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?

"I've been here for 16 years, trying to do good," says House, who last summer was responsible for the first new home built in Freedmen's Town in 50 years. "But there's been all of these complaints that Gladys House hasn't done anything. Well, the city never would give us the money that they're throwing at Houston Renaissance."

Nonetheless, everyone involved knew better than to ignore Gladys House, who has filed several complaints with HUD alleging bias in the city's awarding of federal housing funds. City housing officials organized meetings with the Freedmen's Town Association and Houston Renaissance, with the hope that the two groups could collaborate.

No one was surprised, however, when, in late summer 1995, Laguarta and House ended their brief affiliation, as philosophically opposed as the day they met. House now accuses Laguarta of stealing her ideas for redeveloping the Fourth Ward, though the homebuilder says House really didn't have much to offer.

"It became clear to us," says Laguarta, "that there was no compatibility on the basis of her skills and resources. Whether it was management style, experience, whatever, there just weren't the ingredients for a successful relationship."

House submitted her own EDI proposal last summer, a development of traditional single-family houses she envisioned would complement historic homes she hoped to rehabilitate. In December, three months after the city approved Renaissance's plan, she filed another complaint with HUD, alleging racial bias that "assured delivery of money to big developers rather than grass-roots, community-based and minority-run Freedmen's Town Association."

The complaint probably killed any chance that House might have of ever contributing to the Renaissance project, either as a subcontractor or by helping find potential buyers for the group. But in the opinion of Rice University's Stephen Fox, Houston Renaissance, by dismissing House's input, set a dangerous precedent for other neighborhoods the organization may have designs on in the future.

Fox says the revitalization of another inner-city community, the West End, is an example of how the Fourth Ward could be rebuilt. The neighborhood, north of Washington in the Shepherd-Durham area, is made up largely of Hispanic renters, most of them poor. In the past few years, a number of more affluent residents have moved in and rehabilitated old homes or built new ones without disrupting the lives around them. But generally, says Fox, community historic preservation is ignored in Houston.

"We tend to see it in extreme situations, which is either preserving it as a kind of perverse museum of racism and poverty or annihilating it and replacing it with something that is totally unconnected in any respect to what was there before."

Because of its past, fashioning the Fourth Ward's future is a sensitive endeavor that has already wrought considerable conflict. But there is little disagreement that something needs to be done.

A decade ago, the National Historic Register recognized Freedmen's Town as "one of the oldest and most important black communities in Houston," providing the "economic, spiritual and cultural focus" for the city's African-Americans.

Passing through the area today, it's difficult to make that connection. Streets are narrow and rutted and in some cases dead-end at litter-strewn lots or abandoned commercial property. Many of the old shotgun shacks are on the verge of collapse or have already fallen to the ground. And the extreme poverty that burdens Fourth Ward residents has prohibited even the spark of private redevelopment activity that you can now find in other depressed neighborhoods.

The average yearly income in the Fourth Ward is less than $10,000. Rents average about $200. Though Renaissance will be publicly subsidized, the nonprofit's success depends on its ability to operate like a private, for-profit developer. So far, that approach has found few real barriers; Renaissance has been able to do what developers do: assemble land, though the organization has no money to actually buy it.

But that's where life as Renaissance knows it ceases to exist. Before it can begin developing its first 680 home sites, the group has to reach an agreement with the city on the use of the $3.4 million grant. According to sources familiar with the negotiations, that has been anything but an easy process, with current talks essentially a struggle for control of the project.

"A lot of people who've been with the city for a long time and have watched this Fourth Ward thing want to see it done right," says one source. "I don't think they're concerned much with who's going to do it, but there's a real sensitivity to low-income people and minorities.

"I think what you've got now is the city in the middle, saying this is what we do and this is why we're here. They can't just write a contract and give it to Houston Renaissance."

Among the points of contention: How Renaissance wants to spend the grant, and what happens if it defaults and fails to generate 350 affordable homes. Correspondence between the group and the city's Legal Department indicate that Renaissance is seeking to delay development of some of the affordable housing units in order to proceed with the purchase of land on which market-rate housing will be built.

That strategy would generate revenue that the nonprofit could use to build out the Fourth Ward according to its master plan, which projects as many as 2,000 homes. It might also provide the capital needed to rebuild other neighborhoods, though Renaissance will not be obligated to develop low-cost housing in those places.

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