Is the Sunnyside Multi-Service Center About to Move to the Old Dump?


Nobody told the residents of Sunnyside that the longtime Sunnyside Multi-Service Center on Cullen Boulevard between Reed Road and Airport Boulevard is about to move to the landfill.

That’s not the case, according to city officials, including Sylvester Turner. Besides, says the Houston mayor and Dwight Boykins, City Council Member for District D, the so-called proposed relocation site isn’t an active landfill, but rather a “former dump” with no current evidence of toxicity.

During last week’s Houston City Council meeting, community members from the neighborhood – located off State Highway 288 between The Loop and Beltway 8 – unleashed their concerns to Boykins, who at one point lost his cool and got into a heated exchange with one of the speakers. Turner, meanwhile, bolted from the City Hall chambers immediately after the first Sunnyside resident had spoken from the dais.

The nearly 40-year-old Sunnyside Multi-Service Center, a City of Houston Health and Human Services facility, is an invaluable resource for the impoverished and crime-prone area. The facility not only offers drug prevention programs and a supplemental health care program for women, infants and children, but the space also hosts social gatherings, GED classes and a program for seniors.

“The center is the most utilized in the city of Houston,” Travis McGee, a civic leader for the Sunnyside-South Park areas, told the Houston Press. “It’s in a perfect spot. There are restaurants, banks, a post office, drug stores. Everything’s within walking distance.”

McGee, who ran for Houston’s City Council District D in 2013, discovered through the rumor mill that a brand-new, yet-to-be-constructed multi-service center could be located at what locals call “dump row.”

“There was absolutely no community input,” says McGee.

The proposed site, according to Sunnyside community activist Charles X. White, is on the backside of Sunnyside Park, which is located across the street from Young (formerly Sunnyside) Elementary School on Bellfort near Scott Street. White tells the Press that Sunnyside Park sits on top of a former landfill.

Turner countered, during the December 6 council session, that the long defunct landfill isn’t poisoned, and that a United States Army Corps of Engineers test proves it. “[The Corps of Engineers] say it’s safe and not toxic,” said Turner.

Boykins punctuated Turner’s point by clutching and waving a piece of paper that he said was the Corps of Engineers report. (The Press has asked for a copy of the document from Boykins’s office – we’ll update this post if we hear back.)

The concern for Sunnyside residents is understandable, given the recently published Sunnyside Neighborhood Plan , co-authored by the Texas Organizing Project and Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, that chronicles Sunnyside’s history as the city’s literal dumping grounds.

The 300-acre Holmes Road landfill began operation in the 1937 just south of the first subdivision in Sunnyside. A long-time resident recalls the first roads paved in Sunnyside by the city upon annexation were those leading to the Holmes Road city dump just south of the first subdivision in Sunnyside. An incinerator was added to the dump in 1967 with an expectation to burn up to 800 tons of garbage per day.

The landfill and incinerator had a profoundly adverse impact on the community. An 11 year old boy drowned in an unfenced, water filled hole at the dump, sparking protests by Sunnyside residents who wanted the dump and incinerator shut down. Residents also noted the neighborhood suffered from “flies, roaches, rats, and smells” due to the site. Sunnyside’s long-time residents recall the stigma attached to going to school while being from the neighborhood with the dump, as Holmes Road landfill was the only landfill inside the city limits during its operation. Pastors in Sunnyside led protests after witnessing other communities successfully shutting down compost sites elsewhere in the city.

The report goes on to say that another “temporary” 78-acre rubbish site, the Reed Road landfill, opened in 1964 in Sunnyside.

Thomas C. Reed, the original landowner, was given an option to repurchase the land in five years at the original price. In 1969, the dump was expanded by 38 acres and the rights to repurchase were bought by the City, thereby solidifying its permanence.

After years of protests and arguments with city councilmen, the Holmes Road incinerator closed in 1971. The landfill closed to municipal waste in 1970, but continued to accept soil and demolition debris through 1977.

The Reed Road landfill closed in 1970, but left mounds of controversy behind. The former landowners of the Reed Road landfill, the Reeds, argued that the City left the landfill in inadequate condition, with mountains of improperly covered trash. The land was supposed to be graded and capped for future use. Moreover, smoldering underground fires lasted for months at the Reed Road landfill after its closing due to 20 feet of trash covering two gas wells on the site.

At City Hall last week, District J Council Member Mike Laster attempted to weigh in on the debate and came off sounding particularly tone deaf.

“I don’t really know that part of the community at all, in fact,” said Laster, who then asked the speaker, Cynthia Pharms, a civil rights activist in Sunnyside who has been honored by the Texas Legislature for her community contributions, if the current location and the proposed site are far apart.

“Not a really long far away?” asked Laster. “It’s walking distance, right?” (It’s about 2.3 miles, according to the Internet.)

Now, to even the able-bodied, walking two-plus miles in Houston, especially in July or August, might feel like running a full marathon. For a 90-year-old senior who spends his time at the current multi-service center, we imagine a 2.3-mile walk might feel like completing a triathlon. Or three.

Or, as Pharms succinctly said in her rebuttal to Laster: “No. It’s not walking distance.”

When asked what he would be doing with a new Sunnyside Multi-Service Center if his Houston City Council bid had been successful, McGee didn’t hesitate.

“First off, I would speak to the community about it. Second of all, I wouldn’t be putting it on an old dump.”

This story originally appeared 12/14/2016 in the Houston Press.

City OKs first new housing authority apartment project in a decade


The Houston Housing Authority is poised to build its first new affordable apartments in a decade, after City Council on Wednesday cleared the way for the development of a subsidized housing complex in Independence Heights.

The 154-unit development at Crosstimbers and North Main would be located in a high-poverty, predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhood, prolonging housing advocates’ concerns about the dearth of affordable options in low-poverty areas with good schools.

Federal housing officials in August launched an investigation into whether the city’s placement of affordable housing violates the Civil Rights Act, after Mayor Sylvester Turner blocked a similar development near the Galleria, a so-called “high-opportunity” neighborhood.

Turner said he views the Independence Heights project at 302 Crosstimbers as a better financial deal than the proposed development at 2640 Fountain View, which he declined to bring to a City Council vote, citing “costs and other concerns.”

“It’s good not only for people who need affordable housing. It’s good for the school district itself,” Turner said, referencing the nearby Booker T. Washington High School scheduled to open in 2018. “There is almost (unanimous) support for it. It is more cost-efficient than what was proposed (at Fountain View).”

The mayor said in August that Fountain View’s per-unit price tag of $240,000 was too expensive.

The Independence Heights development is projected at $226,000 per unit, according to Houston Housing Authority President Tory Gunsolley, and would be reserved for families earning 60 percent or less of the area’s median income, $69,200 for a family of four.

Gunsolley said he is excited about finally being able to move forward with a project after all but two of the eight projects the housing authority proposed in the last three years were blocked.

“We’ve been trying at a number of different properties to get all of the stars to align so that we could go forward,” Gunsolley said. “It’s rewarding to finally – we’re still not there yet – but we’re closer to the finish line in getting all of those approvals.”

A ‘shocking affront’

The Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs is set to review the housing authority’s application for tax credits Dec. 15, the final government approval hurdle.

Housing advocate John Henneberger said his group, the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, asked the city to sign off on the Independence Heights project only in conjunction with Fountain View or another development in a similar “high-opportunity” neighborhood.

“Approving a new low-income project in Independence Heights today … while at the same time continuing to refuse to approve a single new subsidized housing unit in a low-poverty, non-segregated neighborhood, is a clear and shocking affront to civil rights and fair housing, as well as a blatant violation of the law,” Henneberger said in an email.

The Independence Heights development would be located in a census tract with a poverty rate of 35 percent, compared with 6.1 percent for the Fountain View site.

Houston has concentrated most of its units in neighborhoods like Independence Heights, with high poverty and a high concentration of minority residents, worrying some that the city’s affordable housing efforts perpetuate segregation.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that policies with a “disparate impact” on minorities violate the Fair Housing Act, even if the effect is unintentional.

Mayor must ‘hold true’

Tiffany Hogue, policy director for the Texas Organizing Project, a grass-roots advocacy group, said it is important to expand affordable options in neighborhoods like Independence Heights that are thought to be on the cusp of gentrification, but indicated that alone is not enough.

“We still expect the mayor to hold true to his commitment to get truly low-income units in high-opportunity areas that are zoned to good schools and along transportation (corridors) and jobs,” Hogue said in an email.

After blocking the Fountain View project in August, Turner asked the housing authority to seek proposals for alternate projects in the same west Houston area, Council District G.

Gunsolley, the housing authority president, said the agency submitted a proposal to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in September for a site in District G, and another proposal to the Texas General Land Office in October for a site in southwest Houston’s District K.

Neither, he said, is a replacement for Fountain View.

“I don’t think that either one by itself would be seen as a one-for-one replacement of Fountain View,” he said. “We are still looking for more options.”

The mayor said the city should not stop expanding subsidized housing options while the search for another “high-opportunity” site is underway.

“We certainly don’t rule out building housing in those areas, and we probably will build housing in those areas,” Turner said. “But that doesn’t mean that we stop all public housing completely until it’s done.”

HUD did not respond to a request for comment on the status of its investigation into Houston’s placement of affordable housing.

In other housing news, City Council signed off on the demolition of the troubled Crestmont Village apartment complex in South Acres and confirmed Tom McCasland as director of the city’s housing department.

This story originally appeared 11/30/2016 in the Houston Chronicle.

Chairman of Houston Housing Authority Board resigns amidst new affordable housing development


HOUSTON – The chairman of the Houston Housing Authority Board announced he would resign after Mayor Sylvester Turner came out against a controversial affordable housing development.

Lance Gilliam submitted his resignation Friday in the wake of sharp criticism from the mayor.

“The sound you’re hearing is my butt getting kicked up and down the street,” Gilliam said in his first interview since announcing he would step down as chair on August 23. He will leave the board altogether December 31.

Turner stunned Gilliam and the Houston Housing Authority when he came out against the project at 2640 Fountain View near the Galleria.

“I made the decision (that) it was not cost prudent to move forward with this particular project at this particular location,” Turner said Monday.

Turner also called out the housing authority’s lack of action on other projects.

“I am disappointed that the Houston Housing Authority has not moved forward with other housing projects that are on their books right now, they’re not building housing in other areas of (the) city,” Turner said.

Gilliam said he shared the mayor’s frustration, but that the mayor was “mistaken” in his assessment of HHA’s work.

“I think the criticism was unfair and may not have reflected all the things we have done,” Gilliam said.

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled more public housing must be built in “higher opportunity” neighborhoods.

Gilliam says the Fountain View project would have been the cornerstone of the city’s efforts to follow that mandate.

“Children in better performing schools do better in life, it’s just a fact. Projects like Fountain View can immediately make an impact on people’s lives,” he added.

The proposed 233 unit apartment complex was controversial from the start, with residents forming an opposition group to fight the project.

In a statement, Mayor Turner thanked Gilliam for his service and said, “I plan to take the housing authority in a new direction and believe that a change in leadership will be beneficial in getting us there. There is a tremendous need for affordable housing throughout Houston, and (for) transforming communities that have been overlooked and underserved for decades. I am committed to creating opportunity neighborhoods throughout the city with affordable housing, quality schools, parks and retail development.”

Fair housing advocacy groups said they hope the mayor keeps his word.

“There’s been a long history of Houston not having low income housing in high opportunity areas, and so we absolutely are going to hold the mayor accountable to that vision,” said Tiffany Hogue, of the Texas Organizing Project.

The mayor has asked HHA to find another location within District G for an affordable housing complex.

This story originally appeared 8/8/2016 on KPRC.