Taxing Miss Daisy

Last month, City Council passed an ordinance cracking down on deadbeat taxpayers, and Daisy Stiner, the new head of the city's Housing and Community Development Department, acted fast.

Under the so-called transparency ordinance, no city contract could be awarded to a company if anyone owning at least 5 percent of the business had delinquent city debts. The measure came five months after Councilman Bert Keller proposed publishing the names of debtors, whom he described as "people who aren't pulling their weight in this city."

Last February, Stiner's predecessor, Margie Bingham, was named to head a new city-county agency that would target neglected Fifth Ward properties and foreclose on them if necessary.

Bingham retired in October, and Mayor Lee Brown nominated Stiner to replace her.

With all this renewed attention to debt, Stiner suddenly paid off eight years' worth of back taxes and an eight-year-old lien on condemned property she owned in the Fifth Ward.

Then, a week before her appointment was up for City Council approval, Stiner paid off another lien for a Fifth Ward property that had been condemned by the city --15 years ago. All told, Stiner settled a $16,000 tab. She is now in charge of the HCDD, whose mission is to revitalize neighborhoods blighted with the kind of properties she owned for years.

In 1987, the city inspected three properties Stiner and her husband, Frederick, owned on Jensen and Conti streets, about three miles east of downtown, just north of Interstate 10. The city inspector reported that the properties -- a two-story apartment house, a two-story commercial building and a one-story frame house -- had been abandoned for "an extensive period of time."

The inspector concluded that the properties were dilapidated and unfit for occupancy. The Conti property was a "breeding area for rodents and pests," according to his report.

The city then ordered the Stiners to either demolish the structures or bring them up to code. When the Stiners hadn't done either, the city finally demolished the buildings in 1990 and hit the Stiners with a $4,600 lien for the cost of the razing.

A year later, the same thing happened to the Stiners' one-story wood structure on Jensen. They failed to improve the blighted property, so the city razed the structure and handed the Stiners a $1,363 bill.

In 1994, the city and various other taxing entities sued the Stiners for about $11,000 in back taxes due on some properties they owned. They finally made good on that debt last month, and the $4,600 lien was settled a week before her appointment was scheduled.

Stiner, 52, became deputy HCDD director last year, after a two-year stint heading the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs. During Stiner's service with the state, board member Florita Bell Griffin was sent to prison for bribery, theft, money laundering and mail fraud for accepting a bribe from a Houston developer. Meanwhile, the legislators on the state's Sunset Advisory Commission investigated the department and found it rife with potential for cronyism.

Stiner stepped down and returned to Houston's housing department, where she had served as division manager in the 1980s. While the city's charter prohibits hiring anyone who owes the city money, human resources director Lonnie Vara says his department doesn't screen candidates for unpaid city taxes or related debts.

Stiner worked directly under then-housing director Bingham, a friend to whom she had formed business ties years earlier. Harris County court records indicate the two formed Metropolitan Financial and Management Services and Metropolitan Property services, both of which were dissolved in 1990.

Stiner says she and Bingham were never in business. Intending to be partners, the women filed the required papers with the county clerk, but then Bingham was named city housing director. The business never got off the ground, Stiner says. Bingham was unavailable for comment.

Stiner, too, was unavailable for comment when the Houston Press tried to ask her about her city debts in early October. A spokesperson for the mayor's office said he would gladly call the planning department's neighborhood protection division to get the requested information on her properties. When that never happened, the Press filed a public records request -- and the documents were made available on the day Stiner paid off her debts.

Now in the mood to speak to the Press, Stiner explained that the properties inadvertently fell by the wayside. She also said she owned other Fifth Ward properties, but declined to say how many or give their condition.

Alvin Byrd, president of the Greater Fifth Ward Super Neighborhood Council, said absentee owners of blighted properties often get a "free ride" from the city, which maintains the land without pursuing enforcement action.

He was particularly upset to learn that the new head of housing for the city -- the person in charge of revitalizing neglected areas -- had owned such blighted properties herself.

"How are you going to be over housing and you contributed to the very monster that we're trying to destroy?" Byrd asks.

Councilman Keller also said he was "suspiciously neutral" late last week, saying he wanted to hear Stiner's story before making a final judgment. "But if it was neglect…then I'll oppose her appointment."

Councilman Mark Ellis, who sits on the Housing Initiatives and Neighborhood Protection committees, said Stiner was "quite qualified" for the job. He referred to her appointment to the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs by then- governor Bush and said that while it was an unfortunate situation, he didn't have all the facts.

What Ellis did say was that his transparency ordinance was a success, recovering $350,000 in debts in about a month -- including a nice fat check from Stiner.

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