Houston 101

HHA Chairman Plans to Resign Amid Houston Housing Proposal Controversy

Following heated controversy over plans to build affordable housing in a "high-opportunity neighborhood" near the Galleria area, Houston Housing Authority Board Chairman Lance Gilliam announced Friday he plans to step down from his post. 

As the Houston Chronicle reported, Gilliam wrote in a letter to Mayor Sylvester Turner and the HHA board that, even though he planned to end his tenure "when our job was finished, I now realize our job will never be finished. There will always be work to be done and there will always be families who need us."

Gilliam's announcement comes just after Mayor Turner shot down the HHA's highly contested plans to build mixed-income housing near the overpopulated Briargrove Elementary in the Galleria area. Turner declined to even bring to a vote the $14 million in tax-credit funding that would have gone toward the project, saying the $240,000 cost per unit the HHA intended to spend was too high. Instead, he asked the HHA to search for a new location in the same district. 

Turner's move marked the latest chapter in a months-long dispute with Briargrove-area residents and school, city and state officials — hell, even U.S. Congressman John Culberson stepped in to oppose the plans — over the proposed housing unit at 2640 Fountainview Drive. Residents were primarily worried about school overcrowding at Briargrove Elementary, but also voiced concerns about heavy traffic, a decline in property values and the waste of taxpayer dollars, among other things. Some meetings featured a red-faced Gilliam staunchly defending his agency's research, financial decisions and location scouting in the face of angry neighborhood leaders' accusations that the HHA didn't do its homework.

Still, even after all the bickering and after Turner declined to contribute funds, Gilliam told the Houston Press last week that the agency didn't need that $14 million anyway and, although it would first search for a new location, the HHA would not rule out continuing with the 2640 Fountainview Project if it could not find another place to build.

Gilliam gave no hints about resigning at that point. However, in past interviews, Gilliam voiced his frustration about a difficult crux the HHA had found itself in: It was not the HHA's choice, but a U.S. Supreme Court ruling and federal housing guidelines that steered the agency into proposing the mixed-income housing unit at 2640 Fountainview in the first place. The ruling asked housing authorities to stop perpetuating segregation by building affordable housing only in poorer, minority areas and instead to build in so-called "high-opportunity areas." Gilliam has said that the HHA has not necessarily agreed with these guidelines, believing the agency would be neglecting those neighborhoods it has long served by ceasing to build new housing in those areas.

It was an opinion he expressed in his resignation letter:

"Together we have fully embraced our Authority's moral and legal obligation to affirmatively further fair housing by investing in so called high opportunity neighborhoods. However, we have been told that some neighborhoods are 'too black' and 'too poor' to deserve our attention and investment. That is wrong. We have to continue to include revitalization as one of our Authority's highest priorities. We cannot allow our Authority to be complicit in the depopulation of some of our city's most important communities."  

It has not been the only neighborhood controversy Gilliam found the HHA tangled in. Just last fall, two churches in the Fifth Ward felt bullied by the HHA when the agency threatened to use eminent domain to seize vacant lots the churches owned in order to build affordable housing. Miscommunication led one church to believe the HHA planned to take the entire church, something Gilliam repeatedly denied in interviews with the Press. But even still, the churches said they used the lots for parking and summer Bible camps, and characterized the HHA as a property-hungry, insensitive government authority — a portrayal Gilliam took grave issue with at the time. Not long after, the HHA simply dropped the plans altogether.

As the Chron reported, in three years, state and federal authorities have rejected five out of eight projects the HHA has proposed. 

Gilliam, who was not immediately available to comment for this story, said in his letter he intends to finish out the year. He was otherwise supposed to serve until January 2018.
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Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn