Houston Housing Authority chair Lance Gilliam doesn’t mince words when it comes to the HHA gaining control of the former site of the Pinemont Park & Ride.
“Once we gain site control – and we will gain site control – we have a robust community engagement process that is required of us,” Gilliam said. “We haven’t begun that process, but we do have legal requirements for the complex itself and we also have to complete a traffic impact analysis. As a federally funded entity, there is a long list of rules and regulations that what we construct is functionally appropriate.”
However, the property still remains in the hands of METRO, and Gilliam said that “all of this conversation right now is being controlled by METRO.”
METRO officials haven’t exactly been free from criticism from the community, either. While the group contends that all of its meetings have been open to the public and agendas have been posted online, some in the surrounding community have accused the organization of engaging in a back-door deal with the HHA to establish a 300 unit apartment complex at the site of the Pinemont Park & Ride. METRO declared the land a “surplus property” last year.
For Gilliam, he emphasizes he and his organization will continue working with the community to address the concerns of residents, but he also makes clear the intent of the HHA.
“Our process is guided with a lot of outside influence from entities like the Texas Department of Housing and Development,” Gilliam said. “Their rules and regulations impact what we do and we’re doing what we’re doing because of them. The reality is, however, that we also agree with their direction.”
Gilliam says the unfortunate stereotype associated with the organization is that many of these solutions are downtrodden and in a state of disrepair. He pointed to communities like Willow Park Apartments, located in Missouri City on Fondren. The 260-unit complex, first established in 2004, is dramatically different from other communities.
“It looks like a first-class apartment complex, complete with a coffee bar, a workout room and a pool,” Gilliam said. “That’s ours.”
The potential development is being compared to apartments currently north and east of the communities which have been most vocal of the development, Gilliam argues. He said these private apartments in the surrounding area are often “absolutely awful” and in “unacceptable” condition. In contrast, HHA has a security force contracted to protect their communities and helps ensure residents are respectful to surrounding neighborhoods.
“We would never let our communities devolve to the point of what these folks have had to endure,” Gilliam said. “But they look at us, see that it’s low income, and have not taken the time to differentiate our communities from what they’re used to dealing with in the neighborhood.”
The HHA targets what it calls “neighborhoods of high opportunity,” or those communities and areas which would provide the best opportunities for affordable housing, education and jobs for those with lower income. The Pinemont area had been identified by HHA officials several years ago. Despite many residents suggesting HHA purchase an abandoned lot or another building in the area, Gilliam said the group opts not to use taxpayer dollars to pay a private land owner.
“One of our policies is, when we identify a neighborhood site owned by another peer governmental authority, we will focus on working with them,” Gilliam said. “We have worked with METRO in the past and we have also bought sites from HISD and Harris County. This is the first time I have seen someone having an objection to the government buying another government property.”
Gilliam took issue with some in the community rushing to judgment about the potential residents of such a complex. He said the HHA has “a ton of rules as a governmental entity,” and has numerous standards and restrictions for residents – enough that he considers the organization in many ways to be a tougher landlord than private apartment complexes.
“The applicant can’t have a criminal record and you have to be absolutely specific about who else is on the lease,” Gilliam said. “No one else on the lease can have a criminal record and we even restrict smoking at our communities. We have a long, long waiting list to live in our communities, so if you can’t be respectful of our rules or pay your bills on time, we have someone waiting to move in tomorrow.”
At the most recent METRO meeting regarding the sale, some expressed their concerns with the impending redrawing of boundaries by HISD for a number of schools in the region. Gilliam stressed the HHA has had a “great working relationship” with HISD and said that the narrative in the community now might be completely different if a standard developer was building the exact style of housing on the Pinemont property.
“It’s critical to us that our residents have access to a good education,” Gilliam said. “Success, particularly in education, should not always be defined by income.”
A work in progress
Forest West Civic Club President David Ojeman said he and other residents are still concerned. The commuity has joined forces with surrounding communities to plan its opposition to the proposed development.
“We’re not anti-poor or racist or anything like that,” Ojeman said. “What we have are real concerns about our safety and what this development will do to our property values.”
Residents are already planning to meet at a town hall, scheduled for 7 p.m. April 16 at Advent Lutheran Church at 5820 Pinemont Park Drive, which is co-hosted by Forest West, Pinemont Park, Forest Pines, Mangum Manor and Candlelight Oaks. The HHA Board of Commissioners will also be holding their monthly meeting 3 p.m. April 21 at Lincoln Park, located at 790 West Little York.
Near Northwest-area residents have also launched an online petition opposing the sale, saying that the area is already inundated with multi-family complexes. Local citizens also expressed their desire for the property “to be sold to the highest bidder in an effort to maximize tax revenue that will benefit all entities involved,” something repeated by Ojeman during community meetings.
This is not just about Forest West, we all have an equal stake, as this will affect the entire area,” Ojeman said in an email to residents.
Gilliam said he hoped residents would realize that some of their concerns about safety might be overblown.
“Ultimately, it will be on the communities to come together and realize the people living in this complex are nice and they’re good people with families and kids,” Gilliam said.