Dear Houston: “The rent price goes up $200 per month”

On March 25, 2014, I wrote the City Council of Houston a three part letter that included my thoughts on improving the city’s transportation, health, and economics. This is part three of that letter.


“The rent price goes up $200 per month”

My realtor and I worked hard and we found a place that was “semi-walkable” by my definition but that would allow me to walk to work. When I first toured the complex, it was $1,260 for a 700 sq. ft. one bedroom. A week later, when I went back to sign the lease, they informed me that they would only allow me to sign a six month lease at that rate. “What happens after that?” I asked. “The rent price goes to $1,460 per month,” the leasing agent replied.


One of the key selling points for young professionals to move to Houston (and, often, to accept a lower salary in doing so) is that it’s an inexpensive city to live in compared to the North. This isn’t true. Housing prices are rising steeply and quickly because of limited supply and increased demand.


Skyrocketing housing prices and stagnant salaries mean less money to donate, to spend at restaurants and during social activities, to invest, etc. and that doesn’t bode well for the city overall.  If this balance isn’t changed, it’s going to be much harder to attract people to come and live/work in the City of Houston and those of us who do live here will spend less due to being “rent poor.”


I applaud your efforts thus far, but wanted to write you to encourage you to do more. We need commuter rail, we need more living areas that are permanently walkable, and we need housing options that are affordable relevant to our salaries.


I will also be publishing this letter to my blog, not as a means of social pressure, but in hopes of gaining additional thoughts on the subject.


Thank you for all you do for our city.



Nicole Finkbeiner

Dear Houston: “I want to live somewhere walkable”

On March 25, 2014, I wrote the City Council of Houston a three part letter that included my thoughts on improving the city’s transportation, health, and economics. This is part two of that letter.

Part 1: Dear Houston, “Where’s the commuter train station?”

Walking stick figures walking away from the hazard sign to a sign that says "walk more"
From Flickr: Walkable Neighborhood, Mike Licht

“I want to live somewhere walkable”

Using Chicago as a lens in my life, I’ve always wanted to live somewhere where I could walk to work. Or, at the very least, walk to shops and restaurants.  So, when I decided to move into “the loop” I explained to the apartment locator that I wanted “to live somewhere walkable.” Unfortunately, we found that there were very few options in Houston that fit my “walkable” definition and those options were well beyond my budget (defined as 25% of my take-home pay with utilities not factored). That is, unless, I wanted to relive my college days and live in 570 square feet.

Imagine the health benefits if we got in our cars less and, instead, could find affordable housing in truly “walkable” areas.


Part 1: Dear Houston, “Where’s the commuter train station?”

Dear Houston, “Where’s the commuter train station?”

On March 25, 2014, I wrote the City Council of Houston a three part letter that included my thoughts on improving the city’s transportation, health, and economics. This is part one of that letter.


Dear Houston City Council,

I recently read the article in Culture Map about the new Sunday Streets program and would like to share my thoughts on reducing obesity, increasing health, and making Houston a more attractive place to live.


For context, I’d like to share a little about me. I’m a young professional in my early 30’s. I moved to Houston two years ago for work, living first in Tomball/Willowbrook and now in the loop. Originally from Michigan, I frequented Chicago quite often. I am in very good health and work out six days per week on average. While the below comments are constructive, I’d like to emphasize that overall I absolutely love my adopted city of Houston and these are provided as suggestions of making the city even better.


“Where’s the commuter train station?”

One of my first questions when I moved to the Tomball/Willowbrook area was “Where’s the commuter train station?” which lead to some puzzled looks but mostly polite laughs of my ignorance. Having only visited Houston once before moving here, I hadn’t caught on to the fact that transportation isn’t like Chicago, there is no commuter train and you need a car to go practically anywhere.


The City of Houston has made great strides in the past few years to incorporate public transportation into the city, but a lot of work still needs to be done. Adding more lanes, or another tollway, isn’t a long-term solution. As painful as it is, we need to invest in serious commuter rail. That is the only significant way to reduce the congestion.


Not only will it reduce the congestion, but it will also improve the quality of life for many of us. For a while, I was spending an average of 2 1/2 hours per day commuting. Imagine what else I could have been doing with that time.


Unfortunately, however, the project couldn’t end there. The problem still exists when you do arrive in the city. I was shocked at the lack of taxi options and public transportation options within the city.  The trains you’ve built have helped, but there still needs to be more transportation options in the city.


Why I support STEAM (adding arts to STEM) in education


For the past few years, the hot new buzz acronym in education has been STEM, which stands for the four disciplines science, technology, engineering and math.  Everyone from educators to politicians have been promoting STEM education as a way of pulling our country out of the economic recession and securing our economic future as a nation. Recently, there has been a movement to add arts into the educational mix to create an emphasis on STEAM vs. STEM.


Why I support STEAM (adding arts to STEM) in education

I come from a STEM family. The majority of family members are medical professionals and engineers. So, they had hopes that I would be too. And I don’t fault them for that; they wanted what was best for me and STEM jobs usually mean a good income.


I was taken to every “Women in Science and Math” and “Students in Technology” event that my parents could find. I would go, but I’d proceed to sit there and draw or flip through the program and mentally rate the quality of advertisements in it instead of paying attention.


You see, I like STEM; in fact, at one point I wanted to be a marine biologist. But the reality is, STEM isn’t where my strengths are.  I would do very well in my STEM classes, but I’m a marketer through and through, and no matter how much I was encouraged otherwise, I was still more geared towards the arts.


How adding arts improves the model

The STEAM model with arts included opens new doors for education, employment and innovation, and it recognizes people like me as having gifts that can help this nation move forward. One of the biggest false assumptions is that you cannot make a good income if you are in an arts career. The reality is, there’s value in those who can market and sell products and services and, because of that, my income is similar to many STEM jobs.


The other assumption is that arts don’t integrate with the rest of the occupations as well as the others do. This is also not true. I may not use science or engineering in my role often,   but I absolutely utilize technology and, as I pointed out to a marketing student recently, if you’re planning to work as a marketing director, you had better be very good at math.


Trevi Fountain in Rome Italy
A large portion of Italy’s prosperity (including tourism) can be linked to the inclusion of arts. From Flickr: cfwee

Allowing people to follow their talents

In addition, we should be looking at the natural talents of our people and matching them with careers that will utilize those talents so they can excel to their full potential.


I know of several friends who are in the middle of career transitions because they’ve come to realize that they aren’t happy with their work. In most cases, there is nothing wrong with their chosen career, it’s just not where their natural talents are, so they struggle in it and/or don’t find joy in it.  Imagine, as an example, someone naturally talented at engineering being a painter. I’m not saying this combination couldn’t work, but I am saying that, in most cases, the person geared toward engineering would struggle less, be happier, and be more productive in an engineering job. The opposite is also true for an arts-oriented person.


So, adding arts creates some opportunities for people to utilize their natural talents in a way that can benefit us all. That’s why I support the movement to focus on STEAM.

Economic Development Series: Assess market potential before accepting grant funds

Grants or funding from organizations in order to foster economic development can be a very positive way to increase the economic climate in a local community and, in most cases, I am in full support of them. However, in order for a community to make any outside funding successful for them, one of the things a community must first do is assess the market potential for the program.

When a marketer is considering introducing a new product or service, one of the first questions he or she will address is, “Is the current landscape one that can support this product or service and make it profitable?” There are a wide variety of factors in making this decision including:

  • Size of the target market for the product or service.
  • The needs of the target market.
  • The ability of the target market to purchase the product at a price/frequency that will be profitable to the marketer.
  •  The competitive landscape.

and more.

Similarly, when a community is looking at the potential of accepting grant funds that, in turn, require the community to start a new initiative, they should also be looking at these factors and determining if accepting the funds is the best thing for the community.

Photo from Flickr: 401k 2012

Fictional Example:

A national organization is offering a community a $10,000 first year grant and $1,000 each year thereafter to begin a new young adult program to facilitate youth community involvement. In order to accept the funds, the community has to form an organization under the grantee’s name and must agree to follow the mission, all the guidelines and all the bylaws outlined by the grantee. With this example in mind, let’s go through some of the assessments above:

  • Size of target market – There seems to be enough youth in the community to justify a program for youth involvement.
  • The needs of the target market – The high schools in the area offer in school and after school activities open to all of the young adults in the area. Local churches in the area each have their own youth groups and these youth groups do a lot of community service with the youth they serve. The community also has an active community foundation and they run a wide variety of youth involvement programs. This is our first red flag and leads us to question: Do the youth of the community need another option? Is the lack of involvement from the youth that aren’t involved because their involvement need isn’t being met? Or is to because of another reason?
  • The ability of the youth to be involved – The young adults of this generation have more homework, usually participate in one or more after-school activities year-round, and, because of having two working parents, are shouldering more responsibilities at home. In addition, the current young adult groups in the community report that they have a hard time getting the young adults to show up on a consistent basis due to their other obligations. This is our second red flag and leads us to question: Do the youth of the community have time to participate in another group? Do they even have time to become more involved in their community? Are they already sufficiently involved in their community?
  • Competition – As mentioned in the above assessment of needs, there are a wide variety of community involvement groups already in the community. Also, as already mentioned, the current community groups are struggling to maintain reasonable membership numbers because of the current commitments of the youth. In addition, each of the groups currently established have similar agreements with their grantees that make it difficult for them to work together or merge because each has to maintain the identity and follow the guidelines of their grantees. This is our third red flag: There is tough competition for youth involvement and another organization may either fail completely or further reduce the size of the other groups aimed at the same goal (since merging is not an option).

With the above information, should the community accept the grant funding? My recommendation would be no, unless they could use the funds towards one of the groups that already exists. Yes, the money is attractive, but in the long run, if the goal is to increase youth involvement, adding one more group may not be the solution and will probably hurt the community’s overall effort to increase youth involvement.

Obviously the above example is a bit of an extreme. And, again, most of the time, I support the use of grant funds to develop a community. But, the above is a good example using the marketing practice of assessing the current marketing landscape prior to launching a new product or service and applying similar criteria before accepting grand funds so that the community can focus only on grant funding that will create a positive long-term impact.

Economic Development Series: 4 Insights on Attracting Young Professionals

The past three years, I’ve been actively involved in the creation of a young professionals networking group. One of the great things about being involved is that I have the opportunity to converse with a wide variety of young professionals, economic developers, community leaders, and politicians about what young professionals are looking for in a community and how to attract them to a community. The main conclusion from these discussions is that we are still trying to figure it out, but below are four insights that have come from those conversations.

1) We need to further segment the term “young professionals”

After giving a presentation on the young professionals group to our local Rotary Club, one Rotarian raised her hand and asked, “Do you notice that the group separates based on the two generations at your events?” She went on to expand on her question and explained that, as a 39 year old, it would seem odd to hang out with a 21 year old.

This one question made me think about the fact that, as a marketer, I usually recommend no larger than a ten year span for a target audience. But, for young professionals, we usually define them as being between 21 and 40 years old. That is a significant age gap and, it especially is given the number of significant life changes most people make during those years. Perhaps we need to further segment them by generations.

A young man and an older man sitting next to each other on the bus.
Probably a little extreme (I’m guessing the guy on the right is over 40, but nonetheless illustrates my point. Could you really see these two becoming each others best friend? Perhaps a mentoring relationship is more likely?.Photo from Flickr: Joi

2) Community first, job second

It seems ironic, but after reading the Rise of the Creative Class by Richard Florida and surveying a wide variety of young professionals, I found out that, even in this difficult economy, young professionals are usually choosing where they want to live FIRST, and then looking for a job second. This could be as broad as a “city over 1 million in the southwest” or as narrow as “Chicago.” This challenges traditional economic development thinking, I know, but here are two examples that illustrate the point:

Example 1:

One of my friends and her husband knew they wanted to move. So, they spent a few years researching the best communities for young professionals to live in, the best communities for their interests, etc. Then, they spent their vacation time traveling to each of the communities and ultimately made a decision which one to move to.

Example 2:

This example sounds unusual, but it isn’t. Two of my young professional friends wanted to move to New York City. They weren’t able to find jobs while in Michigan (perhaps because cutbacks in business’ budgets don’t allow them to pay interview travel expenses and moving expenses?), so they both saved their money, and eventually just quit their jobs and moved there. Both were able to find jobs in a few months.

3) Marital status and number of children determine benefits

“Battle Creek is so boring! There is no nightlife, there’s nothing to do here. It drives me crazy,” stated one of my friends. “Are you kidding me? Battle Creek is great! We’ve got safe neighborhoods, lots of parks, great schools, and a lot of stuff to do,” chimed in another.

Why the drastic difference in opinion about the same city? Both are young professionals and are about the same age, but one is single with no children and one is married with three children and a fourth on the way. They want different benefits from a community. The single young professional with no children wants entertainment and nightlife, the married with children young professional is looking for what’s best for his entire family.

It’s rare for a community to be able to fulfill what both are looking for. I truly believe communities need to play up whichever one they are stronger in and focus on that to be successful. “But if we can attract the young professionals with jobs, they will meet someone here, get married, and move into the second category, and we will keep them for a long time,” goes the argument for targeting both, but I think this argument is making two unproven assumptions:

  • Young professionals will come to a community for the jobs – See the Community First, Jobs Second portion of this posting.
  •  They will meet someone in the town and marry them – That is provided they stick around long enough to do so and that they don’t meet someone who lives somewhere else (a very likely possibility if they are traveling to get their entertainment fix or because of internet dating).
When young professionals begin having children, what is important to them in a community changes. And, they tend to move close to mom and dad. Photo from Flickr: Giena.It

4) Where are Mom and Dad?

Parents influence young professionals’ decisions as to where he/she/they will live because:

  • The up and coming generation has very strong relationships with their parents. They don’t have as much of a drive to forge their own path (although some still do).
  • Once a young professional has children, having grandparents nearby to create a strong support network and to create strong relationships with the children becomes important.
  • Many young professionals are still economically dependent on their parents or want their parents nearby in case they do need economic support (job loss, unexpected bills, etc.)

So there are my thoughts and that’s all they are, but hopefully they will take our conversations of attracting young professionals deeper and into new directions.