No Room at the Rice

The Insider's recent exploration of the politics and finances of the Rice ["Castles for Welfare Kings," October 15] provoked at least one attentive reader to action. Sheila Graves, a 38-year-old downtown bank clerk, read with interest the news that the owner of the renovated hotel, Houston Housing Finance Corporation, required the operators of the historic building to rent 20 percent of the loft units to tenants with federally specified median incomes.

Graves, a native Houstonian who makes $28,000 a year and supports three children, called Rice rental agent Kimberly Fuller and set up a lunchtime tour of the lofts two weeks ago. Since the guidelines in the hotel lease agreement specify that families of three or more could make no more than $56,000 annually, Graves figured she might have a shot at a downtown residence near her workplace.

"She showed me the efficiency one-bedroom units [in the $600 range], told me they were all gone, and she had one [available unit] that was for $975," says Graves. "I asked her about the three-bedroom ones, and she said they went for $3,500 to $3,900 a month."

Graves says she returned to the leasing office and then raised the issue of moderate income guidelines for families. "I said, 'Where are the family units?' And she said she had one-bedroom units and two people can stay in there."

When Graves recited the terms of the HHFC lease stipulating that moderate income families of three or more are included, she recalls Fuller explaining that three-bedroom units rented for $3900 a month, and tenants had to make three times that amount to qualify. "Three times the income is $10,000 a month," exclaimed Graves. "If it was a limit of $50,000 for income [to qualify],in five months that would be $50,000 and I wouldn't qualify anyway." When Graves pulled out the Press article describing the income guidelines, Graves said Fuller told her she didn't know anything about it.

"If you didn't know anything about the article," Graves said she retorted, "then you didn't really have any units for moderate income families, did you?" Fuller contended that the one-bedroom apartments satisfied the median income requirement for tenants. At that, Graves gave up and returned to work.

Rental agent Fuller declined comment about the encounter, saying, "It seems like between now and then, a lot of things have been misconstrued."

City Councilman and Mayor Pro Tem Jew Don Boney, the official who most closely questioned the Rice project, vowed to find out whether moderate income people are getting 20 percent of the available lofts as claimed in a previous report from HHFC.

"This specific incident has just been brought to my attention," says Boney. "I want to find out who gave [Ms. Graves] that kind of response from the Rice and follow it down with staff to make sure [Rice Lofts is] carrying out the mandates of council."

HHFC President Dick Rogers confirmed that there are lofts set aside for median income residents, but he didn't know if any could house families as defined in the lease between the non-profit corporation and Rice Lofts Limited Partners, made up of Atlanta-based Post Properties and loft developer Randall Davis.

As for the leasing agent's apparent ignorance of the provision, Rogers laughed.

"You know Randall. He's a character. And the folks that work for him are kind of ... kind of ... well, [let's just say] I'm not surprised they don't have full understanding of everything, 'cause I'm not really sure that Randall does."

HHFC General Counsel Mickey Norman says he has received a report from Rice Lofts documenting that more than 20 percent of the Rice lofts have been rented to moderate income tenants, but would only release the cover letter from Randall Davis Company exec Martie Terry. In the missive she cites 84 units that have been rented to tenants meeting moderate income guidelines. "None of these units will house more than two people," stated Terry, "and a majority of them will house only one." Asked why the set-asides only included the small one-bedroom efficiencies, Norman offered this folksy observation:

"Lemme say this, being an old real estate guy myself, I can't imagine anyone with kids wanting to live in the Rice Hotel, just between us girls." According to the attorney, "There are no schools around there or things of that nature. I'm sure that's not the market they are shooting at."

No doubt. But in that case, why does the lease contract for the federally-assisted project specify the setting aside of units for median income families of three or more in its provisions?

"Don't tell me what's in the lease contract," snapped Norman. "I happen to know what it said."

If so, Mickey might be the only one affiliated with the project who does.

-- Tim Fleck


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