By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
On the morning of July 19, 1997, about 75 people gathered in the chapel of Antioch Missionary Baptist Church on Clay Street to talk about how to redevelop an 80-block area of town, stretching from I-45 west to Taft Street between Dallas and West Gray.
As he wrapped up a three-hour presentation on the "new Fourth Ward," David Lee, the urban planner in charge of devising a master plan for the city-funded project, told the few dozen residents in attendance that he aimed to create "a different kind" of neighborhood.
"You guys, I hope, will be involved in every step of the process," Lee said.
It doesn't take much to show just how "involved" residents were in the redevelopment plan for the Fourth Ward.
For one thing, that morning at Antioch, resident after resident, old and young, made repeated reference to the history of Houston's oldest African-American neighborhood. No one wanted to see that history destroyed. Yet the final plan reduced the 40-block section of the Fourth Ward known as Freedmen's Town Historic District to a four-block theme park.
For another, every resident openly worried they'd be unable to afford to live in the new Fourth Ward. That fear is now a reality.
Four years ago land in the neighborhood was valued at about $5 a square foot. Rents averaged about $200 a month, the lowest rates in town, by far. Today a nonprofit taxpayer-financed shell, Hou-Tex Redevelopment Authority, which owns nearly one million square feet of Fourth Ward land, is asking $16 a foot from private developers. Rents on newly constructed apartments are expected to rise to $700 a month, or more, for a two-bedroom unit.
Even the most affordable housing in the redeveloped neighborhood, 400 public housing units, will be out of reach for the Fourth Ward's current residents, now that the Housing Authority of the City of Houston has outlined new admission standards that give preference to higher-income families.
While the housing authority's new policy presents an insurmountable problem for Fourth Ward residents, the City of Houston hasn't done them any favors either. In October 1996 City Council approved a $3.4 million federal grant to Houston Renaissance, less than three months after the group's founder and executive director, Julio Laguarta, a crony of then-mayor Bob Lanier, filed for bankruptcy.
Given that ignominious beginning, perhaps it's not surprising that both the city and its contractor have broken promise after promise to the people of the Fourth Ward.
The worst abuse occurred in March 1997, when officials from the Department of Housing and Community Development agreed to replace the federal funds awarded to Renaissance with city bond money. The reason? Renaissance had neglected to notify Fourth Ward residents of their rights under the federal Uniform Relocation Act, which guarantees rental assistance and other financial aid to households displaced by federally funded projects. The act doesn't apply to city-funded projects.
City housing officials also tolerated apparent violations of Renaissance's grant agreement, including the nonprofit's failure to submit quarterly reports and audited financial statements. The city also stood by mutely while Renaissance doled out professional-services contracts to board members without soliciting bids.
By March, Houston Renaissance had spent some $11 million in taxpayer funds, yet had acquired less than a third of the land it needed to carry out the redevelopment plan. The nonprofit dissolved itself and turned over about 1.1 million square feet of land to its biggest creditor, the Houston Housing Finance Corporation. The project is now in the hands of the HHFC-created Hou-Tex Redevelopment Authority.
Meanwhile, Houston Renaissance remains under investigation by the Texas Attorney General's Office for possible violation of the state's Non-profit Corporations Act. The Harris County District Attorney's Office is also looking into possible wrongdoing by the organization following an audit by City Controller Sylvia Garcia.
The sorry saga of Houston Renaissance is hardly an anomaly. City housing officials have a history of failing to account for taxpayers' money.
In February 1997, for example, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development found that city housing officials had exercised "no contractual control and little or no oversight" of a $1.1 million block grant to renovate two apartment buildings. Moreover, housing officials failed to inform City Council of HUD's findings and secretly paid a $1.1 million penalty to the feds without Council approval.
Earlier this year the HUD inspector general issued an audit that blamed inept management and conflicts of interest for the waste and possible misuse of some $800,000 in federal mortgage-assistance funds. Again HUD took city housing officials to task for failing to maintain proper oversight of taxpayer dollars.
Likewise, city housing officials have turned a blind eye to the human cost of its programs. In February 1998, shortly after some Fourth Ward landlords started notifying tenants that it was time to go, the administration of Mayor Lee Brown ordered the housing department to set up a relocation-assistance program. At the time, Brown bragged that the effort had already helped 33 households.
When the Press requested an update on the city's relocation effort, the housing department provided information that was more than a year old.
As of August 24, 1998, 62 Fourth Ward residents had been "assisted" by the relocation program. That figure, however, is misleading: Only 25 people actually benefited from some type of service, such as transportation, rent or utility assistance or referral to a social service agency. The rest either moved on their own or declined the city's help. Of the $425,000 approved for the relocation program, 14 residents received a total of $5,347.