Houston, Once Removed
Like many natives of Houston, William Ohrt begins his morning commute by backing a Toyota Land Cruiser onto the new cement of a prim, tree-lined street. He idles along at a responsible 20 miles per hour -- with an eye out for joggers -- nods to the guard of his gated community and braces for 45 minutes of grueling traffic.
But Ohrt will not cross Loop 610 or crawl down the Katy Freeway. He's 6,000 miles away in an upscale housing development he helped build on the fringe of Accra, the capital of the West African nation of Ghana. And when he passes the gate of his tidy suburban enclave, his commute is sometimes stalled by herds of inner-city goats, potholes the size of televisions and crowds of pedestrians carrying sack lunches of deliciously spicy snail soup.
Ohrt is the director of the Ghanaian-American housing company Regimanuel Gray. Founded in 1991 as a partnership between Houston developers David Gray and John Passler and Ghanaians Regina and Emmanuel Botchwey, the company was created to use American know-how to build quality homes for Ghana's growing middle class. Twelve years later, Regimanuel Gray is now Ghana's largest private housing developer, and has begun to reshape the urban landscape of Accra.
Born in 1954 in Shreveport, Louisiana, Ohrt moved at age 13 to Houston, where he attended Memorial High School. He paid his way through Texas A&M University by working as a carpenter and graduated in 1979 with a bachelor's degree in construction technology. He worked for several Houston construction companies before joining David Gray's firm, Gray Construction, in 1985, where he rose to regional project manager. Before joining Regimanuel Gray in 1992, he had no international work experience and had never been to Africa, but he was ready to try something new. "I was sort of in between marriages and in between projects and I said, 'Okay, I'll come over and take a look.' "
Houston Dynamo vs. Sporting Kansas City
TicketsSat., May. 7, 7:45pm
Rice Owls Men's Baseball vs. University of Houston Cougars Baseball
TicketsTue., May. 10, 6:30pm
U of H Cougars Baseball v Texas A&M Corpus Christi
TicketsWed., May. 11, 5:00pm
Rice Owls Men's Baseball vs. Florida Atlantic University Owls Baseball
TicketsFri., May. 13, 7:00pm
Ohrt liked what he saw. A young nation free of British rule for less than 50 years, Ghana was still struggling with how to transform its capital city -- where the population had topped one million -- into a place where the lights turned on and the toilets flushed. "Everything was very underdeveloped, much more so than now," Ohrt says. "So everywhere you looked, there was an opportunity." And where Ohrt grasped it was in a vision for Accra's suburban landscape. Ghana's capital was a fast-growing city in need of affordable housing, a polluted metropolis with empty land at the fringe, and a place of potential where safe subdivisions could outfit young couples with the building blocks of independence.
The future of Accra, Ohrt decided, was Houston.
Step off an air-conditioned 747 onto the tarmac of Accra's Kotoka International Airport, and the air sloshes around you and seeps into your clothes like a wet overcoat plucked from the spin cycle. Inhale and it gushes into your lungs and sets up camp as a sort of permanent squatter on the doormat of your cilia. It is heavy, sooty and rude -- an introduction to a city that feels oddly familiar.
Find a cab at the edge of the airport -- there's no public transportation within sight -- and drive. A half-hour blur of nondescript strip centers gives no hint of progress or destination. The cabbie reassures loudly as his roaring machine trembles. And then the blur slows, revealing a hotel in a seemingly isolated outpost near an overpass. Only later does one learn that, like Houston, Accra is a city without a center, a place where the roads are the star attraction.
The number of freeway overpasses in Ghana's capital can be counted on one hand, but all of them are objects of intense national pride. An overpass experience often happens in this way: A dented cab clatters over a pocked two-lane road; the pavement suddenly smooths out; the cab speeds up; the lanes grow to three, then four; a sign announces that tax dollars paid for this magnificent improvement; and -- whoosh! -- a bridge swoops overhead and the road returns to a potholed stutter.
The bad roads in Accra breed traffic, but not enough to discourage anyone with an automobile from driving, and driving fast. People in Accra love their cars almost as much as Houstonians. Blame the heat, the sprawl or the fact that the sidewalks have crumbled into oblivion. As in Houston, constant crashes dissuade no one. A cab sat on the road in front of the national theater for several hours when I was in town -- surrounded by a pool of glass, upside down. Onlookers barely paused.
But most people in Accra still don't go by auto, and here the two cities part ways. Although Houston faces poverty, the average Accra resident lives in a crumbling cement condo or a clapboard house overflowing with cousins and uncles and chickens. Most people struggle to earn enough for clothes and food, not liability insurance and gas money. They ride to work for a quarter in packed VW vans. Or dodge cars on skinny dirt paths worn into the side of the street, carrying eggs, plantains, little bags of nuts -- anything passersby might purchase -- and inhaling plumes of diesel along the way.
For the well-off and mobile, Accra offers few attractions. Crime is common; trees, parks and zoning scarce. Beachfront property is an afterthought, used by the poor as a latrine. The city imposes the sort of harsh, lusterless landscape familiar to anyone unlucky enough to walk the 200 block of West Gray or the intersection of Webster and Travis. Most of Houston's middle class long ago fled these eyesores for the antiseptic suburbs, but until recently, Accra's business managers and bureaucrats put up with the city's urban shortcomings. There wasn't really much to call a proper suburb near Accra until Ohrt arrived.
The catalyst for Regimanuel Gray occurred several thousand feet in the air in the late 1980s. Houston real estate developer Passler was sitting next to Representative Tom DeLay on an airplane. The Texas housing market had imploded, and Passler asked the congressman where to go to make money. DeLay turned to him and delivered some advice that company lore has reduced to a simple nugget: "Go to Ghana."
Passler did, and he was impressed. Ghana was one of the few developing countries stable enough to pay back debt to the World Bank, the official language was English, and most people were Christian. He connected with Gray and looked into funding a Ghanaian gold mine, a plan that never panned out.
Passler began prospecting for investments in an industry more familiar to him when he attended a fair in 1990 held by the Ghana Real Estate Developers Association. Two of the featured developers were Regina Botchwey and husband Emmanuel, the owners of Regimanuel Limited. Their exhibit showcased an affordable home conceived to grow with a family through easy additions. "It was designed to meet the demands of the average Ghanaian," Regina says. "You have somewhere to rest your head, somewhere to live, and if you want to later, you can expand."
Gray jumped on the new idea, and by the next year, 80 percent of the funding for the rechristened Regimanuel Gray began to come from Houston. But money wasn't the only export. Gray knew the company needed an experienced Houston developer, so he sent the newly single Ohrt.
Ohrt arrived in Accra in 1992 on a two-year assignment and set up office in a metal shipping container in the Botchweys' backyard. "We were really on top of one another," he says. "We were like rats in a cage." The company began with 15 employees who communicated over a two-way radio.
Ohrt was shocked at the difficulty of working in Ghana. Visibly naive, white and rich, he handed out business cards that could have been neatly printed invitations to a looting. He soon became suspicious of nearly everyone. And even the honest contractors were slow and inefficient. He quickly learned that in Ghana, "You don't just pick up the phone or send an e-mail and say, 'I need things Tuesday.' "
When Ohrt arrived in Ghana, the company was still mired in its first project: nearly 200 affordable duplex-style homes under construction in a new subdivision called Community 14. Located in an Accra suburb, Tema, the land was leased from the government, which had acquired it from a tribal chief. Many of the chief's subjects demanded more money for the land and blocked work crews. "They revolted," says Regina Henning, Regimanuel Gray's U.S. sales representative. "So a couple of times we had to stop construction."
The last units were finished in 1993, and they were better in some ways than anything people in Accra had ever seen. The water flowed, the electricity buzzed, the streets were level and contiguous. And the whole community cohered in a giant homogenous block. No racks of fluttering newspapers were lodged into the street corners, no tilapia cookeries, no kitchen-scissors hair salons, no used-parts stands. This was all the more novel because the houses were sold to average folk. Community 14 was the first project to pair with the new Home Finance Company, Ghana's equivalent of HUD, and loans helped people buy new duplexes for $18,000 -- less than the price of a new car.
Ohrt moved his office from the cramped shipping container five years ago into a glass tower with a view of the ocean. A guard waves visitors into the neatly landscaped parking lot. On the top floor, Ohrt sits across a massive wooden desk and assesses the company's growth potential in an accent that has become slightly Ghanaian. "The opportunity is still there," he says with clipped, staccato t's. "You just have to keep chipping away at it."
"Chipping" doesn't quite describe how Regimanuel Gray has come to dominate Accra's housing market in recent years; developments have sprung up in imposing chunks. The company built Communities 15, 18, 19 and 20 in Tema -- each a subdivision of hundreds of homes. Business was so good that other companies started mimicking the projects. One even took Regimanuel Gray's glossy brochure, whited out the company's name and inserted its own.
Regimanuel Gray competes by relying on Ghana's cheap local labor. A steel bender earns $5 a day, a mason $2 and a general laborer less than a buck fifty. With wages this low, the company eschews most mechanized equipment for work crews of up to 2,000. "We've built sites with 300 houses where there is not a single power tool on the whole project," Ohrt says. "Basically, people come with a plastic bag, a saw and a hammer, and that's it."
Yet the low wages in Ghana also have a downside. In a country where the average income hovers around $350 a year, a seemingly cheap $18,000 duplex costs a fortune. Although the Home Finance Company made the houses affordable to many buyers, a few years later people had begun to default on their loans.
To understand the limits of Regimanuel Gray's expansion, one need only look out the window of Ohrt's office building. Four goats stroll past the lounging guard, and an open dirt sewer flows along the opposite edge of the road. On the other side of it begins a neighborhood of shanties, homes with stones on their tin roofs to keep them from blowing away. Tables planted on the hard dirt stoops display brooms for sale and small bags of laundry detergent. Chickens squawk and clotheslines blow in the wind. A woman stands by a meager fruit stand in a flower print dress. She offers a banana for 13 cents, an orange for six cents and a tiny bag of nuts for a penny.
Ghana's poverty could have spelled the end of Regimanuel Gray if not for the inflow of the same lucre that first launched the company: foreign money. Ohrt quickly discovered that many of his customers were Ghanaian expatriates living in Houston, New York and London, who wanted to buy a quality house back in their homeland. For these buyers, $18,000 was nothing. And for some, $218,000 was wasn't much either. So Regimanuel Gray changed focus.
Accra is undeniably a sprawling jumble, but suburban enclaves of the American stripe are rare. The company had taken steps in that direction with its first subdivisions, but Ohrt knew Ghanaians abroad would want more. They had lived in places like Wimbledon Champions, Crown Oaks and the Village of Afton Woods. Where the real gold mine lay, he decided, was inside the walls of Ghana's first major gated community.
One of Ohrt's best friends, Ghanaian software engineer Herman Chinnery-Hesse, who had attended Southwest Texas State University in 1988, recalls the day Ohrt told him about his plans. "He said, 'We are going to build something in Ghana and it is going to be like The Woodlands -- the community in Houston.' It was going to be really novel and nobody could really conceptualize what it would be like."
When Accra's government housing officials first saw the plans, they nixed them. They had been trained in the schools of France and Germany, where urban planning didn't involve blocks of 600 houses in the middle of nowhere surrounded by a fence. So Ohrt loaded them onto a plane in 1995 and flew them to see the best gated communities in the most developed country on the continent: South Africa. "Because of the security concerns," he says, "this is something they had been building for a long time."
Bureaucratic opposition neutralized, Ohrt still faced incredible challenges. He negotiated a 99-year lease with a tribal chief for land near the airport. The overloaded government would have dallied for years before connecting the distant subdivision to water and electricity, so Ohrt laid his own pipes and strung his own power lines. He erected guard towers to prevent looting. And he eventually opened his own factory to manufacture cement blocks for the project. There was little doubt that all of this work was worth it. Even before the gates of the community opened, cosmopolitan Ghanaians such as Chinnery-Hesse had lined up to buy new homes.
Golden Gate, the first subdivision in the East Airport development, opened in 1998 to great fanfare. Television crews filmed the opening ceremony, replete with some of Ghana's most prominent citizens. Traditional Ghanaian drummers and dancers in yellow performed before Ohrt, who wore a plain Western suit. The company has grossed more than $37 million from the project. Like many developers of suburban redoubts in Houston, Regimanuel Gray now profits not despite urban poverty and crime, but because of them.
In the one-room office of the U.S. headquarters of Regimanuel Gray near Sharpstown Mall, the professional wrestler action figures Undertaker and The Rock greet potential clients. A WWF calendar hangs on the back wall, and when the door closes, it reveals a life-size poster of Triple H. If these burly figures evoke a sense of protection for visitors, their presence might be good for business. Many Ghanaians prefer to work with the U.S. office because they think it's more secure, says Henning, the company's only U.S.-based employee.
"A lot of Ghanaians feel safer sending their money to the office here," she says, sitting behind her wrestler-bedecked desk, wearing a heart pendant and expansive librarian glasses. "Much of that is because of what has gone on in their country. There are a lot of dirty, underhanded things that happen there. I think that is one reason Regimanuel Gray has done so well, because they trust us."
Regimanuel Gray exuberantly advertises its American affiliations. Its Web site and brochures offer "an assemblage of dedicated top calibre local and expatriate personnel." And they refer to the role of Gray Construction: "A U.S. firm with substantial construction interests in the United States." Founded by Gray in 1971, the company no longer exists, but Gray's long résumé as a Houston developer continues to lend Regimanuel Gray cachet.
During the 1970s and '80s, Gray Construction built such Houston landmarks as River Oaks Tower, The Greenbriar and Woodway Centre. Gray closed the business in 1993 and started Global Construction two years later to focus on apartments. Global Construction built projects in 20 states over the past 11 years, including Balawoods, Bardin Greene and Memorial Heights in Houston, and Lake Wyndmere in The Woodlands.
Global Construction's sprawling office suite envelops the small Regimanuel Gray bureau, which displays no distinguishing marquee. Henning spends most of her time working in Global Construction's accounting department and keeps her Regimanuel Gray files in the bottom drawers of two metal filing cabinets and in a pile behind her desk. There is, in fact, nothing in her office to indicate any tie with Ghana.
This being a slowdown period for apartment construction in the United States, the office of Global Construction is a somewhat sleepy place. But about once a week, the secretary picks up the phone and a Ghanaian is on the line. She can't understand English as it is spoken by Ghanaians, Henning says, so she hurriedly replies, "Oh, you want to talk to Gina," then slams down the receiver and transfers the call.
Sales inquiries to the American office have trickled off in recent years from a high of about five per week, a trend attributable to the U.S. economy. But Regimanuel Gray is much more global than Global Construction. It opened a second satellite office in London two years ago and now receives ten to 15 calls per week from interested Ghanaians in Europe. Nearly 70 percent of the company's business now comes from Ghanaian expatriates around the world. "Ghanaians have spread out, most definitely," Henning says. "I even got a call from Japan from a Ghanaian man who was a schoolteacher there."
Another demographic phenomenon working to the company's advantage is the desire of Ghanaians to own a home. "It is part of our culture," Botchwey says. "If you reach a certain age and you don't own your house, we look down on that. You must own your home, and at least leave something for your kids." Many Ghanaians abroad buy homes with no intention of occupying them for years. Some plan to return to Ghana for retirement, to take advantage of the lower cost of living.
"It's kinda sorta a traditional thing," says Nana Adwoa Abeasi, a design engineer in Atlanta who has lived in the United States for eight years and hopes to retire in Ghana. "Land is a sign of wealth back home. So being able to own a house is an important opportunity and a step in life."
Gray stepped into a new home in Jensen Beach, Florida -- and retirement -- several years ago but remains active in the U.S. housing industry as an adviser to his children, both of whom own franchises of the HomeVestors Company. Though highly lucrative, HomeVestors isn't the type of business likely to receive mention in the Regimanuel Gray brochure. The venture's billboards can be seen all over Houston. They say: "We Buy Ugly Houses." The company most often purchases homes in disrepair, fixes them and resells them at a profit.
Despite the American flavor of Regimanuel Gray, the involvement of U.S. investors has diminished. Passler left the company in 1992 for "personal reasons," Ohrt says, and by 1997 Gray had reduced his financial stake in the company from 80 percent to 40 percent. Ohrt, however, has acquired a minority share in the business.
But Jennifer Nyantakyi, a marketer for a technology company who moved to New York City from Ghana 13 years ago, cares less about who constructs her dream home in Ghana than how the house is built and where it's located. "It's definitely important to live in a place where I can get connected to electricity," she says. "Being that I have lived in the United States for a long time, I definitely cannot use gas lamps any longer. And I need piped water."
She wants a place where she can escape urban Accra but keep all of the urban amenities. "A combination of both agricultural and community areas," she says. "That's what I would prefer."
Taking a cab to Regimanuel Gray's East Airport community from downtown Accra requires a map, because the cabbies rarely go that far. One starts on Independence Avenue, passes a roundabout onto Liberation Road, and watches the pavement get newer and smoother. After a right on Spintex Road, development slowly fades away, save for a soda factory, an American-flag-motif bar and a few roadside vendors of wooden doors. Then from an expanse of brush and dust rises a sea of red tile roofs. "When we came, all the place was like a bush forest sort of thing," says estate sales officer Shirlie Owu, who offers a tour of several of the subdivision's 600 new homes.
Owu climbs into a Land Cruiser and drives to the column-fringed entrance of Golden Gate, where a smiling guard lifts the black-and-yellow bar that signifies passage into an alternate reality. From the gate stretches squeaky-clean Gray Hills Road, fringed on either side by flat sidewalks, perfectly cropped green medians and symmetrical rows of young umbrella trees. The stucco houses rolling by look different from their brick counterparts in Houston, but the landscaping is much the same: red bougainvilleas, plush saint augustine grass and neatly trimmed hedgerows.
The somberly right-angled grid of streets found in Accra has been replaced in Golden Gate with the intentional curves and culs-de-sac of American subdivisions. The names of the roads reinforce the American feel: Cars ply Chestnut Road, Walnut Road, Maple Crescent and Birch Close. Trees like these don't grow in Africa -- or even in Texas -- but equally for Golden Gate and the oddly dubbed suburban streets of Houston, the exotic flavor seems to be the point. The foreign imprint on Golden Gate also takes the form of eponymous avenues such as William Road.
Owu stops at a towering four-bedroom house and opens an imposing gate. Its burnt-orange paint perfectly matches the color of her skirt. She walks up the wide driveway, opens the front door and reveals a living room that could be any living room -- aside from a few peculiarities. The floor is all South African tile. In the corner is a cabinet for a TV, made with wood from Ghana's northern rain forest. And the kitchen sports a shiny, deep sink, but conspicuously lacks a dishwasher.
"Most expatriates send off for dishwashers," she says. "The rest of us, you hire people. If you have hired help, they do those kind of things."
Servants live in a separate building built by the company behind the home. Four years ago, the name of this structure in brochures was changed from "servants quarters" to "boys quarters." The price for these starts at $14,125. Some people have asked if they could buy a lot in the East Airport, build only boys quarters, and live there, but that's not allowed.
Homes in Golden Gate have sold to many of Ghana's top citizens. The company houses the wife of the former vice president, the finance minister and, of course, Chinnery-Hesse, who owns Ghana's only software company.
Chinnery-Hesse sits on his porch along with Ohrt one recent morning and explains what compelled him to move here. He lived on a nongated street nearby where cars constantly sped up and down the road; his children couldn't safely play outside; he forgot to lock his house once and lost his stereo; and a squatter lived in an unfinished building next door. "I walked by one day and the guy had dug a hole and was shitting," he says. "And this was in a first-class neighborhood."
Ohrt laughs and sums it up this way: "You might own a nice house somewhere else. But maybe the one next to you has become a village."
Chinnery-Hesse began longing for an American-style suburban existence in Ghana after living for several years in the early 1990s in The Woodlands. Life was great, in most respects. "There is only one problem there," he says. "Every time I step on the road they will call the cops and say, 'There is a nigger outside.' That used to happen to me in The Woodlands. They will say, 'There's a black man outside!' "
Down the road from Chinnery-Hesse, David Ampofo, Ghana's leading talk show host, climbs into his Audi Quattro. "I used to drive around here and see people mowing the lawns on Saturday," he says. "It was exceptional."
Ampofo moved here four years ago. "These houses are nice and all -- the finishing could be a lot better," he says. "But I'm not paying for that. I'm paying for the environment."
He spins around the neighborhood with some friends, noting the industrious gardeners hired by the neighborhood association, the playground used by his kids, and the soon-to-be-completed rec center. Returning to his backyard, he cracks a beer while a cook pounds palm nuts for soup with a mortar and pestle.
Despite the Houstonian feel to the place -- or perhaps because of it -- Ampofo dislikes some aspects of his new neighborhood.
"The kids have gotten used to waking up early," says his wife, Sylvia. They leave at 7 a.m. for school at 8, sometimes eating breakfast in the car.
Ampofo also chafes at the petulant neighborhood association controlled by the company, which mandates certain shades of paint and uniform roofing, and prohibits the type of blue canopy that he tried to erect on his front driveway to shade his car. The associations have spread to less prestigious Regimanuel Gray communities -- further evidence of the expanding Houstonian imprint. "Let's create our individuality with our homes," he says. "It is too much like a military barracks in that sense."
But the martial environment is also part of the allure. At Ampofo's old house near the university downtown, a thief shined a flashlight through the window one night onto his wife's face. And the light fixtures on his front gate were stolen so often that he eventually stopped replacing them.
"The day we get that here," he says, "I will give up, because I don't know a safer place than this."
Neither does Chinnery-Hesse, who has more reasons than the average Woodlands resident to opt for a suburban retreat. "If you live somewhere else, you have car exhaust everywhere and people selling things in front of your house. These are third-world problems," he says, "but here they can be avoided."
It's Saturday morning and Ohrt's daughter is watching Tom and Jerry via satellite on the Cartoon Network. A rhino stands on the VCR, staring at abstract sculptures and glass-encased African vases. Inside a fenced-off area nearby rests a baby stroller.
Ohrt remarried in 1996 and moved into No. 5 Regina Crescent three years later. The spacious house on a double lot is one of the nicest in Golden Gate. A maid bustles in the kitchen and a gardener hammers outside.
Ohrt appears in the living room with his Ghanaian wife and offers a tour of the colorful garden, which has a swath of grass large enough for a game of volleyball. Like most Ghanaian yards, it is surrounded -- along with the entire home -- by a substantial cement wall.
Regimanuel Gray has left an American imprint on Accra, but Ghana has much to teach Americans, especially when it comes to the architecture of protection.
The original gated communities of Ghana date to the 15th century, when the Portuguese arrived and started building slave forts. By the time slavery was outlawed, the Portuguese, Dutch and British had built 76 forts along the Ghanaian coast, an average of one every four miles.
The construction of walls around homes continued in Ghana under the colonial administration of the British, who also pioneered the widespread practice among Ghanaians of protecting one's house with hired guards.
Although it took an American intervention to popularize the idea of building a wall around an entire subdivision, even this creation also owes a debt of sorts to Ghana. As the freed slaves of the American South flocked to cities like Houston, white Americans fled to the suburbs and, fearing crime, built their new fortresses.
And one thing the residents of Accra's gated communities may grasp better than their walled-in counterparts in America is the limits to their independence. Back in Ohrt's living room, the fan whirls, the air-conditioner blows, and Tom chases Jerry. But then the power cuts out and the TV goes black. "Ahh, it's a typical Saturday," Ohrt says. "No water, no electricity." Unless Regimanuel Gray builds power plants and water utilities, Ohrt will have to rely on the caprice of his crumbling city. It's a problem his half-Ghanaian daughter accepts. She springs off the couch and out the door, in search of something better.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.