Since taking office in 2016, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has managed significant challenges facing the nation’s fourth-largest city, including budget deficits, homelessness, police reform and natural disasters such as Hurricane Harvey and the COVID-19 global pandemic.
As the city’s 62nd mayor, Turner is in the final months of his second term. He sat down with the Defender to talk about everything from his biggest challenges, accomplishments, legacy and more.
Defender: What would you say are your three biggest accomplishments during your tenure?
Sylvester Turner: That’s kind of tough. When I first came in from a financial point of view, pension reform had been plaguing the city for 20-plus years. An unfunded pension liability of $8.2 bil was going in the wrong direction. We tackled that in the first two years, bringing all the unions and business groups together. Now the funding liability is under $2.2 bil, and it’s going down. Also, balancing the eight budgets. I’ll turn over to the next mayor a fund balance that is significantly greater than the $160 million deficit I inherited. So from a financial point of view, I’m proud of that. During my term, we have faced seven federally declared disasters, more than any mayor in the city of Houston. And that’s not counting COVID and social civil unrest like the murder of George Floyd. And in 2023, extreme hot weather and water main leaks. But we’ve managed through all of those events and the city is still standing and moving forward. I’m proud of that. And then, complete communities, where we identified 10 communities that have been underserved and under-resourced for decades. And we’re investing in and transforming those communities. That includes housing, affordable housing parks, green space, and economic job opportunities.
Defender: What are some of the biggest challenges you faced?
Turner: Climate change is one. The reality is storms are coming with greater frequency, greater intensity, and costing us more. And no one city can adequately address climate change. Four months into my first term was the tax day flood, 2017 was Harvey, 2019 was a tropical storm, February 2021 was a winter storm, the list goes on and on. So those are the challenges because those are things that you don’t just sit down and plan when you’re creating your priorities. Those are things that come in addition to all the priorities that you have named, but you can’t just ignore your priorities. So, you have to deal with the storms, and you have to advance your priorities. That’s a major challenge. And then when I walked in day one, $160 mil was saying, find me. But I will tell you, in eight years, we never laid off one single city employee. We managed the budget. And I credit my mama, this maid who was the CEO of nine kids, who she raised by herself. She had the ability to take a dollar and make it work. And I watched her manage a large portion of my life. And the whole thing was for her, ‘I know what I don’t have, but I know what I got, and we gonna make it work.’ So I came to City Hall and applied the same principles, but I’m proud of the fact that we balanced eight budgets.
Defender: Is there anything that you were unable to accomplish during your tenure that you, that you wish you had been able to?
Turner: There are many things. I wish I had more time for complete communities. You don’t reverse decades of disinvestment in eight years. You can start the process of investing and transforming, but that’s not something that will be completed in eight years. So, I wish I had more time. From a public safety point of view, we’ve dealt with those issues, but it’s never one and done. I’m looking at 16 to 24 years, primarily brothers of color, that are throwing their lives away. And I don’t want to give up on them, and we shouldn’t, and you gotta fight for them. But when you look at our crime stats, that age group between 16 and 24, primarily brothers, males of color, they’re driving those numbers. There are about 20,000 gangs. So, what I said to the people in my city, on my team, for every gang member when it comes to hiring and summer internship, we need to be able to provide meaningful summer jobs. When I came in as mayor, the summer internship program was for 450, all working for the city of Houston. This summer we got that up to 20,080 paid internships. I’m very proud of that.
Defender: As you wind down your term, what do you want your legacy to be?
Turner: Impactful. I grew up in the hood. If some kids in communities of color, for example, have been inspired to go beyond what they were thinking, I’m good. Prenatal care for every employee now in City Hall that didn’t have it before. I’m good with that. Every employee, every subcontractor at the city making at least 15 dollars an hour, those are the things that are important. When I came in, what was critically important was investing in communities that have been underserved and under-resourced for decades. And now when you look at the landfill that we are building in Sunnyside, taking a landfill that had shut down that community for 50 years. In 2024, we are building the largest urban solar farm in that neighborhood. It will be a game-changer. Taking a school in Acres Homes and turning it into what we called financial empowerment, focused on innovation. I’m very proud of that, seeing what’s happening in those neighborhoods. So, for me, the legacy that should make people’s lives better. And instead of being an incrementalist, you are transformational in your leadership, if that’s the tagline, you know, I’m good.
Defender: How do you feel about how you’re leaving the city for your successor?
Turner: I feel pretty good about that. We are leaving the city in much better shape than we inherited. I say we because it’s been a team. I have people who have been with me for that full eight years. The next mayor will come in with a budget surplus of more than $400 million. Hell, I wish I had. The next mayor’s not gonna have to deal with the pension crisis. We will hand the baton to the next mayor and his or her team better than the city that I inherited. And we wish them well.
Defender: What’s next for you?
Turner: To be candid, I’m not ready to leave. I told my team we’re working up to December 31st. I don’t know what’s next. I’m not running for office. I’ve ruled that out. Some people are trying to get me to do something in 22024. I say, no. I need my own break. I am trying to finish up this book that I’m working on. I do think that there comes a point in time in which you just have to say the seasons are changing. Take a break. So my season is changing, and sometimes, and I’ve come to the reality that sometimes the best time to move away is when people want you to stay. And when you want to stay, that’s the best time to wave goodbye. So, on December 31st, I’m waving goodbye. And even now, what I’ve said, God, wherever you want me to be, I’m available. But I do think there comes a point in time when sometimes you just need to sit and just be reflective and then say, what’s next? Life has a way of causing you to be more reflective and put things in their perspective. I’ve given 35 years of my life to public service. Maybe it’s about time now for me to reclaim a little bit for me.”