Spaced City

How Houston Uses the TIRZ System to Benefit High-Dollar Areas and Ignore Poorer Neighborhoods

In November, the Midtown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone attempted to annex portions of Montrose, which would’ve allowed Midtown to use Montrose’s property-tax revenue for redevelopment projects in Midtown. One of the only businesses that seemed to be on board — or even knew about the 235-acre annexation — was the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which is planning a $450 million improvement and expansion.

That’s because the Midtown TIRZ never held a public meeting and didn’t once bring the item to the Montrose Management District, says former Houston City Council member Sue Lovell, who happened to find out about the nearly inked deal at the last minute. Since Montrose isn’t one of Houston’s 25 TIRZs, Midtown would have snatched all of Montrose’s incremental tax dollars and “they could do what they want to do with it,” says Lovell.

“They snuck around about it. They said that they talked to the public and there wasn’t any problem, but when we talked to the public, nobody knew about it. I finally found a map, and it took all of the juicy parts of Montrose,” says Lovell. The city-proposed annexation plot included dense commercial corridors along Montrose Boulevard, Richmond Avenue, Alabama Street and Westheimer Road.

On two days’ notice, approximately 250 people, many of them incensed commercial-property owners in Montrose, unleashed their stunned wrath at City Council members Ellen Cohen, Dwight Boykins and David Robinson during a December 15 town-hall meeting at the University of St. Thomas. The mayor’s office and City Council are in charge of TIRZs, which are supposed to function as an accelerated urban-renewal tool to improve distressed and underdeveloped areas.

In the end, the city scrapped the plan, but there are neighborhood catfights in Uptown, Sharpstown and the Hobby area over TIRZs, a public-financing program that started as an earnest way for Texas’s city governments to bankroll infrastructure improvements to water lines and sidewalks and to land-grab blighted property for retail projects.

The Chapter 311 Tax Increment Financing Act of the state tax code, created during Governor Bill Clements’s tenure and in effect since September 1, 1987, freezes the collective value of commercial properties in a predetermined area in the year a TIRZ is inaugurated.

From there, there are two ways the tax increment can grow: through new development and via yearly increases in property value. If somebody constructs a $5 million building, the property taxes from the $5 million value are deposited into a TIRZ account. And if a $100 million TIRZ grows in value by 3 percent, then property taxes generated by the $3 million increase in value are also added to a TIRZ fund.

The TIRZ landscape began to tilt in 2004 when Houston mayor Bill White threatened to do away with a handful of zones after determining there was a lack of outside accountability and careless spending of TIRZ funds. It didn’t happen.

Instead, a majority of Houston’s TIRZs have annexed more taxable commercial property into their originally drawn boundaries. One of the highest-profile additions occurred in May 2013 when the Uptown TIRZ grabbed Memorial Park in order to redesign the 1,500-acre site. The TIRZ fund is expected to contribute $150 million to the estimated $556 million project.

The TIRZ system benefits high-dollar commercial areas and essentially ignores poorer neighborhoods that are primarily residential. According to a comprehensive report compiled by Bill Frazer, who’s running for Houston city controller, the Uptown TIRZ captured the most incremental property tax revenue in fiscal year 2014 — close to $33 million — while the Fifth Ward TIRZ, at approximately $427,000, obtained one of the smallest amounts.

Overall, more and more commercial taxpayer money funnels into increment zones each year. According to City of Houston budget documents, from 2006 to 2014, TIRZ revenue increased from $30 million to $135.9 million.

A further factor in all this is the presence of state-created management districts, which collect taxes much as city, county and school-district taxing bodies do and often work in tandem with TIRZs to build sidewalks, plant trees and coax retail development. The reinvention of Midtown can be credited to the Midtown Management District and the Midtown TIRZ, which became Houston’s second TIRZ in 1994.

The pool of TIRZ money and management-district commercial-property tax revenue is never deposited into the city’s general fund, which is dedicated to police departments and firefighters, among other things. Instead, irritated business owners in Montrose, the Five Corners and Uptown say the extra cash is wasted on projects such as air-conditioned pedestrian walkways in Uptown that have nothing to do with improving or preventing neighborhood eyesores.

Though they’re autonomous entities, TIRZs and management districts sometimes have the same people on their respective boards of directors, which are appointment-only positions rather than voter-approved. Critics allege that management districts have been inking deals in secret with developers or hoodwinking commercial-property owners into signing petitions to create management districts. Per state law, only 25 business owners in a specific area need to sign the form to start a municipal taxing body.

In Uptown, there’s a brouhaha over the controversial Post Oak bus line that Russell Masraff, owner of Masraff’s restaurant in the Galleria, says was never vetted with area businesses. The project, according to John Breeding, who serves as chief of staff for the Uptown TIRZ and the Uptown Management District, will combine $192.5 million in TIRZ money, ad valorem tax revenue and a U.S. Department of Transportation grant to build express bus lines down the middle of the Rodeo Drive of Houston. The project is scheduled to break ground in summer 2016.

“There’s only one chance to get this right. If they don’t get it right, it will ruin Post Oak Boulevard, which I think is one of the most beautiful streets in Houston,” says Masraff. “If it were the right project, they would have the support of the entire Uptown District. This isn’t it, so they do not.” Daphne Scarborough, owner of the Brass Maiden in Montrose, who also attends public meetings in Uptown, says, “I’ve never seen so many angry multimillionaires and -billionaires in one room.”

Jim Bigham, president of the Sharpstown Civic Association, who says he has exposed funny business with the Southwest Houston TIRZ, started to investigate why tax increment zones have grown so quickly. “And then one day,” he says, “I read that we hit the revenue cap.”

In 2004, Harris County residents approved the Proposition 1 revenue cap by 60 percent of the vote. The measure prevents property-tax revenue from increasing more than the combined growth of population and inflation and limits property-tax revenue increases to 4.5 percent each year. In May 2014, Houston Mayor Annise Parker warned of hundreds of layoffs because of a collision with a revenue cap that naysayers think was absolutely the wrong move for booming Houston.

In the Article III taxes and taxation section of the Houston City Charter, there’s a sentence that Bigham calls the loophole for TIRZ expansion: The cap excludes “ad valorem tax revenues required by state law to be deposited into a tax increment fund.”

Bigham says, “City Hall, where debt obligations are ballooning, has used these special taxing districts as something akin to a budget-relief valve, using TIRZ tax revenue to pay for basic infrastructure that has little to do with economic development.” He calls the strategy “Enron-style accounting.”

“We haven’t created a TIRZ to avoid the revenue cap,” says Andy Icken, chief development officer in Parker’s office, who explains that most of Houston’s TIRZs were set up under the Lee Brown and Bob Lanier administrations.

Since she assumed office in 2010, two TIRZs have been launched under Parker’s watch: Harrisburg, which has been used primarily to pay for the Houston Metro light rail, and Hiram Clarke, an undeveloped area located southwest of NRG Park and the Astrodome that’s prime for gentrification. “Neither have much of a measurable impact,” says Icken. He adds that TIRZ budgets are audited and reports are sent to the city controller on an annual basis.

But TIRZ figures are found only in consolidated City of Houston financial reports. Even then, the information is scant and buried in footnotes. “On the face of the financials, you don’t see the transfers to TIRZs,” explains Frazer. “It would be more appropriate if it did.”

Meanwhile, real estate investors like Randy Pennington, a former member of the House of Representatives who owns several apartment complexes in the Hobby area, think that tax revenue, no matter how it’s spent or allocated, is thrown away on services that the city already provides. In one day, Pennington says, $9,000 of local taxpayer money was wasted to pick up cigarette butts from Telephone Road.

Same goes for Percy Gonzalez, who has been in the accounting business on Harrisburg Boulevard for 35 years. Like Pennington, he has seen his property-tax burden increase since the formation of the Greater East End Management District in 1999. “All the management district is worried about is cutting the grass so that it’s pretty and cute…we don’t even have that much grass left over here,” says Gonzalez.

In Sharpstown, an eight-year fight between the neighborhood association and Hawes Hill Calderon LLP continues over what Bigham says were shoddy $4 million enhancements to the intersection of Bellaire Boulevard and Fondren Road. A majority of business owners interviewed by the Houston Press are angry with the Houston-based consulting firm that’s in charge of the daily operations of many TIRZs and management districts.

Scarborough of Montrose says the company charges a pretty penny for services that “don’t amount to anything.” According to documents in a Texas Supreme Court lawsuit between property owners and the Montrose Management District, Hawes Hill Calderon once billed the Montrose district a monthly consulting and administration fee of close to $20,000.

Repeated requests for interviews with David Hawes, Susan Hill and Bill Calderon were flat-out ignored. Additional inquiries made via Alice Lee, the director of business development and marketing at Hawes Hill Calderon, were also shunned. During the two months that the Press spent on this story, the company’s website was “under construction.” Calls to the main line never made it past the person answering the phone.

TIRZs are here to stay because a majority of the reinvestment zones are granted a 30-year lifespan. Paul Bettencourt’s Senate Bill 1220, filed during this year’s session of the Texas Legislature, sought to shorten their duration and lower the revenue ceiling on tax increment zones. The proposed law by the Republican lawmaker from Houston rotted in committee.

The last straw for Bigham in the TIRZ mess occurred when 109 single-family homes in Sharpstown were annexed into the Southwest Houston TIRZ as part of a Chapter 380 agreement between the city and Houston Baptist University. Bigham thinks that private organizations have used 380 agreements, which are normally contracts between the city and developers, to create “synthetic TIRZs.” He says that he didn’t find out about the HBU deal until a press release was issued.

Peggy Thomas lives in one of the endangered homes, where she takes care of her 90-year-old mother, who stays alive with an oxygen tank. “They told us at a town-hall meeting that they were going to build a park and a grocery store nearby. They presented it like it was going to be like [Sugar Land’s] Town Square,” remembers Thomas. Instead, as part of a development strategy analyzed by the Press, an HBU lab science building will replace the homes.

Before falling into ill health, Thomas’s mom worked at HBU. And after she retired, she continued to donate money to the school.

In December 1990, St. George Place became Houston’s first TIRZ. Except for a proposed Spring Branch TIRZ in 2010 that was tabled at the last minute and Midtown’s attempted annexation of Montrose last winter, there hasn’t been much if any resistance to the creation and expansion of TIRZs.

In recent years, the amount of taxable commercial property in TIRZ zones in Houston has increased from 14 to 17 percent, according to Icken with the mayor’s office. Additionally, when state lawmakers gave a thumbs-up to House Bill 2853 during the 2011 legislative session, the amount of taxable appraised property that can be lumped into TIRZ zones shot up from 15 to 25 percent.

As specified by state law, the money is supposed to go toward economic improvements. Obvious upgrades to crumbling roads and sidewalks as well as new sewer lines and crime-reduction services (such as security cameras) have occurred all over the city. Less obvious examples include new parks and bike paths as well as “visual improvements” such as stainless steel embellishments to bus stops in Uptown and “cultural promotion” in the form of publicity signage in the Five Corners.

In 2005, White, who was succeeded by Parker in 2010, threatened to dissolve 11 zones by the end of 2006. That same year, following a voter-approved measure, he bumped up the original city revenue cap by $90 million to finance public safety.

Last year, for the first time, the city crash-landed into the revenue cap. In October, City Council slashed the property-tax rate by 1.2 percent, which was expected to reduce tax collections by $12 million, according to city officials.

“I’ll be very clear: If the cap stays in and there are no other sources of revenue, there will be layoffs,” Parker said during a May 2014 news conference. “The Houston economy is going to continue to grow. We have held the line on taxes, and yet there’s a forced tax rollback just when there’s more and more demand for services. The options are raise revenue, cut spending, both or go to the voters in 2015 and amend the charter.”

“But a well-understood escape hatch to that cap exists,” says Bigham, who cites the technicality in the Houston city charter. “This created an incentive for zone expansion and today, every single dollar directed to a TIRZ is exempt from the revenue cap.” A TIRZ cannot tax, borrow or spend without the approval of the mayor and City Council.

Tax increment financing programs go back to 1952, when California became the first state to raise matching funds for federal urban development grants. Today, TIFs (Texas is the only state that calls its tax increment program a TIRZ) are a nationwide trend because of diminished federal financing for infrastructure. Aside from Arizona, every U.S. state has used the financing method that relies upon anticipated increases of property-tax revenues.

Chicago, Detroit and Albuquerque are entrenched in controversies involving their TIF programs, with allegations ranging from a lack of disclosure by city governments to the funding of projects that have nothing to do with thwarting blight. In New Mexico’s largest city, state lawmakers created five tax increment development districts for the sole purpose of paying for the Mesa del Sol master-planned community.

In 2008, California, faced with TIF-related lawsuits and a bleak state budget deficit, pulled the plug on all 425 of its TIF agencies. At the time, as reported by KABC-TV in Los Angeles, school districts and local governments, hungry for any money whatsoever, would annually receive more than $1 billion and $500 million respectively.

In 2007, the Southwest Houston TIRZ dolled up the intersection of Bellaire Boulevard and Fondren Road with a $4 million enhancement that included new brick sidewalks, enhanced lighting and concrete rings that housed street signs.

Every six months or so, a car would smash into the concrete, and the rubble would sit there for at least a year. The sidewalks also crumbled immediately, explains Bigham, because the developer hadn’t laid concrete beneath the brick pavers. “By 2012, it was an absolute embarrassment,” he says.

Because state law prohibits a TIRZ from spending any money on maintenance, that burden falls on the local management district. Bigham went to Hawes Hill Calderon, which heads the Southwest Houston TIRZ as well as the Greater Sharpstown Management District, and he says he couldn’t get an answer. When he took the issue to city officials, they, too, washed their hands of the problem.

“Nobody would take responsibility. If you’re going to collect a consulting fee every month, then do your job and take care of it. That’s the bottom line,” Bigham says about Hawes Hill Calderon.

It got to the point where the Sharpstown neighborhood association considered writing a check for the improvements, which Bigham says would cost a couple of thousand dollars. Eight years later, the intersection remains in shambles.

In the affluent Uptown and Westchase, -broken sidewalks are repaired because the management districts capture significant amounts of ad valorem tax revenue from high-dollar properties. It also helps to fix things that break when there’s an internal management team, rather than a group of outside consultants, at the ready to deal with problems, says Breeding of the Uptown Management District and the Uptown TIRZ.

In Sharpstown, “we can barely get a pothole fixed due to the lack of funding,” says Bigham.

In March, the Sharpstown Civic Association, citing “unethical, unprofessional and discourteous behavior,” including the proposed merger of the Gulfton Management District with the Greater Sharpstown Management District that was done “entirely in secret,” submitted a unanimous vote of “no confidence” to Hawes Hill Calderon. David Hawes, a former employee with the city’s finance and administration department, is the executive director of management districts in Sharpstown, Montrose, Five Corners, Spring Branch, East Aldine, International District, Brays Oak and a handful of TIRZs.

It’s unclear what Hawes Hill Calderon actually does for the exorbitant fees it collects for consulting work. Scarborough says the company schedules board meetings and produces bulky loose-leaf reports that nobody looks at or cares about.

A general Internet search of the consulting firm, located in a generic three-story red brick building on Long Point Road in Spring Branch, yielded a webpage that appears to be from an old website: “Hawes Hill Calderon LLP provides professional consulting services to municipal governments, community organizations, private development interests, and real estate investment trusts on public policy, economic development, infrastructure, mobility, and public/private financing.”

And that’s about all it says.

There’s also a major fuss over Chapter 380 agreements — created under a local government code statute in place since 1999 — which are normally deals between the city and developers to reimburse the developers for infrastructure expenses. The taxpayer-funded BBVA Compass Stadium (home of the Houston Dynamo) is one of 20 executed 380 contracts, according to the city’s website.

In March 2013, as part of a $160 million retail expansion at the corner of Fondren and Highway 59 to extend a city road and introduce drainage, HBU signed a 380 contract with the city. “When it got down to City Hall, instead of structured as a TIRZ payment, it was structured as a 380 deal between the city and Houston Baptist,” says Bigham. “The TIRZ, for the first time, was included in the 380 deal as the administrator of the contract.”

“Think about that for a minute: All of the other 380s are done through the city and are between the city and developer, but in this particular case, the TIRZ found itself in the middle of it. The TIRZ itself is not contributing one penny to this deal. They’re simply acting in the middle as an administrator.”

According to City of Houston documents examined by the Press, the $4.4 million agreement includes a lab science building that would sit on top of the home of Peggy Thomas’s ailing mother. Sharpstown residents haven’t been able to retrieve much information from city and university officials.

“They do not answer our questions, and they circumvent,” says Thomas. “I don’t know if they think I’m stupid, because I’m not. From the time I wake up every morning and go to bed, I worry about this.” Bigham adds that a TIRZ itself doesn’t have the power of eminent domain, but the city, which has the last say on all TIRZ proceedings, does.

In 2013, the city directly entered into a 380 agreement with the improvement district in Westchase that allows the four-square-mile area to receive property tax funds from the city. The twist is that Westchase doesn’t have its own TIRZ.

“It looks like a TIRZ, and it smells like a TIRZ, but it’s not a TIRZ,” says Bigham. “All of the protections and safety valves defined by state law aren’t there, and those financials aren’t online.”

City documents show that the Westchase District will receive $667 million in total property tax revenue from 2013 to 2042 to subsidize 26 different projects, including a seven-acre Discovery Green-like park, a Wilcrest Drive beautification venture that will “landscape and irrigate 14 esplanades,” and a “fitness park” on Houston Community College’s Northwest campus.

Jim Murphy, president and executive director of the Westchase District, didn’t fulfill an interview request with the Press. “I am really not in charge of my schedule these days,” wrote Murphy, who’s also a Republican member of the Texas House of Representatives.

While the ins and outs of TIRZs remain an unknown in the Houston business community, state-created management districts continue to be an albatross to commercial-property owners such as Mehdi Banijamali, who runs ARCOT Manufacturing Corporation, located near Almeda Road and Airport Boulevard.

Banijamali says local businesspeople were told that the Five Corners Improvement District, established during the 2007 state legislative session, would function like a homeowners association. In exchange for yearly assessments, commercial-property owners would be blessed with improved roads and a bulkier security presence in a sprawling zone that’s located north of Beltway 8 and south of Loop 610 along Texas 288.

While the Uptown and Westchase districts apply ad valorem taxes and issue bonds, the Downtown District, Montrose, Greenspoint, the East End and the Five Corners assess, on average, 15 cents per $100 of property value. In some cases, the revenue is paired with TIRZ money to pay for development or maintain TIRZ-funded projects.

Nearly a decade later, Banijamali says, the only change for him has been a greater drain on his property taxes. The extra money that’s flowing out of his pocket is “duplicating services that the city is already doing, like graffiti removal,” he says.

“The more I find out, the more corruption, abuse and waste I see,” says Banijamali, who adds that the management district has installed just two security cameras in the 21-square-mile area. “For someone who owns a $50,000 property and who’s barely breaking even, $100 in extra taxes is a lot of money.”

In 2012, local businesses sued the Five Corners Improvement District, which is managed by Hawes Hill Calderon, over a “faulty” assessment process. To start a special-purpose district, according to Chapter 375 of the local government code, 25 property owners need to sign the form. In the Five Corners, that comes out to less than 2 percent of the area’s 2,200 property owners.

“Many of the 27 petition signers claim that the district board members, who were given the task of collecting signatures, were not truthful and did not inform them that they were collecting signatures to start taxation,” says Banijamali.

In mid-March, a Harris County 113th District Court jury agreed with property owners, but the Five Corners district stalled a final judgment by asking the judge to disregard the jury’s verdict. The next hearing date was set for June 8.

This is the second time the Five Corners Improvement District has been sued by local commercial-property owners. In 2011, the district settled with a handful of business owners by releasing them from their assessments.

In Montrose, the Montrose Management District has been embroiled in a lawsuit filed against it by local business owner Robert Rose, who’s seeking the dissolution of the district. After a change by the Legislature in 2005, it’s much tougher to dissolve a management district — 75 percent of property owners in an area are required to sign a we-want-out petition. The 333rd Harris County Civil District Court sided with property owners, but Hawes Hill Calderon forced the case to the 14th Court of Appeals, which has since turned the lawsuit over to the Texas Supreme Court.

During public meetings in Uptown, ticked-off business owners continue to gripe about the Post Oak transit project. Breeding, who has been with the Uptown Management District since 1986, says the creation of two dedicated bus lanes is pretty much a done deal, even though elected officials such as Harris County Judge Ed Emmett and local businesses have questioned the idea since day one.

“The project has evolved over a decade, not days. A small group of individuals are expressing the loudest resistance,” says Breeding, who says he doesn’t see a conflict of interest in the Uptown Management District and the Uptown TIRZ sharing a couple of board members. “The overwhelming majority of landowners, major corporations and individual employees support the development of Post Oak Boulevard and the transit system.” While Metro will be saddled with the operations, the Uptown Management District and the Uptown TIRZ are responsible for everything on the front end.

The deal vexes Masraff, who’s afraid he’ll lose the patio of his upscale restaurant. “I’m not willing to gamble my business where the numbers don’t make sense and the computer-generated models are unproven,” he says.

Breeding explains that he has “literally had 500 meetings with local property owners and business groups.” Out of those talks, he says that 80 percent of the workforce at the Galleria, the largest employer in Uptown, wants to commute to work other than by car.

“The reality is we’re thinking 10 percent of the workforce in Uptown will use it,” says Breeding, “which is a third of the level of the ridership from downtown.”

Bettencourt’s SB 1220, which would’ve shortened a TIRZ’s existence from 30 to ten years, fell flat during the 84th Legislature. Likewise, House Bill 3097, authored by brand-new state Rep. Dennis Paul of Houston, was returned to the house committee on special purpose-districts and didn’t make it out alive.

The failed law would’ve placed tougher restrictions on the formation of municipal districts — a majority of property owners in a specific area would have needed to sign petitions versus only the 25. The legislation also required that the director of each special-purpose district be a property owner and not an elected official handpicked by a board of directors, a process that has been a thorn in the sides of taxpayers for years.

The defeat of HB 3097 disappoints Sandra Rocha Taylor, a community activist and owner of the Pan American Courts & Cafe in Laredo, which opened in the mid-’40s. When state lawmakers created the Central Laredo Municipal Management District in 2013, Taylor repeated a refrain similar to what Houston business owners have been saying: That the 25 business owners who autographed the original petition didn’t really know what they were signing, and that local business owners weren’t properly informed about the new taxing body that caused yearly property taxes to escalate.

“If you can get a majority of the people to do it, we’ll do it,” says Taylor about the Central Laredo Municipal Management District, which hired Hawes Hill Calderon as the district’s consultants. “But to get 25 signatures and sneak it under the rug? You want us to trust you after that?” Taylor worries that the special-purpose district is merely an entrée to a TIRZ in Laredo.

Meanwhile, Houston city controller candidate Frazer, a licensed certified public accountant since 1975, is attempting to create more transparency by compiling and publishing exhaustive TIRZ financial statements. Otherwise, some data can be dug up online — not all TIRZs are adorned with websites or a URL needs to be typed into a search box because direct links on the City of Houston site are nowhere to be found — before a wall is hit.

“I don’t find anything nefarious about a TIRZ. They’re a powerful economic tool to generate economic value for a part of town that needs it,” says Frazer. “My goal is to make the numbers available so that there’s greater transparency because right now, there’s not.”

Montrose is in the process of forming its own TIRZ in order to seize control of the neighborhood, says Lovell, who served on Houston City Council from 2006 to 2012. “We need and want a TIRZ,” she says. “We’re surrounded by TIRZs, and we want to get some of that increment or Montrose is going to miss out on improvements.”

Until then, business owners will be confronted with questionable — and expensive — improvement items that come to the table. In Montrose, Scarborough says, there’s a proposal that would install 18 signposts in the neighborhood that say “Montrose.” The cost: $650,000.

Says Scarborough, “Like people don’t know where the Montrose is.”
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Steve Jansen is a contributing writer for the Houston Press.
Contact: Steve Jansen