Leah Binkovitz | @leahbink | August 3, 2016
After months of vocal debate, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said the city won’t move forward with a proposal to build a mixed-income, 233-unit public housing development in the city’s Briargrove area. The project would have been the Houston Housing Authority’s first in what’s considered a “high opportunity” neighborhood, with access to well ranked schools and community amenities.
The mayor cited some of the same issues that opponents of the project have rallied around, including its high price tag — $240,000 per unit, according to Turner’s statement about his decision. The mayor’s support for the project is required to get federal funding through the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program, so without it, the Fountain View location would be much more expensive for the Houston Housing Authority to build. Instead, Turner asked the authority to look for an alternative location in the same city council district, District G, and he encouraged the authority to look to other ways of providing housing assistance in high opportunity neighborhoods, like the housing choice vouchers program
Turner’s move drew strong rebuke from affordable housing advocates, who said the decision contradicts federal law and a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that says affordable housing can’t be concentrated in poor areas..
Over at the Housing Authority, leaders say 2640 Fountain View is still on the table, but moving forward with it could mean taking another project — either in Fifth Ward, Independence Heights or Acres Homes — off the table. The authority responded to the mayor’s concern about the project’s price in a statement, saying that the high value of the land and the decision to build less densely made it more expensive than its projects in other neighborhoods.
Now, the Housing Authority is asking for alternative proposals in a request to be issued Monday, August 8.
Leah Binkovitz, staff writer for the Kinder Institute’s Urban Edge, spoke with Houston Housing Authority Chairman Lance Gilliam about the controversial project and what’s next. (Editor’s Update: Gilliam resigned his position Aug. 5, two days after this piece was published). This interview has been slightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Binkovitz: Let’s start with Mayor Turner’s decision. One of the housing goals his transition team listed as “under consideration” when he took office was to double the number of annual affordable units produced in emerging and high opportunity zones, like this one. So did his decision not to bring the Fountain View plan before City Council surprise you?
Gilliam: I don’t know that we were surprised. Mayor Turner had this under consideration for quite a while. We have been looking forward to his response. We wanted to earn his support. I know he’s been very thoughtful and he’s been very concerned about the same issues we were – process and being good stewards of taxpayer funds. We’re excited to actually have direction from the mayor. It’s a tremendous amount of money and taxpayer money that we have to honor. So I’m happy to get the direction.
Binkovitz: The backlash to this project was strong. At a meeting with the community where this was to be built, your colleague Tory Gunsolley literally told residents, “We’re not evil. We are good at what we do.” What made this location such a lightning rod?
Gilliam: I honestly don’t think it was special. We had a very similar meeting that we attended that was actually hosted by the community in regard to the Pinemont site about a year earlier. There were comments about future residents, people who these folks in the community had never met, but yet I think the exact term was “thugs, killers and folks of those ilk.”
I’ve heard [opponents to the Fountain View project] protest a number of times, “We’re not racist.” Every time they list their litany of concerns, there’s that. But this wasn’t that bad. It’s unfortunate that I’ve become used to this. I should be shocked by it.
Binkovitz: A lot of the criticism was about process and transparency. Would you have done anything differently looking back on it?
Gilliam: We had legal requirements we met and exceeded. We’ve never entered a neighborhood where somebody said, “We really want low-income housing.” Would we have done something differently? I honestly can’t say that we would have. I’ve never been shy about it. My father, brother, and sister-in-law all live in that neighborhood. I grew up just west of there. I live just east of there. I drive through it twice a day. There have been no secrets about this.
Binkovitz: So in addition to transparency, there were a few other common objections, can you talk about those briefly?
Gilliam: Traffic impact; that’s very easy to dismiss. The impact on traffic is negligible. It’s like 13 cars a day on a street that carries 13,000 cars a day. They were looking for problems. That’s not a real objection. That’s a mask.
The second one, which is the most controversial and there are no good answers on this one, is access to high-performing schools. The reality is there are three elementary schools within less than a mile of the site, that all were either at capacity or even capped. I personally went to a lunch with [then-Superintendent] Dr. Grier back in 2012, when I first was coming on as chairman of our board. I wanted to make sure our development plans were coordinated with HISD’s. We shared that information with them. We sent one of our staff members over there with a senior demographer, and the guys were clear: all of our high-performing schools operate consistently at capacity or are capped. But we figured out that based on our projections, we’d have about 40 — their metric indicated about 60 — school-aged children. But there’s 3,000 elementary school seats, which includes another overflow school that will soon be open, so there was an opportunity to absorb new students.
No child at Briargrove that was currently there was being displaced; any child who was there had the opportunity to return. What really happened was folks came up to me and said, “This is our school. We paid for it. We pay property taxes. These folks don’t pay taxes like we do. This is our school and they don’t deserve to come here.” There’s a real big problem with that. It’s not their school. It’s HISD’s school.
Binkovitz: Given those objections and the fact that Turner has said he still wants this project in that general area, what would be different at any other site?
Gilliam: I honestly don’t know. I’m super open minded to it … at the end of the day your question is very pertinent. Why would we think that given the experience we’ve had to date, and the fact we have failed twice very publicly, that anybody else wouldn’t say, “It’s not that hard, just yell loud enough and they’ll go away.” That ultimately violates the law.
Binkovitz: Advocates and your own executive director have said not going with Fountain View could open the city up to some potential fair housing lawsuits. Can you talk about that?
Gilliam: I’m not an attorney, just a layman who knows a little bit more about this than most folks. We have a deep concern that in our unequivocal obligation to affirmatively further affordable housing. This is the lynchpin toward our city being able to move forward in honoring its commitment. The law is clear. There are cases out the kazoo.
I’m extremely concerned about making sure that as a city and an authority we honor our commitment. I grew up in District G. We’re going to need to stay in that [area], and not just with this development, but probably another one to continue to balance out as we reinvest in communities that tend to be lower income and of color we need to offset those developments with equal choices in other communities that tend to be higher income and less diverse.
Binkovitz: In light of the recent Supreme Court ruling, there’s a central question here about access to opportunity. Can you talk about what living in a high opportunity neighborhood means?
Gilliam: The mayor has said, and I couldn’t agree with him more, “I don’t like that term.” It’s offensive. It assumes there are low opportunity neighborhoods. There’s another term that gets used which is “amenities.” I don’t think schools and access to healthy food and open spaces are amenities. I think they are in some cases rights. There’s absolutely a correlation between communities’ incomes and access to grocery stores. There’s absolutely a correlation between a community’s income and often times color and the performance rating of their schools, and it breaks my heart because it’s not fair. Mayor Turner is remarkably passionate about this.
The impacts on these families living in those communities that don’t have access — it’s across the board. Every bit of data we have show that kids are better off, and families are better off, when they are given access to these amenities. There’s a compelling reason to invest in high opportunity neighborhoods, but at the same time we can’t abandon others, and we need to invest in our schools.
Binkovitz: So what happens next?
Gilliam: What will be fascinating will be in about 30 days, after we get feedback.
Our question, of course, is what happens if after we look again, we find out we were actually pretty smart, and it comes back that Fountain View is the best site in District G? Will we have then earned the mayor’s support?