No Shame

Last week, City Council named a downtown skyscraper after Bob Lanier, a tribute that prompted the almost inevitable comparison between the former mayor of Houston and the late Robert Moses, the urban planner who built much of New York City's system of freeways, bridges and tunnels.

"I didn't think we'd ever see another Robert Moses," gushed first-termer Carroll Robinson, just before Council christened the office tower at 611 Walker as the Bob Lanier Public Works Building.

It's a vast overstatement, of course, to compare Lanier's Neighborhoods to Standard and Spark Parks programs to Moses's Holland Tunnel and Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Nevertheless, both men shared an apparently unquenchable desire to transform the urban landscape, and each in his own way improved the world around him.

But Lanier and Moses also shared a less admirable trait: a ruthless ability to ignore the human price of urban redevelopment. To make way for the Cross-Bronx Expressway, for example, Moses flattened millions of square feet of tenement housing, scattering long-established, tight-knit communities to the four winds.

On a lesser scale, but with no greater display of empathy, the Lanier administration ignored the interests of some of the city's most impoverished citizens while helping to bankroll a plan to turn the Fourth Ward into a settlement of upscale townhomes. That Lanier's successor, Lee P. Brown, is now scrambling to help more than 300 people who will soon be displaced from their homes doesn't restore confidence that the city has a heart.

Apologists for the current crisis are of two schools. One consists of those who shrug and say that people who rent their homes have no legitimate complaint when the rightful owner of the property wants to sell it. The other holds that if the city foots the relocation bill for the Fourth Ward, the Brown administration will be saddling itself with a burdensome duty to do the same later, when the residents of other low-income neighborhoods are squeezed out by developers.

The first excuse, which mistakenly presumes that the makeover of the Fourth Ward is a private, market-driven phenomenon, is convenient, but specious. The second, which suggests some balance of compassion and foresight on the part of city officials, is simply self-serving.

They both, however, speak volumes about the moral compass of the city's elected officials, past and present.

The situation wouldn't be nearly as shameful if it weren't so calculated. If, in the first significant challenge of his tenure, Lee Brown burns the residents of the Fourth Ward, it will be because Bob Lanier and his unpaid housing adviser, Michael Stevens, lit the match.

Consider the circumstances of one year ago, not long after Lanier and his Council approved a $3.4 million federal grant to the nonprofit Houston Renaissance for a Fourth Ward redevelopment project that would include 350 units of affordable housing.

Negotiations had bogged down between Renaissance and city housing officials. Among the sticking points was the Uniform Relocation Act, a law that requires beneficiaries of federal housing grants to pay the moving expenses of displaced residents and cover any increase in their rents for up to 42 months.

The law is certainly a burden for developers, but there is a way around it -- they can forget the federal grant and go see a banker.

That wasn't an option for Renaissance, a "private" group that, in fact, had no private money. To date, the nonprofit has mooched some $5 million of public funds to buy up large tracts of Fourth Ward land, courtesy of the Houston Housing Finance Corporation and its president, Michael Stevens.

Moreover, Renaissance has yet to pry a nickel out of local banks, and it won't unless the project receives the $3.4 million grant, plus $8.2 million in public works improvements to the Fourth Ward. That means more than half of an estimated $20 million project will be billed to the taxpayer.

But while the amount of public subsidy required to move the project forward is nonnegotiable, the same cannot be said of the needs of Fourth Ward residents. Last March, Stevens called to order the first meeting of the Fourth Ward Committee of the Houston Housing Finance Corporation. Minutes from that meeting spell out Stevens's plan to dispense with the bother of relocating residents displaced by Houston Renaissance.

According to the minutes, "Compliance with the Uniform Relocation Act would cost an estimated $2.9 million in relocation-assistance payments and would require giving a series of potentially troublesome notices to all of the landowners and tenants in the Fourth Ward."

"As a result," the minutes continue, Stevens retained the law firm of Andrews & Kurth to work with city housing officials "to seek waivers from [the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development] with respect to certain of such notices."  

What followed should be of concern to every Houston taxpayer, as well as anyone with an interest in how local government operates. Unable to secure the waivers from HUD, Stevens turned down a $2.1 million federal housing grant and began digging around for city money to fund the Renaissance subsidy.

A month later, on April 17, City Council was asked to approve $3.4 million in homeless and housing bond funds so Houston Renaissance could reimburse the Houston Housing Finance Corporation for land already bought in the Fourth Ward. Councilmembers were given no explanation for the switch in funding sources, at least not one that was discussed in public. But they went ahead and approved it -- which relieved the city and Houston Renaissance of their obligations under the Uniform Relocation Act.

Lee Brown now says the city has a "moral" obligation, but no legal duty, to help the residents of the Fourth Ward. It's the least the city can do after it replaced a federal grant with money earmarked for the homeless, simply to deny several hundred poor black and brown households a few thousand dollars each to help them on their way.

While the exodus out of the Fourth Ward has yet to begin in earnest, the panic set in shortly after Thanksgiving. The first eviction notices were delivered in late November. By last week, at least two dozen families had already moved, and about 30 other households faced landlords' threats to shut off their utilities if they didn't vacate their homes soon.

By far the saddest, and most publicized, case was that of 77-year-old Willie Taylor, whose ancestors include some of the former slaves who first settled the Freedmen's Town section of Fourth Ward.

On February 6, Taylor found herself outside the courtroom of Justice of the Peace David Patronella, weeping on a bench while television crews captured her misery for the evening news. Taylor's landlord, the Butera family, had taken her to court in an effort to force her out of her Bailey Street home, where she's lived for almost 50 years.

Pat and Paula McDonald live just around the corner from Willie Taylor. Not for long, though. Their landlord has evicted them, and they plan to move across the Fourth Ward to a filthy shack on Crosby Street. Sandra Cueves and her neighbors in a small apartment complex off Sutton Street have until March 15 to leave, or the property owner says he will shut off their water.

And then there's Claude Jackson, who came out onto his porch one day to find a handwritten note that said, "Mr. Claude, you got to move." It was signed, "Rent Man." For years, Jackson says, the Rent Man came to his house to collect. He never showed up in January, and has yet to come by for February's rent. So, naturally, Jackson's landlord is booting him out for not paying his rent.

The Fourth Ward is often described as "blighted," and its population portrayed as drug addicts and unemployed losers. But go down and take a look around and you'll find the Willie Taylors and the Claude Jacksons -- and discover that they are not just old, in-the-way people living in old buildings in an old, in-the-way neighborhood.

They are people who have worked and raised families, and who have earned a certain respect. They were once like Sandra Cueves and Forrest Rice, younger people who bring home the minimum wage to support children who walk through mud and sewage to get to school every day. Squalor doesn't begin to describe their living conditions, though the word primitive might be a start. "Third World" springs to mind when you learn that a toilet that won't flush is not uncommon in the Fourth Ward. That the water has a foul odor. That doors hang on one hinge. And that some occupied houses don't have windows, let alone the luxury of screens.

It's not personal comfort that makes people want to live in the Fourth Ward. It's because the city of Houston stood by and watched it crumble to the point where a house that rents for $200 is considered uptown. And now that the city is going to fix the streets, sewers and sidewalks, and pay a private developer to rebuild the neighborhood, elderly women like Willie Taylor who live on Social Security checks that are less than $500 a month have to go.

And they're scared. They shrug it off, smile sadly and say they hope they can come back later, maybe when the renovation of Allen Parkway Village is complete. But they know that, even in their sweetest dreams, there's a pretty good chance that's not going happen.

It shouldn't surprise anyone that the plight of the Fourth Ward residents was a nonfactor to Bob Lanier and Michael Stevens, two wealthy white developers whose eyes never leave the bottom line. But shouldn't it have enraged the holy men of the Fourth Ward? Shouldn't it have inspired the pastors of the dozen neighborhood churches to look out for their flocks?  

Throughout last year's public debate over Houston Renaissance's redevelopment plan, much was made of the churches' important role in the community, about how they have been a safety net for the sick, the old and the poor. Presumably, that's what motivated the preachers and ministers to organize the Fourth Ward Community Coalition.

But the Coalition's real motivation was revealed at a series of community meetings held to finalize a master plan for the Renaissance redevelopment. It didn't take a wise man to see that in order to carry out that plan, people would have to move. Certainly, the residents knew it, and they worried out loud about it.

Coalition members weren't listening, though. The fact that no one knew where the Fourth Ward's residents would go once the great plan was implemented was not something that drew down the preachers' wrath. Instead, they gave eloquent sermons on "inclusion" and talked about how they had a right to a seat at the planning table.

As a result, the Fourth Ward has a number of preachers who now fancy themselves real estate developers, and they have come to expect a share of the city's grant money for the privilege. But not one has opened his collection box to help residents with moving expenses or utility reconnections or to assist them in finding new housing.

Likewise, the residents of the Fourth Ward have not been particularly well-served by City Councilmen Jew Don Boney and John Castillo, whose districts include portions of the Fourth Ward. Boney lent bureaucratic authority and considerable indignation to the ministers' demand for grant money. Castillo didn't get involved in the redevelopment project until September, when he and Boney were put in charge of a City Council relocation committee.

For some inexplicable reason, Boney and Castillo didn't convene the relocation committee until mid-January. That gave Bob Lanier enough time to hand over the city's business to Brown, but by then it was too late to deal with a problem that escalates closer to a crisis with each passing day.

With no plan or mechanism in place, Brown turned the matter over to the city's Citizens Assistance Office. Two weeks ago, the mayor said the CAO was helping more than 40 families, but it's difficult to determine how much help the office has been. Housing officials have sent out hundreds of notices, urging residents to call the city for help. A few elderly folks were given a tour of Pleasant Hill Village, a senior's complex in the Fifth Ward. But rents there run between $490 and $590 -- almost triple what most of the residents now pay.

At a mid-December Council meeting, a testy Lanier tried to defend his administration's failure to help residents destined to be displaced by gentrification. He insisted that the city has no obligation to help anyone who lives on the south side of West Gray because Houston Renaissance owns no land there.

That's not true, and Lanier probably knew it. Houston Renaissance starting buying land south of West Gray last September, and as of a month ago, owned about 150,000 square feet on that side of the Fourth Ward.

Moreover, about 300 yards from Willie Taylor's back door, Perry Homes is building a complex of townhouses, one of several development projects receiving property-tax breaks through the city-sanctioned Midtown Tax Increment Financing District.

Lanier may have been irritable at the prospect of leaving office in a few weeks. Or maybe, in his haste to dump the relocation problem on Lee Brown, he simply didn't want to consider the human cost of the urban-renewal juggernaut he unleashed.

Whichever, Lanier apparently decided he'd leave the city's "moral" obligation to someone more qualified.

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