HHA Plays the Eminent-Domain Card Amid Opposition to New Housing Project

The Pinemont Park and Ride has been an empty, gated-off lot since January 2014, when Metro finally closed the station because of lagging ridership and a construction project that cut off access to the Northwest Freeway HOV lanes. Homeowners nearby weren't exactly sure what the future held for the sprawling patch of prime real estate.

That is, until Saturday morning when the Houston Chronicle reported that Metro plans to sell the site to the Houston Housing Authority, which in turn says it wants to build a 300-unit affordable housing complex for working-class families.

You could cut the nimby-ism with a knife when a few dozen community members turned out to Metro's real estate committee meeting Monday to air their complaints. Some bristled that neighbors hadn't been told of the sale or HHA's proposed project in the first place, while others conflated low-income housing with crime. Most were baffled as to why Metro would sell the property without first putting it on the market for the highest bidder (and, to be sure, there would definitely be bidders).

Then the discussion took a turn. In between speakers, Metro board member Jim Robinson spoke up to address the HHA reps in the room. "It's been reported to us that the housing authority has stated that if we put this on the market and it sold publicly, that the housing authority wanted it so bad that y'all would use eminent domain to take it. Is that correct?"

Although he danced around it for a few seconds, HHA board chair Lance Gilliam eventually settled on an answer. "Yes, we would most likely choose to use that power. ... It's our intention to acquire the site."

The grudging acknowledgement from HHA that, if need be, it would effectively take the property under its powers of eminent domain floored members of the nearby Forest West Community Improvement Association. Many had come out to Monday's meeting to urge Metro not to sell the property to HHA, raising concerns about additional traffic, the possible burden on existing HISD schools in the area, and the impact on property values and crime. At the very least, they said, Metro should put the property on the market in case another developer is willing to pay more than HHA (a selling price hasn't yet been disclosed).

Then came talk of eminent domain. "Such a threat, and it was indeed a threat, would effectively stifle any competitive bidding by private parties," says Kirk Waldron, who lives nearby.

Waldron and others who came out to Monday's meeting blamed crime in the area on private low-rent housing that already exists along a strip of Antoine Drive between Tidwell and Pinemont. "There are cheap apartments all around. We don't need more. That would be preposterous," Waldron says. "Our problem is we have low-income things all around here."

Here's how David Ojeman, president of the Forest West homeowners association, put it in an email to homeowners in the area Tuesday:

I have seen a lot of changes over the years. Some good, some bad and some sad. I have to say that this idea of wanting another low income apartment complex would rank up there as one of the worst changes.

I cannot believe that the city says that this is a good idea and much needed when no impact studies have been done on how this will affect automobile traffic, foot traffic, our schools, HISD has not been contacted, unbelievable. Not to mention the criminal element which I will not go into. I have been fighting city hall for years over all of these ratty apartment we have, and the crime associated with them and this has been to no avail. How many murders have been committed on Tidwell over the years. Quite a few. How many houses here in Forest West have to be hit by stray bullets.

How many people have to die on our streets because of these apartments before you people get it.

Gilliam with HHA insists that eminent domain isn't a power the housing authority wields carelessly, and that the decision to use it would require board approval. Still, he says HHA is committed to acquiring the site because the housing authority doesn't yet have a development in the area. Gilliam also says the housing authority's own analysis shows a strong need for good, affordable housing there.

The site, Gilliam says, is a priority for HHA "for many of the same reasons homeowners have said ... it's a great neighborhood and the schools are good and that it's a safe place to live. We feel like working families in Houston, who often times can't afford the cost of a home there, should still have access to those same community assets." The typical monthly income for a family of four living in the development would be somewhere around $3,000 to $4,000, he said.

Gilliam says he gets why neighbors, who are worried about their property values, hate the idea of HHA taking the site via eminent domain. (Gilliam also says it's not uncommon for government agencies to first try to sell property to each other before putting it on the market.)

But Gilliam says he's also troubled by some of what he heard at Monday's meeting.

"What disturbs me is this conversation isn't really about what we're going to build, it's about who's going to live there," he said. "That's deeply distressing. We should all be disturbed by that."

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Michael Barajas
Contact: Michael Barajas