On Borrowed Time

The clock is ticking on Houston Renaissance and its inability to do much of anything with the grants and loans it has been given

When last we visited the mother of all neighborhood-to-standards projects back in February, the redevelopment plan for Fourth Ward/Freedmen's Town was little more than an excuse to evict a bunch of poor people from some prime real estate.

The slow but steady demolition of the city's oldest African-American neighborhood was driving the elderly and working poor from their homes and further depleting the city's already pathetic stock of low-cost housing. Meanwhile, Houston Renaissance, Inc., the nonprofit "master developer" hired by the city to deliver 600 new townhouses, condominiums and single-family homes to the Fourth Ward, including 255 units for buyers of limited financial means, had so alienated Mayor Lee P. Brown that he canceled a meeting with advisers to discuss future support of the organization.

Seven months later, Renaissance's relationship with Brown has gone from bad to worse. Last week, at a City Hall press conference, the mayor ordered not one, but two audits of the nonprofit, which has received $8.5 million in public monies from the city and the quasi-governmental Houston Housing Finance Corporation to buy land in the Fourth Ward.

Buried between the lines of the one-page statement from which Brown cribbed his comments last week was the message that Houston Renaissance has milked its last dollar from the taxpayers' teat. While the mayor made assurances that the city would proceed with the creation of a special taxing district to pool funds for construction in the area, Brown conspicuously chose not to invite a single representative of Renaissance to the press conference. Indeed, Brown didn't even bother to notify the group's board of directors before his announcement that both the city and the Houston Housing Finance Corporation would be combing through its books.

In a transparent attempt to throw some sunshine on what has to a bad omen for Houston Renaissance, the nonprofit's secretary/treasurer, Pat Kiley, said Brown's press conference was a welcome event.

"That's really the first public support for the Fourth Ward redevelopment project we've seen out of the [Brown] administration," Kiley said. "That press conference was absolutely critical to us, and even though we were not invited and not mentioned beyond the fact they want to audit us, I take it that we are still the vehicle authorized to do this project."

Brown is clearly not convinced the nonprofit has put forth its best effort to keep the promises made by Renaissance founder Julio Laguarta in October 1996, when City Council approved the organization's bid to rebuild the Fourth Ward. If the mayor has decided to relieve Renaissance of its status as master developer, the audits he ordered from the city and the Houston Housing Finance Corporation, expected to be completed in a few weeks, won't do much to change his mind.

A review of Renaissance's internal accounting records, which were obtained by the Press through the Texas Public Information Act, revealed that, if not for the enormous public subsidies it received, Houston Renaissance would have been forced out of business long ago. Unlike other nonprofits, which produce little or no revenues and therefore operate with some restraint, Renaissance conducts business as if money were no obstacle, engaging in the kind of free-wheeling waste and self-dealing that shows an arrogant disregard for the taxpayers who are picking up the tab.

In June 1996, Renaissance began discussions with a Florida-based consulting company, The Boyd Group, to manage the Fourth Ward project. Despite being awash in taxpayer-funded debt, Renaissance sprang for first-class airfare to bring the firm's owner to Houston for interviews. A couple of months later, Renaissance agreed to pay The Boyd Group $21,000 per month to set up an office in the Fourth Ward and handle the daily operations of Houston Renaissance.

As it turns out, The Boyd Group isn't a group at all, but one person --Robert Boyd, a former executive with Hines Interests, Ltd., and a friend of Harris County Commissioner El Franco Lee. Boyd, who until recently received an additional $6,000 a month to cover the cost of food, lodging and regular trips home to Florida, has yet to hire anyone, nor has he moved Renaissance's operations to the Fourth Ward. He offices rent-free at the north Houston headquarters of the Associated General Contractors, where AGC executive director Pat Kiley, Renaissance's secretary/treasurer, and his assistant, Irona Bennett, provide administrative support.

Though he is clearly not performing the work The Boyd Group was hired to do, Houston Renaissance continues to pay Boyd $21,000 a month. So far, Boyd has been paid more than $270,000 for about a year's work, and his contract with Renaissance still has two years left before it expires.

Boyd's is just one of several consulting agreements that have proven more valuable to the consultant than to Houston Renaissance. In May 1996, for example, Renaissance hired fundraising consultant Heather Bowen to spearhead a campaign to raise $1 million in private contributions. Before her contract expired earlier this year, Bowen had raised less than $100,000. Meanwhile, Renaissance has paid her more than $70,000 in fees.

Renaissance's contract with Denis Calabrese, while hardly the most egregious example, illustrates how the nonprofit's board members have benefited financially from the Fourth Ward project. Calabrese quit the board of directors in 1996 to become Renaissance's public-relations consultant. His one-year contract was actually a $3,000-a-month retainer, so Calabrese was not required to submit invoices before he was paid. Accordingly, Renaissance's records offer no clue as to what work, if any, he actually did.

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