The Battle Over Brentwood

To one side, it's a question of power; to the other, it's a question of homophobia. For both it's a question of whether a community, once sundered, can ever be bound together again.

"He talks about our lack of intelligence on this," Gill adds in a measured voice. "Most people who live here are highly educated. We are not used to being treated this way."

Retired assistant schoolteacher Joe Mooney agrees. "I resent the implication that we're ignorant about AIDS, and homophobic," he complains while a grandchild in purple Barney slippers stumbles about happily at his feet. "Some people may be, but that's not the real issue. It's the multifamily part of it, with the possibility of disturbance because of its residents. It's not the facility itself -- I think it's a good thing."

"I really like this neighborhood with the peace and quiet it has now," Mooney adds, a little apologetically. "I'm selfish in that I want to keep it the same."

But Brentwood resident and church member Joe Connor passionately supports the project and doesn't care who knows it. "What's the big deal about AIDS housing? They can put Peru over there. How's that going to knock down from my house?" snorts Connor. "Yes, the reverend made a mistake by not informing the neighborhood of his plans. But everyone makes mistakes."

Slowly waving his index finger, Connor adds, "This isn't about AIDS. This is about power. You can't move the reverend. They wish they could, but they can't."

It's late Sunday afternoon, and shadows are spreading around the frail trees on the property of Brentwood Baptist. The Reverend Joe Ratliff is in his office. The AIDS housing plans are due for a series of last-ditch discussions between Brentwood Baptist, the civic club and the city attorney's office, he explains. Maybe they can reach some kind of accord.

"We've been here, good neighbors, for a long time. We give 60 scholarships a year to the community," Ratliff says. "It's not like we're outsiders, some developers who've just come in. People have missed the big picture." As Ratliff likes to point out, both the 8,000 members of his congregation and the Brentwood residents "come from somewhere." He means from the worst wards in Houston, and poor towns and scrawny farmsteads all over the South. They have so much in common, he seems to feel, that something as small as a quartet of cottages should not keep them apart.

Not all of Ratliff's Brentwood neighbors, sadly, agree. Some say that, like the oversized dome with its window straight to the sky, the pastor is so concerned with looking to the future that he's forgotten the hardworking people who live right outside the church walls. David Syrus claims that arrogance was underlined at the attempted negotiation. When Brentwood residents asked to put a member on the corporation board, Syrus maintains, Ratliff said such a role could only be advisory.

Whether that's true is uncertain; Syrus admits he himself didn't attend the meeting, and participants made a gentleman's agreement not to discuss it publicly. But what's unquestioned is that the attempts at mediation have failed; March 8 was the deadline for compromise. Now that that time has passed, it's left to the courts to decide.

To Gene Harrington, president of the AIDS Equity League, that's unfortunate. The City Council should have dealt with the issue more reasonably, and to the letter of the law, than emotionally, he says. "It's easy to find the homeowners at fault," says Harrington. "But that's real simplistic. There's no question that ownership of property is the biggest investment of people's lives, and no one is going to say that input from the neighborhood is unimportant."

"Unfortunately," Harrington adds, "When you weigh what you have to weigh, the law is on the AIDS project's side."

Indeed, according to various experts, legally the issue appears less than complex. The church owns the land it wants to build on, it was approved for funding, and since the Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination against disabilities, including AIDS, removing that funding was almost certainly against the law.

Syrus, of all people, agrees. Pulling his blue pickup into the Eagle Food Mart parking lot near Brentwood's entrance, he says quietly, "Legally, they're probably going to win." Sooner or later, Syrus knows he'll probably step out onto his flawless Landmark Street lawn and see Brentwood Baptist Church's latest vision become a reality. The drab, vine-tangled battlefield at the center of Brentwood's dispute will, one day, probably hold the four dreaded cottages, and it's likely they will be as immaculate and well-tended as the neighboring sanctuary with its big dome.

But even that knowledge won't stop David Syrus, or Huey Fonteno or many of their neighbors, from pouring their souls into this fight. After all, it's the ethic of a lifetime. "Neither side is going to give in," Syrus says. "You can't just lie down, whether you win or lose. You have to stand for something.

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