Once More Unto the Village, Dear Friends, Once More!

On location with Henry G., Henry C. and Mayorbob

Allen Parkway Village, our local monument to social and political gridlock, was the subject of yet another public debate on December 4. This one was presided over by the grand old man of Texas progressive politics, Henry B. Gonzalez, the Democratic congressman from San Antonio. Gonzalez is chairman of the House Banking Committee's Subcommittee on Housing and Community Development; it was in this capacity that Gonzalez called this "field hearing" held in the community center of APV itself. The congressman was denied the venue in 1985, when he first came to investigate the Housing Authority of Houston's seeming inability to find useful ways to spend the $8.5 million then appropriated to rehabilitate the World War II-era housing complex.

Some things have changed in eight years. This time, Gonzalez bemusedly pointed out, the Housing Authority (HACH) welcomed him to the Village, even providing transportation from the airport. And this time, there's nearly $45 million in political limbo for public housing while the city, the federal government and, when permitted, the Village residents debate what to do about it.

Even the participants were uncertain why Gonzalez called the impromptu hearing at just this time -- several speakers on the two public panels were informed of the hearing only a few days before. The simplest theory offered was that "Congress is in recess, and that's when Gonzalez has the time." But according to the congressman's own written statement, the specific impetus was HUD's recent decision to approve an HACH plan for that $45 million, supported by Mayor Bob Lanier. The city's plan calls for the renovation of 150 units, the demolition of almost all of the nearly 1,000 current apartments in the Village, "one-for-one" replacement public-housing units in "scattered sites" around Houston -- and the sale to private interests of most of the remaining land, for commercial development.

Gonzalez's statement, reiterated at the hearing, pointedly questioned the ability of the city and HACH to provide adequately the "one-for-one" replacement described in its plan, submitted and previously approved as a grant proposal for HUD's Urban Revitalization program. He also pointed out, in bold and intimidating capital letters, a more salient difficulty: The city's proposal is illegal. As Gonzalez put it:

THIS IS IN DIRECT CONTRAVENTION OF THE AMENDMENT THAT THE LATE REP. MICKEY LELAND (D-HOUSTON), REP. MARTIN FROST (D-HOUSTON) AND I PUT INTO LAW IN 1988 THAT SPECIFICALLY PROHIBITS THE USE OF ANY FEDERAL FUNDS IN ANY FISCAL YEAR TO DEMOLISH ALLEN PARKWAY VILLAGE.

Whatever force HUD's approval of the HACH plan had when it was given, it was scuttled by HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros before the hearing even began. Entering the Village grounds, Cisneros was surrounded by local TV crews eager to discover whether the photogenic secretary was running for the Senate (he said no). Cameras on him, Cisneros pulled Lanier aside to announce that in order to demonstrate "good faith" to all and sundry that there was no secret or sinister plan to allow public lands to be sold for private gain, he was asking the mayor to join him in a pledge not to sell "one square foot" of public land to private interests.

An obviously agitated Lanier didn't respond to Cisneros directly. When a reporter pointed out that Cisneros's newly announced vision of a redeveloped, entirely low-income residential Village made corned-beef hash of the mayor's standing proposal, Lanier said he wasn't tied to any particular plan but believed conditions at APV to be entirely unlivable.

While Cisneros and the mayor fended off the media swarm, a few feet away stood Gonzalez, speaking in Spanish to a lone reporter. A fan came up to have her picture taken; another, a big man in a cowboy hat, towered over the small, portly congressman and buttonholed him about some other big Houston scandal that needed the congressman's immediate attention. Gonzalez said he'd try to find the time.

Lanier was still unhappy. Moving toward the hearing room, he was confronted briefly by Sissy Farenthold about his plans for demolition. He didn't want to hear it. Referring to the run-down condition of the unmaintained (by HACH) APV apartments, he asked her, "Have you visited these places?... And you think this is a place for people to live? Oh, bullshit. That's bullshit!"

While not quite an anti-climax to the backstage maneuverings, the hearing itself predictably produced more heat than light. The mayor presented his proposal, but it had already been undercut by both the congressman and the secretary, and whatever the explicit outcome of the day's discussion, Lanier, HACH and HUD were clearly headed back to the drawing board. The mayor seemed as much dismayed as angry by the most recent turn of events, and argued plaintively that he was not to blame for the history of the current impasse. The audience was packed with media types, government-watchers and, most noisily, loud defenders of Allen Parkway Village -- who reacted with heckling and booing to any suggestion other than a complete rehabilitation of the original APV, exactly as constituted in 1944. I didn't detect much sympathy for the mayor's plight. He spoke explicitly as somebody who had "been in the business" of land development and insisted that his political interest was only to do "the most good for the most number of people" for the least amount of money.

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