It took four years for SEARCH Homeless Services to find a property to build its new headquarters. The nonprofit had been in Midtown since 1989 and had been in the same building at Fannin and McGowen for the past 20 years — the 1950s-era structure had offered 42 single-occupancy apartments, showers, a kitchen and a day center. But SEARCH had decided to shift its approach away from providing shelter and daily basic needs to connecting homeless people with permanent housing and jobs, so the Midtown facility no longer made sense.
Yet as SEARCH sought out a new space, for years, it kept running into the same problem over and over: Not In My Back Yard.
"We struggled with finding a location, because many neighborhoods and areas didn't want an agency that serves homeless people adjacent to them or near their community," said Thao Costis, president and CEO of SEARCH. "So that NIMBY factor caused us to take longer than we anticipated to get a property."
Now, however, just a year after SEARCH finally moved into its new headquarters at Congress and St. Emanuel in East Downtown, it may have to start hunting for a new property all over again. It just so happens that SEARCH's brand-new, $11 million, 27,000-square-foot, teal-colored facility — which had largely been funded by generous private and public donors — is right in the middle of the Texas Department of Transportation's proposed I-45 expansion.
As Houston Press reporter Jeff Balke covered extensively in a cover story last month, TxDOT is in the midst of planning a mammoth $7 billion expansion of one of Houston's most congested freeways, all the way from Beltway 8 near Bush Intercontinental Airport down to the University of Houston. For businesses in EaDO, this means trouble: Any building between the freeway and St. Emanuel Street will be kaput if TxDOT follows through on its plans as promised.
For SEARCH, the question now is how it will manage to rebuild a second time.
"That's the unknown factor in this," Costis said. "We invested quite a bit of money into this property and building it — and of course time — and so we do want to recover and be able to replace it with an equivalent, accessible property that works for our business, just like any other business."
Construction on the expansion is tentatively expected to begin in 2020, although TxDOT has not yet unveiled any concrete timeline or funding sources, nor has it completed important environmental impact studies. So as a result, Costis said SEARCH has also not yet begun hunting for new properties — but has started to think about cost-recovery legal services, as eminent domain proceedings will likely be involved.
SEARCH isn't the only homeless services provider that will be affected. Nearby Loaves and Fishes, which feeds hundreds of homeless people six days a week, would also be forced to move out after 42 years in the East Downtown neighborhood. Board President David Taylor said he does not anticipate that the cost recovery through eminent domain will cover all or even most of the costs to relocate, which he estimates will be between $3 and $5 million. The worst-case scenario, he said, would be that Loaves and Fishes would have to shut down if it can't manage to find the funding — something he says he tries to avoid thinking about. He's already started scouting new locations.
But finding one as ideal as East Downtown — right near the U.S. 59 underpass by Minute Maid Park where many homeless people sleep, near SEARCH, near the Beacon homeless day center in downtown and near the sobering center — is not something Taylor believes will be easy.
"It’s a challenge," he said. "We’re a nonprofit. We don’t have a lot of money. We’ll get some money from the eminent domain process, but that probably won't be near enough to replicate what we’re doing here somewhere else."
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The Texas Constitution allows for eminent domain — the process by which the government seizes private land for a public use, like a roadway — so long as landowners are compensated based on the fair market value of their property. But the government is not required to cover the costs for landowners, residents or businesses to relocate.
TxDOT, however, does have a program to help residents and businesses displaced by road projects. Department spokesman Danny Perez said in a statement to the Houston Press, "We are aware of the cost and inconvenience associated with having to move from a residence or business. In order to assist those who are required to move, the Texas Department of Transportation provides financial assistance and services to aid in movement to a new location as part of our relocation assistance program."
According to information about the program Perez sent over, businesses can be reimbursed for moving costs, including costs for finding a replacement (not to exceed $2,500), and re-establishing the business (not to exceed $25,000). Or, businesses can apply to receive a fixed payment in lieu of the moving expenses — which is not to exceed $40,000.
Finances aside, whether this "relocation assistance" program is prepared to assist with the blight of the NIMBY problem, however, will perhaps be another matter altogether.