No Shame

Real people are being evicted from the Fourth Ward. And real people are responsible for their plight.

Last week, City Council named a downtown skyscraper after Bob Lanier, a tribute that prompted the almost inevitable comparison between the former mayor of Houston and the late Robert Moses, the urban planner who built much of New York City's system of freeways, bridges and tunnels.

"I didn't think we'd ever see another Robert Moses," gushed first-termer Carroll Robinson, just before Council christened the office tower at 611 Walker as the Bob Lanier Public Works Building.

It's a vast overstatement, of course, to compare Lanier's Neighborhoods to Standard and Spark Parks programs to Moses's Holland Tunnel and Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Nevertheless, both men shared an apparently unquenchable desire to transform the urban landscape, and each in his own way improved the world around him.

But Lanier and Moses also shared a less admirable trait: a ruthless ability to ignore the human price of urban redevelopment. To make way for the Cross-Bronx Expressway, for example, Moses flattened millions of square feet of tenement housing, scattering long-established, tight-knit communities to the four winds.

On a lesser scale, but with no greater display of empathy, the Lanier administration ignored the interests of some of the city's most impoverished citizens while helping to bankroll a plan to turn the Fourth Ward into a settlement of upscale townhomes. That Lanier's successor, Lee P. Brown, is now scrambling to help more than 300 people who will soon be displaced from their homes doesn't restore confidence that the city has a heart.

Apologists for the current crisis are of two schools. One consists of those who shrug and say that people who rent their homes have no legitimate complaint when the rightful owner of the property wants to sell it. The other holds that if the city foots the relocation bill for the Fourth Ward, the Brown administration will be saddling itself with a burdensome duty to do the same later, when the residents of other low-income neighborhoods are squeezed out by developers.

The first excuse, which mistakenly presumes that the makeover of the Fourth Ward is a private, market-driven phenomenon, is convenient, but specious. The second, which suggests some balance of compassion and foresight on the part of city officials, is simply self-serving.

They both, however, speak volumes about the moral compass of the city's elected officials, past and present.

The situation wouldn't be nearly as shameful if it weren't so calculated. If, in the first significant challenge of his tenure, Lee Brown burns the residents of the Fourth Ward, it will be because Bob Lanier and his unpaid housing adviser, Michael Stevens, lit the match.

Consider the circumstances of one year ago, not long after Lanier and his Council approved a $3.4 million federal grant to the nonprofit Houston Renaissance for a Fourth Ward redevelopment project that would include 350 units of affordable housing.

Negotiations had bogged down between Renaissance and city housing officials. Among the sticking points was the Uniform Relocation Act, a law that requires beneficiaries of federal housing grants to pay the moving expenses of displaced residents and cover any increase in their rents for up to 42 months.

The law is certainly a burden for developers, but there is a way around it -- they can forget the federal grant and go see a banker.

That wasn't an option for Renaissance, a "private" group that, in fact, had no private money. To date, the nonprofit has mooched some $5 million of public funds to buy up large tracts of Fourth Ward land, courtesy of the Houston Housing Finance Corporation and its president, Michael Stevens.

Moreover, Renaissance has yet to pry a nickel out of local banks, and it won't unless the project receives the $3.4 million grant, plus $8.2 million in public works improvements to the Fourth Ward. That means more than half of an estimated $20 million project will be billed to the taxpayer.

But while the amount of public subsidy required to move the project forward is nonnegotiable, the same cannot be said of the needs of Fourth Ward residents. Last March, Stevens called to order the first meeting of the Fourth Ward Committee of the Houston Housing Finance Corporation. Minutes from that meeting spell out Stevens's plan to dispense with the bother of relocating residents displaced by Houston Renaissance.

According to the minutes, "Compliance with the Uniform Relocation Act would cost an estimated $2.9 million in relocation-assistance payments and would require giving a series of potentially troublesome notices to all of the landowners and tenants in the Fourth Ward."

"As a result," the minutes continue, Stevens retained the law firm of Andrews & Kurth to work with city housing officials "to seek waivers from [the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development] with respect to certain of such notices."

What followed should be of concern to every Houston taxpayer, as well as anyone with an interest in how local government operates. Unable to secure the waivers from HUD, Stevens turned down a $2.1 million federal housing grant and began digging around for city money to fund the Renaissance subsidy.

A month later, on April 17, City Council was asked to approve $3.4 million in homeless and housing bond funds so Houston Renaissance could reimburse the Houston Housing Finance Corporation for land already bought in the Fourth Ward. Councilmembers were given no explanation for the switch in funding sources, at least not one that was discussed in public. But they went ahead and approved it -- which relieved the city and Houston Renaissance of their obligations under the Uniform Relocation Act.

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