The Houston Housing Authority is responding to Hot Air’s piece on the city’s attempt to seize two churches in Houston’s Fifth Ward. HHA Board Chair Lance Gilliam sent me an email over the weekend explaining HHA’s position and also answered several questions on the issue. They are presented in their entirety below with the only change being when I asked a question.

Taylor, your post on Hot Air was forwarded to me. I am chairman of the Houston Housing Authority. Fortunately, the information released to the press by the Liberty Institute is inaccurate. In fact, it isn’t even consistent with the facts in their own lawsuit.

First, the City of Houston and its Mayor nothing to with this disagreement. As noted in Liberty’s pleadings, the Houston Housing Authority is an “independent authority.” Although its commissioners, including me, are appointed by the Mayor, we do not report to her. In fact, all of our funds are provided by HUD not the City of Houston.

Second, reports that we were demolishing a church were factually inaccurate [[ NOTE FROM TAYLOR: HA never wrote about a church being demolished ]]. Again, Liberty’s pleadings notes that the only church with any buildings on the property in question was concerned that we might acquire their property. In fact, I understood that the church (Pastor Smith) had previously expressed an interest in selling and we had an interest in buying. If he’s not a seller we are not a buyer.. I have confirmed that with Pastor Smith and have asked our attorneys to document that with the court.

Third, the property we have initiated eminent domain proceedings against consists of three unimproved parcels —- including one which most real estate folks would refer to as a “spike strip” —- an alleyway whose only purpose in owing is to control the tract and/or others’ development plans. one of the three tracts was actually acquired by the church AFTER we started our efforts to acquire the other two.

So —- it’s not the City of Houston or its Mayor + we’re not tearing down any churches + we’re paying fair market value —- probably the high side of fair market value —- and not “stealing” the property. I know this doesn’t make for as interesting a story but the truth is all of this is fairly unremarkable since my fellow commissioners and I deeply value communities of faith, especially in this community and want them to thrive. (Yes, I am a Christian —- Episcopalian)

Hot Air: You mentioned HHA is “an independent authority,” but all the commissioners are appointed by the Mayor. If that’s the case, then who has oversight over the HHA?

Lance Gilliam: Keeping in mind that I have no history in either public service as either an appointed or elected official and beyond that no history in the affordable housing community prior to my appointment to HHA’s board here’s the answer —– which will make as much sense as it didn’t to me.  (yes, didn’t). Housing authorities were created by federal law in the 1930s. Both the federal and state laws relating to housing authorities delegate the authority to appoint commissioners to the chief executive of the authorizing governmental entity; in Houston that would be the mayor of Houston. To my understanding —- which seems to make sense —- the reason the right to appoint was given to one individual is to place that obligation in the hands of someone who represents an entire community instead of one of its parts, for example, a district council member. If the appointing authority was subject to city council members having the right to vote that would give them leverage as the commissioners at the housing authority try and make broad decisions about where to place affordable housing, generally populated by low income families many of color. That’s the good news.

The bad news is this structure places the authority to appoint in the hands of one individual. In that context if he / she were a bad person, he/she could stack a board, as few as three people, with friends and those friends could arguably do bad things. —- so —-back to the good news. Our board is seven people not three. Although we’re all appointed by the mayor, we’re very cognizant that we are LEGALLY ACCOUNTABLE to HUD not the City of Houston. Our authority is subject to inspections and audits by HUD’s Office of the Inspector General not the City of Houston. Our authority is funded (fully funded) by HUD not the City of Houston.. Yes absolutely for sure, I am a friend of the Mayor and work diligently to insure that whenever possible HHA co-invests in communities with the City of Houston and its peers, like Harris County —- in this particular instance, the original goal was for us to collaborate allowing for HHA to build affordable housing and COH to build a library. (with our agreement not to acquire Pastor Smith’s church there is no library and no co-investment with the City of Houston —- we do hope, however, the city chooses to build the library nearby) but, my fellow commissioners and I always do what’s best for our authority and its residents first; the City of Houston, Harris County and others come second, a close second but still second.

HA: If the churches said they weren’t interested in selling, then why do the eminent domain seizure?

Gilliam: Contrary to published reports, our authority NEVER initiated eminent domain proceedings against Pastor Smith’s church and property. in fact to my knowledge we’ve actually never spoken with him until I spoke with him this week. We were told he was interested in selling.  We were interested in buying. Pastor Smith and his family have now told us he is not interested in selling and we’re not going to pursue his property further. End of story.

The other church LDDRC is another matter —- in my opinion they simply have a competing vision for revitalization and appear to have bought two tracts for the primary purpose of assuring they —- and no one else —- could develop the tract across the street from their church. One tract is about 5,000 square feet, the other a former alleyway. AFTER becoming aware of our authority’s desire to redevelop the approximately 2.0-acre block they purchased yet another tract, the third referenced in the lawsuit. Eminent domain is a power to be used reluctantly and as a last resource. Our authority is effectively a federal agency whose job is to construct and own affordable housing for low income families. It’s a clear and limited purpose. Given the church wasn’t willing to accept an offer to sell their property for fair market value and their refusal impaired our fulfilling our obligation to the public to fulfill our mission our board reluctantly voted to approve the use of eminent domain. I have inserted two photographs below; before and after. “Before” this litigation was started the one unimproved, unpaved vacant lot was used for a parking lot. Very recently the sign was changed to read “Out Door Ministries” with a camera added to record their activities. (Reach your own conclusions here)

HA: You mentioned wanting to replace dilapidated homes. Could this be done without taking the church properties?

Gilliam: Not the way we would like to. Unfortunately the church acquired three properties, two non-contiguous tracts in a manner that many would consider to be simply for the purpose of disrupting others’ including our development plans. In light of this litigation, we are of course considering our configurations for our proposed development. None contemplate building anywhere else than on this block.

I really appreciate Gilliam’s decision to reach out, even if I disagree with him on the issue. Private property ownership is something which has been important in America since the country’s formation. Land used to be cash in the 1780’s, which was one reason why so many Founding Fathers were rich in land, but not necessarily money. I’m not a fan of a government entity (independent or not) trying to take land after a property owner said no. But I also understand why HHA would want to redevelop the land. Felicia Cravens at Free Radical Network points out it’s possible redeveloping Fifth Ward isn’t a bad idea.

That may be what is needed in the Fifth Ward – a fresh start.  I couldn’t begin to know how to fix all the cosmetic flaws I discovered in an afternoon’s drive down the streets, much less understand the nature of the structures – both physical and community-wise – that make this section of Fifth Ward a battleground in a courtroom today.  What I know is that there are two churches that hold onto a fraction of the property in the area, two long-standing churches that have a tradition of improving both property AND people in the community, and that the Houston Housing Authority wants to confiscate those parcels and pass them on to builders to be developed for low-income housing.

There are still a couple questions which need to be considered. The first is who should develop Fifth Ward: the HHA or Latter Day Deliverance Revival Center. The HHA may want to follow its own mission and genuinely help Fifth Ward, but LDDRC has been there for decades and knows the community. It might be best to allow the church to stay, hold onto the land, and decide what to do with it. If the church and leadership aren’t committing any crimes, and it doesn’t appear so, then they should hold onto the land and develop it as they see fit. There’s no need for eminent domain.

The second is whether this fight would be happening if areas of worship paid property taxes. Tax exemptions for churches on a federal level were put in place by the Wilson-Gorman Tariff Act of 1894. Those were tossed by the 1895 Pollock vs. Farmers decision, but the exemptions were restored once the Revenue Act of 1913 and the 16th Amendment were passed. It’s likely some states would move to exempt houses of worship from property taxes if the federal government got rid of the exemptions. I’m honestly on the fence as to whether houses of worship should pay property taxes. It might keep extravagant worship centers from actually being built and make sure churches focus on their mission of helping the poor, spreading the Gospel, and being lights in the community. But I’m also not a fan of property taxes in general and think they’re another example of government theft. Cato Institute wrote in 2011 how Baltimore’s high property taxes hurt people.

In modern Baltimore, the machine has exploited class divisions, not ethnic ones. Officials raised property taxes 21 times between 1950 and 1985, channeling the proceeds to favored voting blocs and causing many homeowners and entrepreneurs — disproportionately Republicans — to flee. It was brilliant politics, as Democrats now enjoy an eight-to-one voter registration advantage and no Republican has been elected mayor in 48 years.

In all honesty, Houston may want to see some of the land parcels gobbled up, even if they technically have no say in what HHA does (because, as Gilliam notes, they are an independent agency). The city sank around $17M into Fifth Ward starting in 1999. At the time, the Fifth Ward Zone had $21M in taxable real property. But Houston as a whole has $3B in debt per Moody’s (although the city claims $1.7B in debt). Getting the land out of the hands of the church would mean more tax money for the city to help pay down its debt.

It should be pointed out there is an error in Liberty Institute’s lawsuit. The suit says the city created the Fifth Ward Redevelopment Corporation in 1999. This isn’t true. The city created the Fifth Ward Reinvestment Zone in 1999. The Fifth Ward Redevelopment Corporation is a completely separate entity, created by Fifth Ward residents in 1989. It does get block grants from the city, but most of its cash appears to come from donations. It’s curious to see if the FWCRC gets involved in this fight, and which side it takes.