant check and just and just education and you’ll be surprised The number of emails I get related to federal and state issue that we have no control over. And as city council members, we are the closest to the ground, right? Closest,

Robert Bryce 40:10
they’re the only politician, you know, that they know. And so they want you to help them try and navigate what’s going

Tiffany Thomas 40:16
on. Because they’ll see me at the grocery store in the post office, they see me and they’ll talk to you, and I’m just trying to buy milk, and they have a whole deal. And so educating them really about the civic process. And then what is what and how, you know,

Robert Bryce 40:32
which ties back which ties back to the air properties and the complexities of those issues, which is, I mean, as you’ve described it, and now we it’s been a while, so you know, a few minutes, since we talked about it, I’m just reflecting on my own head about, Tim, that’s a complicated issue about it, how you then guide, you know, you said at least 96 homes and heirs to properties that they have got to navigate a legal set of, I’m gonna say minefield, but it is a minefield, and it’s going to be, it’s going to be expensive for them to work all the way through these processes at the local and county level in terms of the deeds and then then they have to go to the federal level, if they want to try and get mold or you know, that, yeah, I would see why that would be a very hard part of the job, because you got to tell your people Well, look, you know, I want to help you. But there’s only so much I can do here,

Tiffany Thomas 41:20
I want to help you. And you know, for some neighborhoods, I literally have to hold their hand, I literally have to, you know, I will print their flyer, I will block walk their neighborhood. We do all of that work

Robert Bryce 41:35
for them. And how many people are on your staff you have I know. We’re Lee real Duncan and I’ve been in touch with your colleague, Ms. Kelly King,

Tiffany Thomas 41:45
right. So for so three and a half. So three and a half relieved and we have four interns. So which gives me additional hands. But as it relates because it’s only 100 doors in Piney Point, we physically put in it’s an older group, we type out everything, we put a flyer on their door, their mailbox, we knock on their door to remind them to come to the meeting. And it’s an extremely, like,

Robert Bryce 42:12
high touch process to do a high high touch is that is that fair, high touch process.

Tiffany Thomas 42:18
High touch and I have neighborhoods that have eight sections just in one. And I in so because their need is so particular. And I don’t want them to fall victim to the having the wrong information. People, you know, they have been manipulated, and people have come before and ask them to sign over paperwork. And alas, there was an ambassador who was asking them to sign over their name. So they would he’ll pay their property taxes and people actually did it. And I actually did not have to stop everything. And, you know, they reach out to me and like Miss Tiffany, what do we do? He’s gonna pay us do we sign? No. He’s gonna put up on your home. Like, no, because he’s trying to acquire the Sure. And they don’t know.

Robert Bryce 43:09
So they have no because they have no experience no life experience, whether they don’t know a lawyer, they don’t there’s no nobody, no lawyer family, or whatever. You

Tiffany Thomas 43:17
don’t understand his long game, and that they’re in the prime. You know, they’re right in the middle of the city. And it’s his prime real estate. I don’t get that.

Robert Bryce 43:24
Yeah. So you said you’re likely to run again, what? You mentioned the ward system before and this is something that’s unique to Houston as well. And people talk about the fifth word and the other words, if you don’t mind, just explain that real briefly. I’m you’ve done a Houston a long time, and I’m familiar with it. And I looked it up the other day about the word system. It sounds it harks up some kind of machine politics or Chicago or something like that. So tell me what are the words and how does that these are vestiges of an older, older governmental system, aren’t they?

Tiffany Thomas 43:58
Yes, and how they would name neighborhoods. Now, if we were in New Orleans, New Orleans actively uses the word system 17 Porto war Ninth Ward, but in Houston, not necessarily. They’re now just known by their neighborhoods. So Third Ward, that’s 1/5 Ward, majority of the historically black neighborhoods are the ward to Third Ward, the Fifth Ward, Fourth Ward, which is now most known as Midtown, but that’s Fourth Ward, right. And so from a historic preservation perspective, you know, the, the nominal picture of that is pronounced, so that history is erased. Sure, because we’re now going into those neighborhoods. they’re proposing different name changes and people are very resistant to that. We don’t actively use that in every part of the city. It’s just embedded in the identity of those neighborhoods now.

Robert Bryce 44:57
Sure. So you’ve been in Houston. For a long time now, you said you started there in high school. Houston is a famous food town and I’ll make a very quick digression. So a friend of mine, Rob Walsh, I worked with we worked together at The Austin Chronicle a very long time ago, he got a job at the Houston press as the food writer. And the first story he wrote for the Houston press, he drove himself to Intercontinental Airport, parked his car and went to the taxi rank and jumped in the taxi first taxi and told the driver take me to your favorite restaurant, which was going on to this idea about Houston as a cultural town and a very rich food town and he wrote this amazing story. I think he was taken to a halt restaurant. So that’s the brief tangent. And he wrote about in a very sympathetic way, and to me really was a great idea for us as a reporter, right? I think well, that’s just a great idea. And I’ve told that story many times. But Houston is a great food town. Tell me some of your favorite restaurants.

Tiffany Thomas 45:47
Oh, my goodness.

Robert Bryce 45:48
I’m just putting on the spot here now.

Tiffany Thomas 45:50
Well, Cajun kitchen. Asian Kitchen is you have when you come to Houston, you have to have to try the turkey next to die for

Robert Bryce 46:00
the Asian Asian Kitchen. Asian Cajun kitchen. Cajun so

Tiffany Thomas 46:06
spell it for Asian Kitchen. Yes, it’s all well, Chris. You have to try their Turkey next to die for

Robert Bryce 46:15
the Asian Kitchen on Willow crest and get the turkey. Turkey. Yes. Okay. I don’t know that I’ve ever had. I don’t know that I’ve ever had a turkey neck.

Tiffany Thomas 46:23
Listen, you’ll continue to come back to Houston for those Turkey necks. I promise you that. That’s the only thing I eat there. I mean, I eat all the other stuff. But like it’s I’m committed to the turkey next. Okay, and they’re so good. People at City Hall are like, do you have my turkey next? Because no one wants to drive out here. So they’re like you need to bring those Turkey next to City Hall. I mean, they’re so I will say Cajun kitchen is one. Sorry. You

Robert Bryce 46:49
know, you’re confusing me because I’m hearing what you’re saying. You said Cajun. So still a

Tiffany Thomas 46:54
kitchen. Spell it for me. The AJ U N.

Robert Bryce 46:57
Okay. Okay. You’re saying Cajun? I’m hearing Kay. I’m hearing Cajun but okay. Cajun, Kitsch. Asian. Okay. All right. See your New Orleans accent? I know you throw your talk that just out in New Orleans there a few minutes ago. So I’m just trying to catch up here. Okay, so Cajun kitchen. I’m gonna get me some turkey next. What else?

Tiffany Thomas 47:15
Oh, um. Oh, I’m trying to think of a little bit of everything.

Blake’s barbecue on Janetta the historic Blake’s barbecue which is right there in Piney Point. Okay. This is old school barbecue. I don’t even think they ranked the order down. They’re just like what you want. I got it. Here you go. It is great. Their burgers are ridiculous. Okay. The salads are not even really salads. It’s just a bunch of meat. It’s amazing in the back baked potato.

Robert Bryce 47:54
But not the old the old school style. Old school

Tiffany Thomas 47:57
Blake’s barbecue right down. Janetta a part of the Piney Point footprint like we yeah, we fund lunches out of Blake’s. What else

Robert Bryce 48:09
we’ll do is good. I’ve got some more questions for you.

Tiffany Thomas 48:12
I like mom and pops. So those the mom and pops in the neighborhood,

Robert Bryce 48:15
I got you. So these are other questions that I asked all my guests. So you know, you do a lot of reading for the city, your city work and a lot of policy papers and so on. When you’re not necessarily working. What do you read what’s on your bookshelf? What other kinds of things do you like to read?

Tiffany Thomas 48:31
I have a tremendous amount of books. And so and I have to because I teach but this summer, I’m not teaching. I’m not teaching anything. I’m actually working on a grant some community engagement work. And so right now I’m not reading anything, and I’m really excited about it. I’m not reading anything. You’re taking a break. I’m tight. Yeah. I mean, I read an incredible amount of content. I’m constantly surrounded by so this summer, I said, You know what, I’m not going to assign myself anything. I’m just gonna

Robert Bryce 49:03
relax a little bit. Yeah, okay. Well, they just give me a couple give me a couple of so you read a lot, but a couple books that you’d recommend them to have? Not necessarily right now. But things that you’ve written read recently that you like or memorable.

Tiffany Thomas 49:16
We see what’s on the show. What am I reading? It’s more of a scholarly book. Okay. It’s community practice. And so that’s the title community practice. Yeah, the handbook of community practice. Okay. So the handbook of community practice is really good, because of course, I teach it but a lot of the a lot of the methodology in the book really shows where there’s gaps and how we do city work. And so a lot of the stuff that I offered, it’s because I can take you back to that book. And it’s a proven technique. Really the hell right?

Robert Bryce 49:53
around engagement and around protect Brown

Tiffany Thomas 49:57
community. Yeah, absolutely. A rock community engaged We don’t excuse me, we don’t have you know, when I was running for office and I was blocking and knocking on doors, and I’m knocking on registered voters and active voters doors, you would be surprised how many did not realize an election was coming up. And these are active voters. And so the idea for me, and really, because of that book, and I revisited, it’s tabbed up, I have highlighters and markers in it all the time. Because it’s a tool for me, I realized that the city doesn’t do engagement that way. And so no one’s knocking on your door from the city saying, hey, there’s a housing development coming here. And we really want to get your feedback on that. We have related everything to technology and a survey online. Gotcha. Yeah, technology to do it. So I actively go back. I actively go back to the Handbook of community practice.

Robert Bryce 50:56
This is one question. I just as you were saying this, I was just popped in my head. So who do you admire? What do you know, you you’ve you’ve been, you’ve talked about Sylvester Turner. You’ve, you’ve jumped into politics, and you’ve been at this for a while, but who do you what role models do you have? And when you think about you what you’re doing now, either in your personal life or your professional life?

Tiffany Thomas 51:19
You know, that I, I think what I do is I take a piece, a little piece of everyone, that’s impressive to me. And sometimes they’re not big people on TV. Quick story. I remember when Alexis Herman was labor, sec, secretary of labor under Clinton, I believe. And I remember there was a stripe and FedEx or UPS or something like that. And I remember watching her on the news. So this is the night that I remember her watching her on the news, and how she was dealing with that strike. And I would take clip articles about Alexis Harmon, basketball, were involved with the National Urban League. She’s the national secretary, I’m headed to Chicago. And I write a letter to her. And I said, Hey, I’m weird. I am coming to this conference, I admire you, would you be willing to have coffee with me? I meet her at the meeting. I tell her who I am. She like, takes a hold of me. And everyone was like, Oh, my God, you’re talking to Alexis Herman. She was the most welcoming and offered the most sage advice around her strategy and her thinking as at that time, a young woman as Secretary of Labor, and in a, you know, White House administration. So I take moments like that when I witnessed people on the news and how they navigate hard environments, I might take that and start following them. So I can’t say at this moment that there’s one particular person, I think I am admiring moments, moments people have and seeing how they rise to that occasion. So when it’s my moment, that I’ll be prepared. And it might be prepared by the language that they use, how they organize themselves. Those are the things that I’m borrowing from other people.

Robert Bryce 53:09
And that’s a touching story, though, that, you know, that little bit of encouragement or that someone taking you aside, made a big difference.

Tiffany Thomas 53:17
blew me away, like, oh, my gosh, this lady talking to me. I mean, just this is someone that you know, would see on TV growing up, and you know, you would have been approved

Robert Bryce 53:27
you don’t ask you don’t get and you reach out

Tiffany Thomas 53:30
to her. Yeah, absolutely. And I’ve been going with that model for a long time. And so I’m I’m like the most I can say is no and I didn’t realize how many people were not comfortable inserting themselves and saying hi, I am such and such. And I would like to and as a faculty member and as a council member, every time I get an email from a student or a young person asking for time, it’s absolutely, I would make time for that.

Robert Bryce 54:01
So last question, then here and my guest is, is councilmember Houston city council member, Tiffany de Thomas. She represents District F. And the Houston city council, you can find her on the Houston, Houston, Tex Houston. Doesn’t. But you can find Tiffany pretty easily on on the Google. Last question, if you don’t mind. So what’s the what gives you hope? We’ve talked about a lot of things and some things that are problems that around these air properties that at the surface look pretty intractable. I mean, it’s really hard. And, and we face a lot of division in America, both economically both in class in terms of race in terms of politics, and geography, and we’re divided on a whole lot of things. And I could go on and on talking about all those challenges. But what gives you optimism what makes you hopeful?

Tiffany Thomas 54:53
You know, I would say Tuesday, going into the Piney Point civic club meeting I anticipated A very hard meeting I thought I was going to be met with, I don’t want it. What are y’all doing? Not my neighborhood. And it was the complete opposite. And it was the comments and the feedback from the residents that said, My daughter should buy one of these homes, my grandchildren should buy one of these homes. The hope that we could make their neighborhood home and that extensions of their family, their community, that legacy could return back

Robert Bryce 55:33
to love, they could see, they could see the possibility, they could see the possibility.

Tiffany Thomas 55:36
And because they got it, and I didn’t have to do a hard sale, I just laid out the facts, and just promised them that we will walk hand in hand, and they came to me, they were like, This is great. You’re my hero. And that was the whole,

Robert Bryce 55:51
like, because they could see new new housing in a neighborhood that desperately needs it

Tiffany Thomas 55:56
that desperately needs it. And that, you know, because of the affordability, their grandchildren, their children, their outside the neighborhood, they could actually come back, they don’t have to live in the suburb of Katy, they don’t have to live in Palin, there’s a possibility that they can come right back. And as they age as seniors and might need caretakers, they will be in the neighborhood, they could just walk around the street around the corner in the city of Houston. So that was I left just overwhelmed. Like, we could actually do this. We can actually do this because the people they get it. And so an off sometimes the people the hardest barrier, but they got it. So I was very hopeful. And I’ve been carrying that moment with me all week.

Robert Bryce 56:42
Well, that’s a good story to end on. Thank you for that one. That’s great. My guest has been Tiffany de Thomas. She’s the Houston city Houston city council member in District F you can find her very easily on the interweb Tiffany thanks a million for being on the podcast. I was when I heard you speak in April. I thought, Oh, this woman I’m gonna I’m gonna I want to talk to her some more. And I’m glad we finally made it happen. Thank you. All right. Thanks to you, Tiffany. And thanks to all you in podcast land until the next episode of the power hungry podcast. See ya.


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