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Grieder: Houston City Council should insist on answers from Mayor Turner in housing deal flap

Houston Chronicle logo Houston Chronicle 9/25/2021 By Erica Grieder

Houston has a strong mayor-city council system — and in Sylvester Turner, a strong-willed mayor.

Still, City Council members need to set aside their rubber stamps and ask some real questions about the $15 million affordable housing contract that Turner wants to award to a group of developers, including his own longtime law partner.

It was a dramatic week for city leaders, thanks to Tom McCasland, who until this past week was the director of Houston’s housing and community development department.

McCasland on Tuesday lived out every bureaucrat’s dream, or nightmare, by showing up to the council’s housing and community affairs committee with a packet of documents, arranged in chronological order, and an explosive story to tell.

“Unfortunately, I’ve reached a point where I can no longer do the bidding of this administration, as it relates to this development,” McCasland said. “This administration is bankrolling a certain developer to the detriment of working families who need affordable homes.”

Some months ago, McCasland continued, he was contacted by Marvalette Hunter, Turner’s chief of staff, who was interested in how the city could help finance a project, Huntington at Bay Area. It would include 88 affordable housing units for senior citizens in Council District E, which encompasses parts of Kingwood and Clear Lake.

He said he explained that, in such situations, developers have to go through a competitive process. And, as it turned out in this case, Huntington at Bay Area wasn’t up to snuff. McCasland’s team ranked it eighth out of 12 proposals submitted — and recommended instead that the available funds be directed to four other projects, which would create a total of 362 affordable housing units.

Still, McCasland said, Turner decided to opt for the Huntington at Bay Area project.

“We knew that we were supposed to set up this (Notice of Funding Availability) funding to fund a particular developer,” he told the gobsmacked council members of the committee. “But we don’t do business that way at the housing department. We scored this like it truly was a competitive scoring process.”

And so, McCasland explained, he found himself in an untenable situation after seven years as director of the agency.

“I am being forced to participate in a charade that this was a competitive process when I know it was not a competitive process,” McCasland said. “That’s the problem here. And I’m being forced to ask my teammates to participate in that charade. And that is not something that we can do; that is not something that we will do.”

Turner’s response to all of this was to fire the well-regarded McCasland and deny any wrongdoing. He then directed City Attorney Arturo Michel to conduct a “full review” of McCasland’s claims — an investigation that may be thorough but will not be independent, exactly, given that the city attorney is a mayoral appointee.

With that said, we don’t need an investigation to evaluate McCasland’s claims about the Huntington at Bay Area project. His criticisms were measured and specific. He acknowledged that Turner, as mayor, can override staff recommendations, and he specified that he wasn’t accusing Turner — or anyone else — of fraud.

And he explained why the Huntington at Bay Area project was suboptimal, from the housing department’s assessment. It would use $15 million in city money for a project that would create 88 units of affordable housing as well as a number of market-rate units. The four deals that McCasland’s team recommended, in contrast, would have yielded 362 affordable housing units for a commensurate sum, $16.2 million; that’s $44,800 per affordable housing unit, on average, compared with $170,500 a pop on the Huntington at Bay Area project.

That’s a striking discrepancy and one that explains why the housing department would have recommended the projects it did, rather than the one Turner took an interest in.

It’s also a difference that should have led analysts to scrutinize the people pitching the Huntington at Bay Area project. While District E is a relatively wealthy one, its housing costs are not four times greater than those of Districts F, J, H or C, where the housing department’s recommended projects would have been located.

In fact, it’s relatively inexpensive to build in Kingwood or Clear Lake. So even if you agree that Turner was right to prioritize a project in this specific City Council district, you might well wonder, why would he favor this one?

As the Houston Chronicle’s Dylan McGuinness and Mike Morris reported, the developers backing it include Barry Barnes, Turner’s former law partner, and another partner at Barnes’ firm, Jermaine Thomas. Perhaps that has nothing to do with Turner’s views on the project itself, but it has the appearance of political favoritism.

In the meantime, City Council members — who must give final approval to Huntington at Bay Area — should closely review the case laid out by McCasland and demand some real answers from Turner.

McCasland has a long and distinguished record of public service, which Turner himself recognized when he brought him into his administration in 2016. Affordable housing is an issue McCasland cares about personally, too. In 2013, after he was tasked with cleaning up the Harris County Housing Authority, he explained to the Chronicle that he grew up in poverty, the second of 10 children, in a house that lacked electricity, leaving him to study by the light of kerosene lamps.

And, perhaps more to the point, McCasland’s qualms about the Huntington at Bay Area project are straightforward and completely legitimate. Houston is facing a shortage of affordable housing, no doubt. It would be nice to support affordable housing in District E specifically, which hasn’t had such a project in several years.

But this project doesn’t seem to be a compelling one, compared with the alternatives.

Turner has listed expanding affordable housing as a top priority. He needs to explain what role he had in the selection process — and why, given the options available, he wouldn’t be for an option that puts roofs over the heads of a few hundred more of his constituents.


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