The Great Land Grab

A nonprofit "charity" is pursuing millions in taxpayers' money to redevelop the Fourth Ward. The question for Houston Renaissance is, charity for whom?

Laguarta checked the gleam on his shoes; Tipps, a mournful-looking man relatively new to the city bureaucracy, put his hands in his pockets and looked around. They were only a few feet away from Boney and the others, but they might as well have been separated by the polar ice cap.

"I don't get it," Laguarta said at one point. "I really don't."

It's probably more troublesome than sad that Julio Laguarta professed to be so clueless, for the simple reason that no one involved in Houston Renaissance could be that ignorant of the political realities of urban redevelopment.

There is, however, more than a little self-righteousness, even arrogance, behind the group's approach to rebuilding the Fourth Ward. And if things go as planned, Renaissance hopes to turn the project into a model for rebuilding other distressed inner-city neighborhoods -- a goal that conjures the unpleasant prospect of a bunch of suburban developers tearing into the city's distinctive urban enclaves. Moreover, Renaissance de- scribes itself as a private, nonprofit corporation, a designation that demands some charitable or civic mission. But it's difficult to see what exactly the organization intends to give -- particularly since it is asking the city of Houston to pay for it.

The plan Council approved last fall was to be funded by a $7.4 million Economic Development Initiative grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which would come with another $7.4 million of federal housing loans guaranteed by the city.

According to Houston housing officials, HUD was awash in EDI applications from other cities, which caused an indefinite delay in the funds' arrival. With a number of Renaissance's real estate contracts about to expire, Lanier ordered up $3.4 million in seed money for the group, culled from two separate city housing funds. Despite Yarbrough's tag, Council approved Lanier's request in October so the group could begin assembling land.

Federal regulations stipulate that the money be used in blighted neighborhoods to create large-scale "homeownership zones" for families with a broad range of incomes. Increasing the number of jobs and small-business opportunities is encouraged, and significant contributions are expected from banks, foundations and community-based groups. The feds call it "New Urbanism," and it's worked in places like Boston, Pittsburgh and Richmond, Virginia.

In theory, the program seems almost utopian: the government bringing together the well-off and the poor to live, work and raise their families in harmony. The reality, however, is that prospects for the Fourth Ward seem far less reassuring. For one thing, the private-public partnership between Houston Renaissance, the city and the community is tenuous, at best. While it is still hoped that construction of more than 100 new homes will be under way by year's end, distrust among the partners has tied up contract negotiations on the $3.4 million grant, stalling the evolution of the redevelopment plan.

At the heart of the dispute is, of course, what Houston Renaissance wants to do to the Fourth Ward and how it plans to do it. According to its EDI proposal, the group hopes to "augment" the federal grants and loans with another $85 million, about half of which, Renaissance projects, will come from revenues generated by the sale of land to private builders. Additional public money, in the form of tax credits, mortgage assistance and, perhaps, community development block grants will ultimately be available as well. Renaissance has also begun soliciting contributions from foundations and is negotiating a $7.2 million line of credit with a consortium of banks.

Once the land is purchased, all but a few of Freedmen's Town's old trademark bungalows and shotgun shacks will be demolished. Those worth rehabilitating will be moved to a new "historic district," which will be reduced from 40 blocks to a quaint seven-block theme park. A trolley car route will connect the special district to the rest of the neighborhood, which will be built out to a tightly packed scheme of townhomes, row-house-style structures and commercial space. As many as 25 retail or single-family residences, or a combination of the two, will be constructed on each block, more than double the current density.

The result will render the Fourth Ward unrecognizable from its current state. Although severely depressed, the ward retains a sleepy, small-town feel that is a reasonable approximation of how the neigh- borhood was 100 years ago -- notwithstanding the downtown spires that now hover over its shoulder.

At $5 to $7 a square foot, this is some of the most valuable raw land in the inner city, and developers have long envisioned its potential. A recent study commissioned by Houston Housing Finance Corporation -- the quasi-public city agency headed by Michael Stevens, Lanier's unpaid urban revitalization advisor -- estimates that the Fourth Ward can accommodate as many as 4,000 new housing units over the next ten years.

Houston Renaissance is prepared to develop 2,000 of them in a mix of lofts, condominiums and houses priced from about $75,000 to $150,000. Its plan suggests some apartment units will be built on the east side of the project in the vicinity of I-45. The group also hopes to raise $2 million to acquire land for five parks.

Renaissance is required by law to use the $3.4 million grant from the city for 350 "affordable" single-family homes reserved for households earning 50 to 80 percent of the area median income, which is about $46,000 for a family of four. Prices for those homes will be capped at around $90,000. That's not at all attainable for the people who live in the Fourth Ward now, but it's not supposed to be.

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