Video: Anger over proposed public housing in high opportunity Houston neighborhood

The public meeting on the Houston Housing Authority’s (HHA) proposal to build the Fountain View Apartmentsa mixed-income apartment complex in an affluent neighborhood, was predictably contentious. It was held at Briargrove Elementary, the school which many opponents say they are defending from the student overcrowding they claim the HHA site would cause.

We believe (and the editorial board of the Houston Chronicle agrees) that class size, traffic congestion and other concerns raised by opponents pale in comparison to the real issue: The institutional racial segregation of HHA properties, and the opportunity the Fountain View development affords to begin offering public housing options outside of impoverished, racially isolated neighborhoods. The map below shows the current locations of HHA public housing and Houston’s racial demographics, with the proposed Fountain View site indicated in green and the strongest areas in market value outlined in black. Keep in mind that nine in 10 HHA residents are people of color.

publichousing_fountainview2

Given the broader context of extreme racial segregation outside of high opportunity areas, we think there are more appropriate ways that Briargrove residents could address their concerns – via the school district, for example – besides rallying to block this vital chance for low income tenants of color to live in the neighborhood.

Yet a few hundred people showed up to rally on a stormy Wednesday evening, filling Briargrove’s cafeteria to raise their concerns to, and occasionally shout at, the housing authority’s leadership. HHA President and CEO Tory Gunsolley kicked things off with a presentation about the reasons behind HHA’s decision to build at Fountain View – including a recent landmark U.S. Supreme Court case and our 2010 conciliation agreement, alongside Texas Appleseed, with the State of Texas over disaster recovery funding. Both require HHA to finally use its federal housing dollars in the service of fair housing, not continued segregation. The crowd did not much care for this explanation:

 

(For reference, the figure Gunsolley cited about the increased future income for a low income child who moves to a high opportunity area comes from a major recent study about the devastating financial effects of growing up in an impoverished neighborhood like those where HHA housing has historically been built.)

Next, several public officials spoke in opposition to the development, including U.S. Representative John Culberson, Houston City Council Member Greg Travis and Houston ISD Trustee Harvin Moore. Rep. Culberson reacted to Gunsolley’s presentation by saying, “The research – that’s not the issue,” and vowed to file legislation in Congress to make federal housing policy “race-neutral.” The full audio of the remarks by Rep. Culberson, Council Member Travis and Trustee Moore can be heard below:

 

Then it was time for public comments. The vast majority of attendees opposed the development, for reasons ranging from the overcrowding of Briargrove and other nearby schools, to the project’s budget and per-unit cost, to concerns about what the presence of low income housing would do to property values, crime and lifestyles in the area (said one speaker: “My wife and I are looking for a house on Potomac Drive [near the school]. Well, we were.”) Here’s a very brief selection:

 

One man, not included in the video above, asked the HHA leaders in attendance, “Is the point of all this to house people, or is it for social justice?”

From our perspective, the two are inseparable. It is unjust to operate a taxpayer-funded system of racially segregated housing, and the time has come to provide public housing options in Houston’s high opportunity, integrated neighborhoods, beginning with the Fountain View proposal. Our co-director John Henneberger and Houston director Chrishelle Palay stood before the Briargrove crowd to provide the only voices for housing opportunity:

 

 

Chrishelle also spoke to two local news stations after the meeting, pointing out that many of the low income people who could benefit from the development already work in the area. Opponents were interviewed as well, with one charging that low income residents would come into the neighborhood and “steal the tires off Suburbans.”

As the process moves forward, the Houston City Council will have the chance to weigh in on HHA’s request for a four percent tax credit to help fund the development. Some residents spoke of organizing a legal challenge against the housing authority.

The issue of whether or not Houston will finally offer public housing choice in an affluent, integrated neighborhood appears to be far from settled. While the debate rages on, the tens of thousands of tenants in HHA properties will remain isolated in neighborhoods far away from the good schools, good jobs and safety of the Briargrove area.

19 thoughts on “Video: Anger over proposed public housing in high opportunity Houston neighborhood

  1. Mr. O’Neil: Thank you for mentioning that HHA projects are concentrated in low-opportunity areas. Can you please tell me why HHA insists on building a high-density project in such an area – Independence Heights. It is a disparate impact lawsuit waiting to happen. The project will be one block from a city trash dump. Part of the property was the site of a fuel depot that had leaking storage tanks, and as a result, there is ground water contamination and soil contamination, in spite of what Lance Gilliam thinks. Oh, and let’s not forget the prostitution and the drug problems and the elementary school that has been labeled as needing improvement.
    I still haven’t heard all righteous indignation about that issue. As said previously, we are waiting for you and all those highly paid consultants ($130,000 a pop for neighborhood agreements in 2012) to come and lay your bodies down in front of the HHA bulldozers.

  2. Ms. Rafferty, I’m surprised by your post. If you’re a resident of Independence Heights, I would appreciate the opportunity to visit with you. If you’re not, I would enjoy sharing more about this great community with you. I would be pleased to meet you in the neighborhood and walk it together.

    Our authority’s board has been clear in its commitment to building new homes in so-called high opportunity neighborhoods. We’ve been equally clear that we don’t believe that, in the process of providing families of all incomes an opportunity to live in, for example, the Post Oak – Galleria area, we have to abandon other lower-income communities where new affordable homes can be a stabilizing and revitalizing force.

    In Independence Heights, our authority is repurposing two tracts of land; one an abandoned and relocated HISD school site, the other formerly a staging area + fuel depot for Harris County. The once empty school has been demolished and will be replaced with about 150 new townhomes and apartments with a large community space and building for seniors. The now remediated staging site will likely be redeveloped with townhomes, commercial space and/or community uses. This redevelopment will insure existing residents of Independence Heights and their families will continue to have the opportunity to live in a neighborhood that is rapidly changing as the Houston Heights neighborhood to the south and Garden Oaks / Oak Forest to the west both experience extraordinary increases in land values and home prices. (There’s even a Whole Foods 365 planned at the intersection of 610 and Yale in Independence Heights.)

    Before laying your body down in front of our contractor’s bulldozer, I encourage you to visit with leaders in the Independence Heights community; I suspect they value their community more than you do.

    Best,

    Lance Gilliam

    • Mr. Gilliam:
      Mr. Gunsolley knows, I am a resident of the Independence Heights, and am a member of a small community group here. There are 3 community groups here, with with different visions for Independence Heights (IH). Which “leaders” do you reference? The ones chosen by you?
      You had previously stated in an HHA meeting of May 2015, that the remediate was complete. Now you are saying it is not. You originally said 225 low-income units + a grocery store were going to be built, Now, you say 150.and a mixed use space. It’s hard to ascertain what the truth is.
      Your holistic commitment to communities is laughable. If you wanted to treat everyone equally, then why would your tenant mix be different for the Fountainview project be different that Independence Heights? Fountainview has 20% market rent mix,. None is planned for IH. Fountainview has 10% mix of 30% AMI or less. IH has 20%. The numbers certainly say you perceive the neighborhoods differently. How do you explain that?
      We will be waiting for your change of plans. Perhaps now the crime statistics and school ratings will be reviewed and this neighborhood will be labeled correctly. as a low-opportunity area that should not have a high-density project.
      Maybe we can meet at the park of 40th 1/2. There were only two armed assaults there last month. Let’s see how your friends at LISC spin that during the next QAP period.

    • Mr. Gilliam, I’m a resident of Independence Heights and I am in full agreement with Jill Rafferty. I would be interested to know what community organizations, groups you are referring to or have been in communication with certainly not the civic association or with people that actually live in the neighborhood. I would like to formally invite you to address the Independence Heights Civic Association meeting on March 30, 2016 from 6:00pm to 7:30pm.

  3. Mr. Gilliam –

    Why didn’t you propose to build this project next to your home in River Oaks just a few blocks from your home on Reba Drive? River Oaks Elementary is rated a 10, Lanier Middle School is a 9 and Lamar High School is a 7, all on a scale of 10. On the contrary, Briargrove Elementary is rated a 7, Grady Middle School is rated a 7 and Lee High School is rated a 2, all on scale of 10. Your area has a much higher rated school path than the proposed project site on Fountain View.

    My guess is that you are afraid that the project would increase the crime in your neighborhood and have a detrimental affect on the value of your home (appraised at almost $1.5 million last year) and area for many reasons.

    As a resident of Briargrove, I receive all of the crime reports from our police officers. Have you read them yet? Every single crime is committed by the exact same type of person. Did you hear about the four men arrested in our neighborhood two weeks ago?

    Briargrove is a family friendly neighborhood where people feel they can leave their kids bikes, scooters, etc. in the yard overnight without concern. Forget the ability to do that if this project is passed. Also, we pay very high property taxes so that our neighborhood school can continuously be improved. It is not fair for all of the very hard working individuals in our neighborhood to float the education of those that do not contribute equally.

    Briargrove Elementary is already full. The lottery system in place is sickening for the neighborhood kids that do not get lucky enough to attend the neighborhood elementary school that their parents work hard to support.

    The $60 million proposed project cost for approximately 230 units equates to $260,000 per apartment. Do you know how many nice homes could be built for this money? The average home price in Houston is $261,329. Why do you feel the need to spend taxpayer dollars on this project? You could find a way to improve the lower income neighborhoods with the $60 million.

    Also, you and your development company are PERSONALLY PROFITING $6 million dollars from this project. That is an EXTREME conflict of interest!!!

    I read in the paper last week that you project “only 60 students” will end up attending Briargrove Elementary. If your primary reason for the project is to allow low income families the opportunity to send their kids to good schools, then that is $1 million per kid to go to a good elementary, mediocre middle and poor high school. That is a LOT of money per child. Can you not think of a better way to spend the $60 million?

    I also know that you did not notify the residents of the project like you said you did at the meeting last week. That was a lie. I also know that you did not do your due diligence with HISD, who would have clearly notified you of the school crowding. I also know that you did not pull crime reports for our area.

    I hope this project falls through.

  4. In re: Ms. Holliday, thank you for the invitation. I will plan on attending the Independence Heights Civic Association this week. I had attempted to post a lengthy response to Ms. Rafferty’s preceding e-mail but, for some reason, it isn’t seen here. Hopefully a conversation at the meeting or before can occur. If you would like to visit before or by telephone, please e-mail me at lgilliam@watermansteele.com and I will be pleased to provide you with my cell number.

    In re: JK, I would have no problem whatsoever building an affordable housing community near my home.

    As you’re obviously aware, I live in an area that has thousands of apartments surrounding it. Two blocks from my home is an 8-story apartment building that is more dense than what our authority is proposing to build on Fountainview. The street on which my family and I live changes name two blocks to the east; it’s Fairview. Fairview is a direct connector to Montrose; a community which has changed and where affordability is now a challenge.

    I fear your comment is not focused on the buildings we build but instead the people who live in them. That’s a conversation your community’s leaders and I have tried to avoid. Our authority’s residents are simply hard working individuals, couples and families whose incomes are less than mine and most likely your family’s, too. ironically, often their incomes are lower by choice: teachers, firefighters, staff members in the offices of elected officials and other public servants including those who protect us; officers and prosecutors. (Our authority provides homes to about 400 HISD employees).

    Finally, Harvin doesn’t like what we’re doing —- adding between 42-60 elementary school age children from apartments into a pool of, by this fall, about 3,000 seats for elementary school age children within about 1-mile of the proposed site. He’s been very clear about that. What he doesn’t need to do is lie to you and your neighbors. He knows that I personally hosted a lunch to visit with Dr. Grier and his chief operating officer in 2011. The purpose of the lunch was to discuss how to coordinate planning between HHA and HISD. He also knows that I subsequently personally met with HISD’s chief operating officer (Leo Bobadilla) and his staff afterwards in 2012 and again in 2014. Finally, he has copies of e-mails where HHA’s senior staff met with HISD in 5/2014 and afterwards providing in writing a summary of our proposed development activities with specificity about number of units and unit composition in 5/2014 before we purchased the site. Of course, he also forgets to mention that he and I visited on numerous occasions in 2014 and from those conversations met with CM Pennington in early 2015.

    Harvin and I may not agree on whether this proposed development should be built but his lies about our engagement and transparency is very much like one of the presidential candidates tactics —- if you don’t like the message, go after the messenger. Very sad.

    BTW —- not sure where you heard or were told that my firm or I were profiting. I am an unpaid volunteer. Not only am I or my firm not receiving any fees whatsoever —- much less $6 million —- we don’t even purport to provide the services needed to our own clients. We’re advisors and brokers, not developers. Ironically, I have always been proud of the fact that I have paid all of my own expenses and have never received any benefit of any kind during my six years of service.

    JK, you and I both live in the 7th Congressional District. It’s one of the most educated and affluent congressional districts in the country. A discourse that is based on good facts and educated opinions is expected of us. As I mentioned in my response to Ms. Holliday above, I am pleased to visit with you. At a minimum, I can provide you with good facts so that when we disagree at least we’re both using the same information.

    One last final note, as the folks at Texas Housers know and I shared with many of your neighbors after last week’s meeting, our board actually fought for the right to invest a disproportionate amount of our funds into llower-income communities, most often communities of color. We recognize that a $50 million investment in Sunnyside would likely have a great impact on that community than on Fountanview —- for a lot of reasons including land is $5 per square foot and not $60 per square foot. We were the only public housing authority in the country to file an amicus brief in TDHCA v ICP on the side of TDHCA. That being said, we fought a good fight and we lost. The law of the land was made clear by the Supreme Court last summer. Our authority has and will continue to respect the law, will respect its residents and the funds entrusted to us by HUD on behalf of taxpayers.

    Lance

    • Lance –

      Are you referring to the 8-story Gables West Ave that is two blocks from your home? If you are, the rent on two bedroom units in that complex run as high as almost $4,000 per month. That complex is not zoned to your elementary school (River Oaks Elementary) either. According to this map, there are actually very few high density complexes in your zone (none built in recent years): http://www.houstonisd.org/Page/111709

      You only had a handful of meetings in a five year time span to discuss this project?

      Do you not work as a paid partner at Waterman Steele, the company developing the project? http://www.watermansteele.com/#!lance-gilliam/c1ipf

      As far as your fear for my comments. I am all for hard working individuals. My brother is in the Military and makes $2,000 a month living in California, yet he lives within his means and found a house to rent that fits his budget. He is not asking the government to subsidize his lifestyle even though he makes $24,000 a year and works 7 days a week.

      I work two jobs to be able to afford our area, so yes, my income is likely higher than your proposed resident’s income.

      No need to waste your time meeting with me as I already have the facts. You can spend that time researching a better option for this project. Thanks for the offer though.

      That is an interesting point about losing the fight to put money into Sunnyside.

      • JK … I was actually referring to the Belle Meade a couple of blocks from my home; it, too, has similar rents as Gables’ apartments nearby. The point was a concern that you don’t have a problem with the apartments buildings —- I don’t —- but you must have a concern about who lives there or more charitably how your taxpayer dollars are used to make our authority’s developments more affordable. The “who” not the “what” is the only effective difference between Gables, the Belle Meade and the community our authority has planned for Fountainview.

        In regard to the River Oaks Elementary map, it was actually fascinating. I have never noticed that River Oaks’ zone stops at Shepherd to the east and Westheimer to the south. I wasn’t able to download the maps to determine what schools serve residents in these adjacent neighborhoods; hopefully they too are excellent.

        If you can figure out the “magic” behind the seemingly arbitrary nature as to HISD establishes attendance zones, please share it with me. I have tremendous respect for their demographers; I don’t envy their difficult job. But, it would be interesting to understand why children living in the proposed Fountainview development will continue to be directed to Briargrove instead of Pilgrim or St. George even after Mark White is complete.

        In regard to “a handful of meetings” this where somehow Harvin has created some odd expectation. There is no requirement whatsoever for any residential developer to coordinate their activities with HISD. (whether or not there should be is a different conversation and probably a good one). Notwithstanding that lack of requirement —- because of my personal belief that education is the greatest determinant of outcome for our children —- I insured our authority’s vision and activities were shared with HISD. Bluntly, we were told something to the effect of “don’t worry about it —- it’s our job to educate Houston’s children including those that live in your authority’s new communities. We educate more than 200,000 children each year and adjust constantly for new development and population changes.” I wasn’t told that not just once, not just twice but even with specific information about Fountainview and other proposed developments more than three times if our staff’s conversations with HISD are included. (With specific information, we were told and continue to be told HISD’s projections now include educating children living in our authority’s planned community) Given his passion to exclude 42 elementary school age children from joining a group of about 3,000 same age children educated within a mile of the proposed Fountainview site, you would have thought Harvin might have chosen to share with his constituents his many conversions with me in 2014 and early 2015 before now. You may want to ask him about that.

        In regard to my firm, not sure where this one gone started but we are NOT the developer of the project. The owner and developer of the property is our authority. None of the fees referenced will be paid to any third-party developers.

        For free, our firm’s managing partner advised our authority when looking for office space and when our authority considered selling the Fountainview property a couple of years ago. (Yes, we had a couple of offers right after we bought the property that would have yielded a nice profit and we stopped and thought about it. Unfortunately, oil prices fell and although we made a good deal we didn’t make a deal that we could “flip.”) The developer’s fee will be retained by our authority to cover actual costs and to reinvest in new homes elsewhere in our city.

        Today I asked our authority’s CFO for an accounting of any and all amounts paid to my firm or me. Our firm has never received nor will it ever receive any payment of any kind from our authority. In 2010, shortly after my appointment to our board, the authority reimbursed me for travel costs associated with attending training at a national convention (NAHRO). The total amount was $2,163.90. I was also reimbursed for travel expenses ($795.70) for a portion of my expenses associated with travel to Washington DC on behalf of our authority in 2014. I have not received any other funds or financial benefit from our authority. Except for these two instances, I have always paid for my own airfare, lodging, meals and incidental expenses when traveling or otherwise conducting authority business.

        Finally, and sincerely, I admire, appreciate and respect your brother’s service. Although I understand a number of military personnel take advantage of affordable housing offered by our authority’s peers in other cities, what I find truly sad is that our country doesn’t pay our most valued citizens more. Like your brother, one of my sons served in the military. Although he had a bunk on his ship, for more of his time in the USN he choose to share the cost of a small apartment with two other sailors in Norfolk. He too paid for that apartment without any subsidy from anyone.

        These facts may be inconvenient but they are the facts, JK.

        Lance

    • I was at that meeting. HISD said the additional children would be 60-70 as a conservative number. Yet,you continue to claim 42-60. Even if you are right, you still never answer the question about where these children will go to school. HHA deliberately puts their head in the sand on this inconvenient fact. There is no room at BG or Mark White. Period. Yet the HHA is still shockingly pressing forward. You still fail to justify why $50+ million should be spent on a small number of families who will have to be bused to a school miles away. Shut down this project, sell the property for commercial use and put the tax dollars to optimum use in another location and help more families. It is the only logical conclusion. I hope the HHA is not merely pressing forward out of pride and/or because they can’t get out of the investment they already made…under the radar.
      By the way, when and how are we getting the answers to all the questions asked that night?

      • GkzX5WLowCzIX59w/y5WdEqcRJzsMpOA2z0M2SNOVEs= …. actually Harvin not HISD staff I think claimed it would be 60-70 children; I never heard “conservative” but I will trust your memory. Ironically, that too falls into his list of odd statements. Smarter people than either Harvin or me on HHA’s and HISD’s staff are using slightly different metrics but our projection based on data obtained from about 3,000 families living in similar units owned by HHA suggests about 42 children. HISD using slightly different assumptions and projected, in writing, about 60 children.

        That being said, HISD has clearly told our authority based on data provided to them both in person and in writing in 5/2014 prior to our authority purchasing the site that they had incorporated their estimate (60) into their capacity planning for the area, an area which educates about 3,000 elementary school age students. as HISD trusts itself, we too trust HISD to figure out how to adjust zones to insure children moving into the dynamic part of Houston are area are educated.

        In re: $50 million, I too am unsettled by the amount and recognize that a larger number of homes could be constructed on less expensive land elsewhere in our community. you’re not wrong. but, the reality is, our authority not only should provide affordable housing choices throughout our entire city it has a legal obligation to do so. our board supports and respects this obligation.

        Our authority has obtained feedback from market rate developers building comparable Class A apartments much like others found on Fountainview. Although we have already shared two significant differences in cost per unit, (1) land cost/unit because of lower density and (2) the proportionate share of the development fee retained by our authority primarily for reinvestment, we know that we have to be able to support any variations in cost from those invested by market-rate developers. We will do that. At the conclusion of this process, notwithstanding any other differences, how the money is spent will be very clear and very well supported.

        Lance

  5. I would first like to thank Texas Housers for providing the opportunity for our community to share their thoughts on high-density housing projects. The proposed project here has divided the community in Independence Heights and certainly brought out fears and ugliness in everyone. . I would like to make sure you know that I am a resident of Independence Heights. I voted at Booker T. for the primaries. When I voted, I was “greeted” by two men who wanted to make sure I knew I had no standing in the community. My neighbors tell me that your ‘supporters’ have spread false rumors about me, because I oppose your actions. I will look forward to your visit Mr. Gilliam. I do live here and I am not going anywhere.

    • Ms. Rafferty, I hope you have ascertained from my engagement here that’s it is not my style nor do I support anyone disparaging anyone in the community, our staff and employees or, especially, our residents. Should anyone associated with HHA be guilty of that behavior, I want to know about it. That being said, I look forward to visiting with you at the community meeting on March 30th if not before. Best, Lance

  6. Did anyone notice that this article only played the audio from Congressman Culberson? I wonder why???? Oh maybe because the video would have shown the entire room 1000+ people in opposition to the project.

    Lance Gilliam the 2640 Fountain View Project exists so you (HHA) can have a trophy to take to Julian Castro (Secretary of Housing Urban Development). If this project moves forward, Lance will line the pockets of the Waterman Steele Group (Lance Gilliam’s private partnership) and all his friends and family with the absurd $60 Million dollar budget.

    See Lance thought the River Oaks Elementary map was fascinating because he lives in River Oaks and sends his kids to Kinkaid. In fact, when he had the meeting at Briargrove was probably the first time he has been in a public school in Houston. Lance loves to play Robinhood but it is very apparent he is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

    • Truth,

      It’s sad that in the absence of an attack on the messenger, the strategy is to attack the messenger. But, that’s ok. I will take the bait.

      (1) Our authority doesn’t need any trophies. We already have them. We’re proud of who we are and what we have accomplished. That being said, ironically, as both Congressman Culberson and Mr. Henneberger will both confirm, our authority actively opposed HUD’s policies which discouraged investment in lower-income neighborhoods, especially those of color. Our authority stood alone amongst its peers by filing an amicus brief in TDHCA v ICP. We lost, 5-4 last summer. It’s now our responsibility and obligation to respect and honor the law, as affirmed by the Supreme Court. Our authority’s board is clear we will. No problem.

      (2) Not true. Neither my firm or I have any financial interest whatsoever in the outcome of this proposed development. Never did. Never will. This hyperbole falls into the same category as “300 children!” In response to this allegation, I asked our authority for a reporting of any and all amounts paid to my firm or me. $0 is the amount paid to my firm. I have been reimbursed $2,959.60 in 6-years. $2,039.60 for a NAHRO training conference I attended shortly after being appointed to the board in 2010 and $920 for travel to Washington DC in 2014. According to HHA’s Vice President Fiscal Affairs and Operations, “There are no other payments to (me) of any kind found in (HHA) records.” HHA has audited financial statements which confirm this statement. I won’t dignify “friends and family” with a response other than that’s not true, in fact it’s laughable.

      (3) Like other zone maps I have seen produced by HISD, I found the River Oaks map interesting because of its seemingly arbitrary nature. Although I know HISD’s decisions about zones are based in math, I am also learning that there is a great deal of art to their outcomes, too. I don’t envy their demographers and planning staff; they have a difficult job.

      (4) If you’re going to attack me at least know me. Although both of my sons attended a public (SBISD) elementary school, you are correct that all three of my children attended or attend Kinkaid. I will always be thankful to my mother for her insuring our family was well-educated. But, that’s not really important to this conversation. What is important is my hope you will look beyond your neighborhood and its schools into other schools in less fortunate neighborhoods. I have spent many hours, even a few entire days in public schools. Before being appointed to HHA’s board, I had made a commitment to the importance of STEM to elementary and middle school age children. Today, my volunteerism includes a commitment to early childhood education and literacy. If you are a parent, I am hopeful your home is filled with books. There are tens of thousands of children in Houston who live in homes that have NO books in them. If you’d like, I can send you links to organizations committed to reading like Connect 4 Literacy. Truth is, school buildings aren’t important, it’s the children inside that are.

      — although I doubt it does, I hope this helps —

      Lance

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