Houston may require ‘community benefits’ from firms seeking tax breaks

Houston City Council this week will consider requiring companies seeking tax breaks to provide one of a specified list of "community benefits" for the first time as it undertakes a biennial update of its tax abatement ordinance.

Applicants today get "more favorable consideration" if they agree to provide employee health benefits, give preference to local firms in purchasing services or equipment, participate in the city’s program encouraging the hiring of minority-owned businesses or engage in other such efforts.

The new rules, which go before the council on Wednesday, would bar companies from applying for incentives unless they commit to providing or undertaking at least one of the following as part of their project: affordable housing, job training or reentry programs, paid internships for low income students, recruiting workers from within the surrounding area, incorporating site improvements that benefit more than just the project, or designing the site in a way that aims to reduce crime, such as installing extra lighting.

The proposed changes are insufficient to the nonprofit Workers Defense Project, which decried the city’s "secrecy" over its abatement rules and announced Tuesday it was seeking all documents related to the drafting of the updated policy, as well as the city’s current protocols for monitoring all abatement deals now in force.

The group was among 20 civic and labor groups to sign an April 10 letter asking Mayor Sylvester Turner to incorporate more comprehensive requirements into the new guidelines, such as higher wages, safety training, workers’ compensation insurance coverage, job training, and on-site monitoring by independent groups.

This is a developing story. Check back here for updates.

mike.morris@chron.com

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