What follows are my thoughts on the Houston Housing Authority's planned Affordable Housing project and the Westbury Community Garden, the seven acres of neighborhood greenspace, that is in danger of being lost. Becky Edmondson
The Westbury Civic Club (WCC) currently holds a lease from the Houston Housing Authority (HHA) on a 7-acre tract of land which features the award winning Westbury Community Garden. It is leased with a 180 day cancellation clause. For 30 years these seven acres on Dunlap have been park space. They had been leased since the 1980’s by the Houston Parks and Recreation Department. Since 2009, this site has been home to the Westbury Community Garden, perhaps the largest, most successful community garden in Houston; it reaches and teaches hundreds, if not thousands, of residents.
On 8/1/2012, surveyors for the HHA were observed at the garden by one of our gardeners, who informed the WCC. We had no idea anything was in the works and alerted our City Councilman Larry Green along with the Brays Oaks Management District. CM Green spoke to the HHA and learned that the HHA is reviewing plans to construct a 175-250 unit, "affordable housing" apartment project at this site.
According to the HHA website, it has plans in the near future to build 4-6 new 250 unit housing projects in Houston for a cost of $27 million per housing project. Also, the HHA proposes in its 2013 draft budget to buy land adjacent to our 7-acre community garden site – Hillcroft frontage property which, after years of citizen complaints, was cleaned up by the city earlier this year after numerous warnings and citations to the property owner. We had been relieved to finally be rid of those derelict buildings on Hillcroft and had hoped they would be replaced with good commercial retail businesses to serve the existing population. More apartments are the last thing our area needs.
Needless to say, we were appalled that the HHA had not come to our community, nor to our representatives with its plans. We were further appalled that the HHA had allocated funds in its draft 2013 budget to purchase adjacent property to bring the HHA site closer to 10 acres in size, and that the public comment period would soon expire in early September to protest the 2013 draft budget. Making our dismay even greater, the Westbury Community Garden planning committees had devoted countless hours this year with plans to expand the garden in October: to add 35 more beds for those on the waiting list, to add an acre of fruit trees, and to create a dedicated children's garden area. Due to the turmoil, those expansion plans are now on hold and the October work days have been cancelled.
CM Green facilitated a meeting with the HHA on Monday, August 13th , to hear what the proposed HHA plans were. The meeting was held at the Westbury Civic Club office. Mr. Gilliam of the HHA said they were still in the discovery phase and did not have a firm plan formulated. If the plans move forward, the HHA would build about 20 units (apartments) per acre. They are in the process of doing their due diligence and said the questions I posed (see below) are ones that they, too, will be investigating.
Questions of Viability - The Houston Housing Authority says their corporate promise is to "effect positive change in lives and communities citywide." ...., while changing ... communities for the better".
· If the HHA is charged with de-concentrating poverty, why would additional public housing be built adjacent to 940 low-income apartment units? A recent check with that apartment management indicated there were over 300 vacant units. In the Brays Oaks Management district there are over 100 apartment complexes comprising over 23,000 units with thousands of vacancies. That’s a lot of affordable housing! According to the recently released Pew Report, segregation by income in Houston is among the starkest in U.S. The Westbury Community Garden has proven that it helps combat this problem as it successfully brings together people from broad backgrounds.
· How does this HHA project make life better for the people that live in the 940 unit apartment complex next door? Clearly with over 300 vacant units, adding more housing doesn't fulfill a need.
· How does taking seven acres of greenspace that has been a park for 30 years and turning into a housing project make our community better?
· How does this impact Foerster Elementary? I spoke to the school principal and the school is at capacity in its current configuration.
· How does removing or changing the community garden that serves hundreds and hundreds of people, a garden which has won recognition locally and nationally, make life better for the community?
· How does buying up what could be real commercial retail development with Hillcroft frontage help a neighborhood that needs stores not more housing?
· How does spending $27 million to build something that is not needed make sense?
At the garden's dedication both Houston Mayor Annise Parker and CM Ann Clutterbuck spoke about the importance of gardens. Clutterbuck said, "Gardens are restorative, life-giving, life-affirming places where we can experience nature and work with one another to make our small corner of the world a better place." And that is what the Westbury Community Garden has done; we have made that small corner of the world a better place. Our slogan is “Growing community through gardening” and that is what we do.
We have been working so hard to make Westbury a safer, better and more inclusive community and the Westbury Community garden is a big part of that project. There is so much multi-family housing in the area that should be rehabbed. There is so little green space. Building a housing project on this site is just not a good plan. It won't be good for the people that live here now. It won't be good for the new people moving in. It won’t be good for the future of Westbury. We told the HHA representatives all of this at our meeting and they listened. It was a good meeting. They said they would get back with us.
I am hopeful that we can find a good solution. I understand that the Houston Housing Authority owns this land and has federal money that they need to spend, but I think, once they do their due diligence, they will see that this seven acres is not the place to build. It wasn’t a good location thirty years ago and it still isn’t today. However, they said they cannot just turn it into permanent park space and walk away. Ideally we need to find a way to keep these seven acres as green space as it has been for the last 30 years. We are investigating avenues that would allow that to happen. With the future ever in our sights, we are continuously working to better the quality of life for our community and the Westbury Community Garden is a key example. We would hate to see it destroyed just because the HHA has federal money to use or lose.
We hope you will want to help in this endeavor and here are a few ways you can help:
1. Sign our online petition at https://www.change.org/petitions/save-the-westbury-community-garden-its-7-acre-home
Thank you for your interest! Working together we really can make a difference.
Becky Edmondson President, Westbury Civic Club Co-President, Westbury Super Neighborhood 37
Contact: email@example.com cell: 713-443-3951 fax: 713-773-6410