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The Dispossessed

Pedro and Mary Morín's near-northside home exudes a tranquil balance of warm creature comfort and close attention to domestic detail.

In the den and study, throw pillows sit primly on billowy sofas and chairs, which, despite their staid floral patterns, offer the promise of delicious slumber. Imitation Chinese porcelain stands meticulously arranged on one shelf; photos of the Moríns' children, now grown, beam from another.

Long fans dangle like tropical plants from the 11-foot-high ceilings. At the center of the cozy den is Pedro Morín himself, a 65-year-old retired railway worker, who is sunk so deep in his plush recliner he appears to be lying down.

Pedro is telling the story of the family's three decades in the house at 2219 Freeman Street, a tale so replete with frenetic children, yapping pets and endless toil as to be utterly belied by its teller's yawning repose.

The Moríns came in 1968, a period when an influx of Hispanic families ushered in a dramatic shift in the makeup of the historically Anglo area. Pedro wasted no time pounding life back into the old home, rebuilding the front porch, fixing the plumbing and replacing the roof.

A short, stalwart man in a white T-shirt and khaki shorts, he waxes poetic about the big-barreled grill he and a friend rigged up in the backyard.

"Oh, hell, when I had that pit Š every time there was a birthday, holiday or any special occasion, it was barbecue time," he says, in a voice that is equal parts Texas twang and the Spanish of his youth.

While Pedro is the handyman of the family, Mary is decidedly the green thumb. She is largely responsible for making the peach-colored home shimmer like an oasis amid the tired frame houses and the ungainly salvage yard nearby.

A gentle, matronly figure at 63, she sits out back surrounded by a small army of flowerpots. Mary points to the tree beside her and tells how her mischievous granddaughter unfailingly finds her way onto its limbs during visits.

"I tell her, 'Don't get in the tree! Don't get in the tree!' " she says, laughing. It's the same crape myrtle her mother used to swing in years and years ago.

"I had my daughter's graduation and wedding here. Birthday parties galore," she says. "We have been like little ants since we moved into the house."


The message did not come directly. Rather, a notice arrived in the mail one day in early August, indicating that Pedro Morín had a certified letter from HISD.

Strange, thought Pedro, cradling the usual jumble of bills and assorted junk. He hadn't had a child in the school system for 20 years.

He headed to the post office, signed for the correspondence and didn't wait to open it.

"This letter is to inform you that growth in Houston has created a serious shortage of permanent classroom space within the Houston Independent School District," it began elusively. "In a response to this need for classroom space necessary to provide the best education for our children in your area, HISD will build an elementary school in your area.

"After a diligent search, the Superintendent of Schools has recommended, and the HISD Board of Education has designated a tract of land for this expansion. This tract includes land you may ownŠ."

Pedro didn't have to read on. He got the point: HISD wanted to buy him out.

His mind raced back to the rumors whispered in the neighborhood that something like this might be afoot. But he'd dismissed them as tales spoken across fences by neighbors in passing. Surely HISD would have told residents of its intentions first, before deciding to take such dramatic action.

Pedro took the letter home to Mary, who was working in the kitchen, which still gleamed from the new Formica countertops.

She, too, took the news hard.

"We didn't know what to do," she says. "We wereŠ in shock.

"It's a very scary situation where a person can plan for his retirement -- it took a lifetime for us to do this for ourselves -- and then for the government to come in and say, 'Too bad. We have other plans.' That's scary. There's not much you can do."

The Moríns recalled with bitter irony how a year earlier they had voted for the bond program that earmarked a new school for their neighborhood. They thought they were just doing their civic duty, supporting better schools for Houston's young. "I never thought I'd cut my own throat," Mary says.

The initial shock quickly gave way to questions: Was the district's decision final, or was there still some chance of saving their home? If not, where would they go?

 

Over time, the Moríns and their neighbors have received what they consider to be unsatisfactory answers to their questions. Their struggle has spilled beyond the confines of their once secure neighborhood, attracting the interest of community activists and a Dallas lawyer.

But even with this high-powered help, residents lament that the twilight years of their lives have plummeted into uncertainty. They are bitter because they were among the last ones to learn of the district's plan, which left them unaware until the fateful decision on their homes had already been made.


In February 1999 administrators printed flyers in English and Spanish for students at Lamar, Lee and Sherman elementary schools to take home to their parents. It was an invitation to a presentation regarding a proposed "relief" school.

For years HISD officials had pondered replacing Lamar, an aging brick facility that sits on 2.2 acres in a largely low-income residential area. The building has chronic structural woes that have bedeviled past efforts at repair.

Equally troublesome, the school-age population in that part of northside has shifted, creating lopsided enrollments in schools. Lee Elementary, six blocks west of Lamar, has dwindled to a mere 236 students, while Sherman, to the east, is bursting at the seams, with enrollment at 721.

Lamar itself has dropped from 499 students in 1994 to 310 today. For more than ten years officials have contemplated folding Lamar and Lee into one new school, a concept that took a giant leap in 1998 with the passage of the $678 million bond issue for districtwide construction.

HISD pegged more than $8 million for a Lamar/Lee replacement school to open in the fall of 2001. Such a facility, with a capacity for 850 students, would most likely absorb some students from overcrowded Sherman.

Flush with construction money, HISD sought to "acquire a site as centrally located as possible and affect as few people as possible, in an area within walking distance to the school," says Gary Hansel, the district's manager of real estate acquisition.

At the February meeting in Lamar's cafeteria, officials told parents they were seeking a site for the new school. They dutifully told of site requirements, demographics and timelines for construction. Then they opened the forum for comment, finding parents warm to the prospect of a new "state-of-the-art" campus for their children.

By May officials had made a decision: The district would acquire the three blocks adjoining Lamar to the south, a more than seven-acre tract that included Chestnut, Everett and Freeman streets, between Henry and Quitman. The plan would displace people from 31 houses, as well as a Jehovah's Witnesses' church, a Texaco station and a salvage yard, but would disrupt fewer students than other sites considered, officials said.

The plan was unveiled in another meeting for school parents at Lamar's cafeteria. Hansel says it was soundly approved by those present. That lack of dissenting voices was not surprising.

Blissfully ignorant of these proceedings were the vast majority of residents to be displaced. To notify the community of this critical issue for its future, the district didn't bother to mail notices to residents, or even to distribute flyers or post signs beyond the school grounds. Instead, the couriers were again students, some of them as young as six years old, who were told to take the notices home to their parents. It is unknown how many actually got delivered.

And for residents without school-age children, such as the many retirees in the affected homes, there was no notice whatsoever about that most important meeting.

"What about us? We don't have any children," Mary Morín says about the courier kids. "That's not professional. I'm not going to give a flyer to a child and say, 'Take this home to your parents.' "


Since learning of the district's plan to buy them out, shell-shocked residents have witnessed the macabre spectacle of the death of a community. They have marked its slow disintegration with equal parts mourning and mistrust, seething behind pastel-colored drapes as they watch a succession of neighbors peddle keepsakes in ad hoc yard sales, board up their windows and drive away forever.

Residents' initial ire toward those they considered to have sold out has been replaced by numbness as more people leave, and has been tempered by the realization that they could be next.

The heavy air of defeat contrasts starkly with the expansive sense of hope and community the people brought with them in the 1950s and '60s.

Some newcomers grew up nearby, dreaming of the day they might own one of the circa-1910 homes in the shadow of downtown. Others came from places such as San Antonio and Mexico to work in the railway yards, or to ply careers as merchants, teachers and maintenance workers.

 

In recent years, signs of aging have become manifest. Several houses have been converted into rental units that lack the fresh paint, tidy yards and other hallmarks of a homeowner's pride. A used car dealership on Freeman Street that once flourished is now an overflowing salvage yard of rusty engine parts, heaps of tires and the sickly-hued hulls of old-model sedans.

But even as parts of the neighborhood have lost their luster, residents such as the Moríns viewed their empty nest as a blank slate on which to fashion the home of their dreams.

"I put everything I had in here, after the kids were gone," says Pedro. He invites a visitor to tread on the flawless carpet of grass in the front yard to feel the lushness for himself. "I was going to paint [the house] this year. But I ain't going to be repainting now. What's the sense?"


Several of the affected homeowners contend that HISD did not adhere to its two basic guidelines for school expansion: "The District conducts a community meeting to announce the need for a new school and to discuss the targeted area," and "The Site Committee's recommendation is then presented to the community for questions and comments."

Hansel insists the district followed correct procedures, and he defends the use of children as messengers. The issue of the new school would impact families of three elementary school communities -- Lamar, Lee and Sherman -- and having the students take home the notices allowed the district to cast a wide net, he says.

"The entire community -- not just the area we're targeting -- had to be involved in the site selection process. It's the entire community this school will serve," he says. But Hansel declines to explain why residents with no schoolchildren were not informed of the meetings.

Bruce Mosier, an eminent domain lawyer not involved in the Lamar case, says one way for a landowner to stop a governmental agency from taking his property is to show the agency acted "arbitrarily and capriciously" in designating a particular tract of land for a public-use project.

That is difficult to prove, Mosier says. But there could be evidence of impropriety in HISD's failure to tell property owners about the meeting in which their land was named as the site for the new school, he says.

"The issue is whether or not the owners whose land will be taken have gotten any kind of pre-notice so they can make themselves heard on the issue of whether or not it's a good location," he says. "You can't say that a schoolkid is the right person to hand out notices and that you complied with [proper notification procedures]."

Residents decline to say whether they would try to make a case in court that HISD illegally displaced them from their land. Most say their labors these days are best spent trying to fetch what they consider a fair price for their homes, a quest that is proving to be another jarring battle.

School board trustee Esther Campos says residents could have learned of the possibility of losing their land during the district's publicity campaign for the bond election, but concedes that HISD should review whether all residents affected by eminent domain are sufficiently apprised of meetings.

"I think it's an issue to look at in the future," she says. The vote to buy out the Lamar-area residents passed with little controversy last June. Campos, who grew up in the near northside and attended Lamar Elementary, says the issue is tough because it pits the needs of the young against those of the old.

"I do feel for the people there, but it's for the children," she says.

School officials are trying to meet infrastructure needs in a sprawling district that has added about 3,000 students in the past five years. To help meet that demand, HISD snapped up property for 12 new schools as part of a bond program in the early '90s. The 1998 bond plan calls for the construction of ten additional schools.

Hansel says the district always looks first for vacant lots, but that's often a tall order in high-density areas. "It's always the last resort to take houses."


Some critics say that in HISD's latest quest to purchase property, the district gives low-income neighborhoods rougher treatment than it would more affluent areas.

"In other communities, they would have fought it, and HISD would have backed down," says Yolanda Black Navarro. She's a restaurant owner who became involved in the Lamar-area struggle during her unsuccessful bid for City Council last year. "HISD, particularly in inner-city communities and particularly in the Hispanic community, continues to be insensitive."

 

Indeed, when HISD threatened to condemn 20 homes in Bellaire for a new elementary school in 1990, the resulting furor was so great the district eventually retreated. The complaints of the Bellaire residents were strikingly similar to those of the near-northside families -- chiefly, that they had been left out of discussions in the district's process of deciding where to locate a school.

But the largest and possibly most heated HISD land acquisition in the last decade occurred in 1995, in a racially mixed subdivision near the Galleria. In that case, the district bought 93 lots -- mostly Anglo-owned rental properties -- for a proposed middle school. Property owners in that rundown Lamar Terrace subdivision protested mightily, forcing the district to file about 50 condemnation suits. HISD got its 20 acres, but five years later there still is no new campus. "A lot of us who lost property are still waiting to see a school," says Richard Rieger, whose rental property was condemned.

And 55 families at a mobile home park off Telephone Road also are crying foul over how HISD has handled the acquisition of their patch of 21 acres for a new middle school just north of Hobby Airport.

"It's like an elephant stepping on ants. It's very abusive," says 45-year-old taxi driver Vicente Rodriguez. "I've always been proud of being a citizen of the United States. [But] there's no pride or respect in this situation."

Because the tenants hold month-to-month leases, HISD was not legally bound to negotiate with them. Instead, officials dealt exclusively with the park's spirited owner, Glenn Brown, who reluctantly sold.

"When life hands you a lemon, make lemonade," he says. Tenants complain the sour drink they've had to swallow is more than $3,000 per home for disconnecting utilities and other moving expenses. Their grievances have fallen on deaf ears at HISD, they say.

"They never spoke to us or showed their face to anyone who lives here," says Polo Telo, a welder from Guadalajara.

Hansel says tenants should deal with Brown, not HISD, on any issues regarding leases. The district does not want to set a precedent of dispensing taxpayer funds when it is under no obligation to do so.

"The total agreement is between the owner and the tenant. HISD is not going to play a party to it," he says.

But Daniel Bustamante, the executive director of the Greater Houston Fair Housing Center, says HISD did set a precedent in the mobile home park case, one of turning its back on people it has displaced. "I would expect [school officials] to be a little more sensitive, especially since the largest group in HISD is Latinos. Their ability to communicate with this part of the community has really [been] stymied," Bustamante says.

Hansel dismisses notions that race or economic status are factors in how HISD treats residents affected by land acquisitions. The business of displacing families is often an unpleasant one, he acknowledges, but when a school is needed, property must be found, period.

"It doesn't matter what area of town or what the makeup of the community is. You have to go in and buy property," he says. "In the inner city, you don't always have a lot of choices. In the inner city is where large amounts of the Hispanic population are."

For her part, Mary Morín remains convinced HISD would not level houses in River Oaks to build a school.

"It goes back to we're not people of wealth or influence. They don't do that in other neighborhoodsŠ.With us, they just took over," she says.


Nothing unifies a neighborhood like a condemnation, and soon after learning of their shared fate, the people dug in for a siege. They posted identical "Private Property -- Keep Out" signs to thwart HISD's advance, but the yellow-and-black markers had all the impact of a "No Smoking" sign in France.

Residents began meeting regularly to see if there was something, anything, they could do, even as appraisers in orange jackets started appearing on their property. At one charged gathering with HISD officials, homeowners blasted the school district for its disruption of their lives.

"They had a lot of questions and they wanted to vent -- to yell, scream and holler," Hansel says. "They were upset, and naturally so. They were being displaced."

Frustrated by HISD's unresponsiveness to their concerns, the residents looked to city officials and community leaders to take up their cause.

LULAC, the Latino rights group, stumbled upon the case. One of its directors, Mary Ramos, is a real estate agent who was present at a most unusual closing on a northside house in September 1999. Generally homebuyers are overjoyed by the monumental event, but Ramos noticed the old couple was upset. She asked the wife what was wrong, and the woman told her of the events unfolding in her old neighborhood.

 

Ramos became an advocate for the group.

"They were going to screw these people, get them out of their houses in such an underhanded way," she says.

City Councilman Gabriel Vasquez voted for the acquisition of the Lamar property as an HISD trustee. He accuses LULAC and Navarro, his opponent in the Council race, of riling up the residents over the district's method of acquiring the land. "They preyed upon the people and took advantage of an unfortunate situation and made it worse," he says. "[HISD] knows what the legal process is, and they followed the process."

Vasquez says he can appreciate that no one wants to be displaced. "It's very tough," he says, "but we have to weigh 30 houses with 800 students who will attend the school."

Based on her experience in real estate, LULAC's Ramos knew there was little residents could do to stop HISD from taking their land. Their best hope was to delay HISD and get fair market value for their property, she advised.

Residents, in their cynical education in eminent domain, have learned that they are entitled to "adequate compensation." But the word "adequate," like "community," appears to be a question of semantics, with widely varying interpretations.

"More than anything, what bothers me is how little they want to pay for it," says Daniel Rangel, standing outside his tidy beige home, for which he was originally offered $61,000. "No, no, no -- it's barbaric."

Pedro Morín feels he did not fare much better with an original offer of $57,000 for his home.

"They just need to give me a fair price. To tell me to just get out of here and give me peanuts is bullshit," he says.

Jay Westrick, a residential appraiser for O'Connor and Associates, says recent sales in near northside of remodeled homes like the Morins' and Rangels' range from $55,000 to $70,000, depending on the size of the property and the extent of remodeling.

Property values in that part of near northside are steadily on the rise, Westrick says, as old homes become increasingly fashionable, like they have in the Heights. "That market has been extremely active. Price increases between 3 percent to 10 percent will be recorded this year," he says.

Eminent domain cases hinge on the concept of market value, which Texas law defines as "the price which the property would bring if it is offered for sale by one who desires, but is not obligated to sell, and is bought by one who is under no necessity of buying it." Essentially the parties must make-believe the sale is voluntary when negotiating the property's worth.

That dispassionate leap of faith is a hard one for people who are being forced from their homes, and for governmental entities cautious about spending taxpayer money, says Barry Klein, the president of the Houston Property Rights Association.

"The idea of fair market value is based on a willing seller and a willing buyer. In the case of eminent domain, you have an unwilling seller forced to sell at what, in many cases, they think is an unfair price," he says.

Experts say that in the messy, real-world realm of eminent domain, true objectivity is rarely achieved by either side. Governmental entities tend to use appraisers who assess low, and property owners favor appraisers who assess high, says attorney Mosier, who has represented interests on both sides of the issue.

For the first appraisal, school officials contracted with Dominy, Ford & McPherson, a Houston firm frequently used by HISD and other governmental entities. Mosier includes the firm among those that assess low.

When residents expressed outrage at the district's initial offers, HISD upped its purchasing price for each piece of property by 10 percent. Many residents, including Morín and Rangel, were still unsatisfied.

Under pressure from the community, the district agreed to a second set of appraisals. It would then average the two assessments, and that would be the final offer. "We wanted to get a Hispanic appraiser who knew the neighborhood, who had the qualifications and who came highly recommended. Frank Flores fit all those criteria," Hansel says.

Mosier characterizes Flores as another government-friendly appraiser. "Unless they [HISD] hire an appraiser who does not appraise almost exclusively for the government, all they're doing is bolstering their low-end appraisal," he says.

About half of Flores's appraisals came in lower than the first set, and half came in higher, officials say.

 

Rangel, whose final offer stands at $67,000, says he and his wife have searched for a comparable house nearby, but everything is out of their price range. They know that two retirees living on social security have little likelihood of getting a 30-year mortgage for a home.

"I don't know what we'll do. I don't know," says the retired engineer from Monterrey.

But Hansel says the district can do no better than to offer market price, which in the case of the Lamar area has ranged from $30,000 to $80,000. He adds that there is no price big enough for the sentimental value to homeowners.

"You could put a million-dollar price tag on those [feelings] -- you can't replace that," he says. "Still, you have to offer what is market value. They can't expect to get rich off taxpayer money."

Unsatisfied landowners can refuse the district's offer, which leaves two possibilities: HISD could either increase the price or condemn. HISD and the majority of the Lamar-area families have yet to reach a détente.

The district has filed condemnation suits against six residents thus far, and Hansel anticipates that as many as 15 properties will have to be condemned. "Our intent is to try to have the property acquired by the next 90 to 100 days. Everything is fitting into that schedule," he says.

Meanwhile, with condemnation hearings approaching, a group of residents has placed its hopes in Eddie Vassallo, an eminent domain lawyer from Dallas. Vassallo did not return calls from the Press, conveying through his secretary that he considers it "immoral" to talk to the media about his cases.

No one knows for sure how special commissioners will rule on the condemnation cases, but judging from past HISD fights, at least some residents can look forward to awards higher than the district wants to pay. Billy Dwyer, who represented four property owners in the 1995 Lamar Terrace episode, says his clients received between 10 and 50 percent more than HISD had initially offered.


The Moríns are sitting in their backyard beside the crape myrtle. It's a beautiful afternoon, with birdsongs rising over the sounds of passing traffic. They laugh at sweet memories, fret about the future and protest bitterly about their predicament. They are adrift in a sea of raw emotions.

"It holds too many memories -- pleasant things," Mary says about their home. "We've had our ups and downs. I would have loved to have stayed and had our children wander around when we're no longer here."

The Moríns are bracing themselves for a move now. They don't know where they'll go, but Mary suspects she'll finally have to learn how to drive. Until now she has managed just fine using the buses on North Main to take her to her regular checkups, and on shopping excursions and jaunts downtown.

She wants to get a moving truck, specifically for her much-loved garden, and already has begun digging up flowers and putting them in pots. She recalls extracting a red daisy.

"When I tried to get the little flower out of the ground Š it was so deep-rooted. I didn't realize how deep-rooted it was," she says, squinting in the direct light of the sun.

"That's how we feel. We have deep roots. When these people asked us to move, they took those deep roots we had to our home. To us, it's not a piece of property. It's our life."

She recalls thinking she had been too rough when she dug up the daisy, so she feared it was going to be dead when she checked on it the next day. "My heart was like a little bird. The plant was perky! I said, 'It's going to live!' " she exclaims.

Pedro cuts in to her story. "I told her, 'We're like that plant. We're not going to die.' "

E-mail John Suval at john.suval@houstonpress.com.


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