HOUSTON: Protesters Disrupt Developers’ Secret Meeting

PHOTO: Anti-gentrification activists intervene at a secret meeting held by the Buffalo Bayou Partnership

By Jennifer Kelly

Last Thursday night, activists in Houston disrupted a secret event organized by the Buffalo Bayou Partnership (BBP) at the Felix Fraga campus of the Houston Community College (HCC) in East End. The event, which BBP kept secret and did not openly promote, was billed as a ‘public community question and answer session,’ however the real purpose was to secure a tax credit from the government in a move to become landlords.

As the meeting started, BBP president Anne Olsen began by stating that the purpose of the meeting was to get community feedback for their upcoming plans. Immediately, a small group of activists interrupted her and took the stage and gave a speech exposing her lie. Despite the dozens of events promoted on their website and Facebook page, from nature walks to fundraisers, this panel was not among them.

The moment the activists approached the meeting room, BBP contacted the police and had an officer in the room to stop the protest as it began, however the panel was still delayed several minutes. “When you go to the press you tell them you don’t want to call this gentrification, but you can’t hide the truth. This is gentrification and we won’t let you lie to people,” said one of the activists as he was removed.

As the protesters left one developer admitted to others in attendance that the activists were right, that BBP’s plan was gentrification and people were going to lose their homes, laughing at BBP for trying to hide this fact, since he apparently welcomed it.

A member of local nonprofit Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS) chided activists as they were forced from the meeting, saying that while he agreed that BBP were crooks, the activists had gone too far. He still claimed to support the activists, he did not do so openly in the meeting. Thus far TEJAS has not made any public statements against the development.

Protesters continued to chant and speak at the front of the campus as students and workers left the building. One family that lived down the street joined the activists, and many others asked for information on how to join the struggle against gentrification.

As cars stopped to talk to the protesters, police became more aggressive, telling people to stop speaking with activists and forcing drivers to move on under threats. Seeing this, a man who lived across the street even offered activists the use of his home if police took action against them.

During the meeting, BBP revealed its immediate plans for the area – to grow from taking private donations from developers and investors to becoming landlords themselves by constructing approximately 300 apartments along the bayou. To BBP, this supposedly ‘public’ meeting was a mere formality, one they were legally compelled to put on as they sought tax benefits from the city of Houston.

One notable ‘mixed income’ complex completed last year in the gentrifying Northside neighborhood, Hardy Yards, set aside some units for those making $45,000 a year, and was able to secure $14.5 million from the city in funds slated for disaster relief following Hurricane Ike, which ravaged Houston over a decade ago.

To secure these same funds, BBP needs approval from ‘Super Neighborhood 63,’ among other groups and were legally mandated to put on their sham meeting. In Houston, a ‘Super Neighborhood’ is a low level body made up of developers, small and large businesses, and some homeowners within an area that makes limited decisions on ordinances and what is built within the area.

A rendering released last year of Buffalo Bayou Partnership’s mixed-use “East River” project.

BBP’s 300 units are being billed as part of a “mixed income” development, an almost entirely meaningless term. “Mixed income housing” is loosely defined as a complex with a range of unit prices, which allows developers to secure significant tax breaks from the City of Houston. There is no rule on the proportion of apartments in this ‘lower’ price range, nor do they have to stay at this rate indefinitely – according to one developer, after a period typically lasting 15 to 30 years the landlords are free to charge whatever they like.

For BBP, who already count developers on their board, the construction of the 300 apartments is their immediate priority. They have hired Brinshore Development to help them build the property, boasting that the firm is adept at securing these tax breaks without much effort.

‘Super Neighborhood 63’ has stated that they will meet on February 3 to make their decision. However they decide to vote, the developers will continue to fight to build luxury homes and attract wealthier residents, startups, and high-end retail to the area. Ultimately, the only thing decided by the Super Neighborhood is whether the terms of the displacement of East End residents benefits the interests of the small and large capitalists that make up its leadership.