After a three-month legal battle, the Houston Housing Authority has voluntarily withdrawn its threat of eminent domain that had longtime Fifth Ward church leaders up in arms.
Several months ago, HHA had contacted two churches, Christian Fellowship and Latter Day Deliverance Revival Church, about selling its properties so it could build 63 units of public housing and, potentially, a library. When Christian Fellowship told the HHA it wasn't interested, Lance Gilliam of HHA says the authority backed off and no longer considered the library. But as for Latter Day, HHA told the church that if it wouldn't sell its three vacant lots, which had primarily been used for parking and vacation Bible school, it would seize the lots through eminent domain anyway so it could build the apartments.
Liberty Institute then sued the HHA on behalf of both churches (even though Gilliam maintained that they never once even considered bulldozing Christian Fellowship), and argued that the eminent domain violated the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act. In August, an attorney with Liberty Institute, Jeremy Dys, told the Houston Press , “The [HHA] can’t tell the church where it can and can’t do ministry. These men have been there for 60-plus years.”
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Gilliam had told us in August that he felt as though Liberty Institute had portrayed the HHA as big bad government chomping down on small-time churches—even though the HHA had still promised to help Latter Day find other nearby vacant lots to use for parking or ministries. Dys, however, said the church wouldn't be at all interested in relocation of any kind because the churches "were called to these properties."
In a statement released last week, the HHA said it decided to withdraw the eminent domain threat because it did not want to waste money on legal fees that could otherwise be used to invest in housing. It has no plans, however, to withdraw the construction plans for the 63 units.
"Although the decision to retain these three lots makes that task more difficult, it will not stop us," Gilliam said.
For now, the HHA is working with architects to rethink the master plan for at least 30 homes on that same Fifth Ward block—with Latter Day's hybrid parking lot/outdoor ministry fields untouched.