Kathy Payton Houston Mayor Annise Parker

(left) Kathy Payton Houston Mayor Annise Parker

Kathy Payton vacillates between ostensibly different worlds. “I live in a very gray area,” says the 51-year-old president and CEO of the Fifth Ward Redevelopment Corporation  (Fifth Ward CRC) in Houston. She is charged with bringing affordable housing, workforce training programs, and businesses to the historic neighborhood of predominantly African-American residents whose median incomes do not rise above $25,000 per year.

The Houston native grew up in the community she now serves, later attending the predominantly White University of Texas at Austin to study finance in the 1980s. “I was in an environment that expressed to me that, as a Black woman, I had no business [being] there and that I was likely to fail,” she says.  “But that experience taught me to go back and forth from a professional environment to a constituent environment whenever I need to. I’ve been in rooms with presidents and vice presidents and political figures. I’ve traveled around the country, but I can also go sit on the porch with Ms. Mary for a cup of coffee and understand what her issues are.”

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This year, Fifth Ward CRC celebrates its 25th anniversary, recently breaking ground on an initiative to revive the long-defunct Deluxe Theater, which has been vacant for more than four decades. A partnership with the drama department of nearby historically Black college Texas Southern University will provide students with hands-on opportunities to produce and perform in community productions at the theater. Additional items on the Fifth Ward CRC’s docket include what Payton calls the Lyons Avenue Renaissance. “We’re cleaning up our front door,” she says of the main street, with plans for residential and commercial developments, a library and a YMCA within the Fifth Ward’s eight-square-mile center. “People want these amenities in their communities.” 

But not so fast on the big G word, Payton says. “This is not about gentrification. It’s about economic integration. What motivates a lot of for-profit developers is a lot different from what motivates us. And we’re working with groups like Habitat for Humanity to ensure homes are available for low- and moderate-income families.”  For Payton, the math is simple. In a neighborhood that lacks grocery stores, building affordable housing brings in low- and moderate-income families. These families bring pockets, and those pockets bring businesses.

The key to Kathy Payton’s success as a non-profit executive and community leader is simple: passion – a trait that she also requires of her 13-person staff. And passion, Payton believes, can only come by allowing her team to be their authentic selves.

“Our office is like a laboratory, a place where staff can test their ideas with support, regardless of whether they fail or succeed,” Payton says. “I empower the team to create and design projects while allowing them room to fail,” she says.

 “Our bottom line is both qualitative and quantitative. We want to have a positive financial position, but we want to have a meaningful impact on the community,” she says. Meeting the community’s needs, she affirms, requires collaboration and creativity.

For Payton, who has worked for the Fifth Ward CRC since 1994, leading a staff that ranges in age from 17 to 72, poses a chance to identify the company’s assets. “Every couple of years, my team takes the Myers-Briggs [personality test] so we can all understand what makes us tick. We also do organizational assessments that give us a broad view of our strengths and weaknesses.” The results, she says, help create a teamwork-based atmosphere. “My younger staff was technologically savvy, but then I had a 72-year-old employee who liked to hand-write everything but brought problem-solving skills [to the table].  They all work together and say, ‘If you help me do this, I’ll help you with that.’”

Payton may straddle the proverbial fence as a busy executive and born and bred hometown activist. But in her day-to-day dealings, passion and innovation are strict non-negotiables. Though her company’s culture sows into inspiration and ingenuity, there is a single bottom line when it comes to serving the Fifth Ward: “I can teach the skill and the competency. But I can’t teach passion.”