Puppet On A String


The political gravy train in that planned $83 million East End housing project doesn’t stop with wasting your tax money to buy contaminated land.

Now we know Houston Housing Authority Chairman LaRence Snowden is a puppet on a string.

Wait till you see how we busted him.

October 2019 and the secret gets out. The Houston Housing Authority was rushing to spend $83 million just on land for two new massive public housing projects on the East Side.

“I’d like to make a statement on the reinvestment in the East End for residents of Clayton Homes,” said HHA Chair LaRence Snowden at the October of the Houston Housing Authority.

Houston Housing Authority Chairman LaRence Snowden delivers a heartfelt speech.

“HHA believes this community is a great place to live and raise our families,” Snowden said.

Wonder if HUD Secretary Ben Carson heard about this uplifting speech. You know the federal government has to approve this deal.

HUD Secretary Ben Carson

“Right now, we’re having a tremendous problem with affordable housing in this country,” said Ben Carson, United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. “This is America. This is the place that is a can-do place.”

Thousands of low-income families had called Clayton Homes their home since 1952.

Hurricane Harvey swamped the place. Now TxDOT wants to buy that land for their new freeway project. And the Houston Housing Authority claimed they had found the perfect spot to use most of the $90 million windfall they’d be getting.

“The Houston Housing Authority is reinvesting funds received from TxDOT to develop Class A with full amenities mixed community, mixed income communities in partnership with some of the country’s best in class developers,” Snowden said.

The land deals would take place on both sides of Buffalo Bayou just east of downtown. And what a coincidence. They are both owned by the same family, one of Houston’s richest. Pinto Realty is now run Ernie D. Cockrell. You’ve probably seen him a lot on the society pages.

Ojala Partners––the developers on the north side. NRP on the south side.

Bet you they both loved the shower of compliments that came from the man Mayor Sylvester Turner has running the Housing Authority board.

But wait a minute. Are those strings holding up Mr. Snowden? Look real closely.

“Like a puppet on a string.”

They certainly aren’t his words. How do we know? After the speech that day Mr. Snowden sent a text message to the real author of that uplifting speech.

“Forgot to say thank you for my opening statement. Hope I presented as you prepared. My commissioners were a bit amazed,” Snowden wrote.

Wonder if they would have been even more amazed to find out who was holding the strings, putting words in the mouth of the Chairman of the Housing Authority. Not someone who’s going to live in those public housing projects but someone who’s making bank on the deal.

This guy, Lance Gilliam. The guy who was fired as Chairman of the Houston Housing Authority. Now he’s on the payroll of the very developers Snowden was kissing up to. Mr. Snowden tried to share the big thank you text with someone else too.

“Please send to Licia,” Snowden wrote.

That’s Licia Green Ellis, Gilliam’s partner at Waterman Steele, and the wife of Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis. 

He’s sure been in the news a lot. What a coincidence the commissioner talks so much about the need for public housing while his wife cashes in.

Maybe now we know why Mr. Snowden was hiding the truth when we first confronted him. 

“Don’t you think people have a right to know who’s making money on this deal?” Wayne Dolcefino asked.

Snowden knew exactly who was making money on this deal. Waterman Steele was paid to do community relations for both developers. We’ve also confirmed Gilliam is the broker for at least one of the east end land deals. But the plot thickens.

In just three short months Gilliam and Ellis had been paid more than $280,000 just in consulting fees on four other HHA deals. And that doesn’t include the land deal they are peddling now.

Remember those phone records we found show 322 calls between Snowden and the Commissioner’s wife in a single year.

“Well what are y’all talking about?” Dolcefino asked.

“Personal business,” Snowden said.

Maybe that’s where Snowden first got this next line because he sure didn’t write it. 

“We are further committed to creating homes that are, we are proud of to own and our residents are proud to live in. These are our commitments not only as an authority. These are our commitments as commissioners and public servants,” Snowden said.

But who exactly is Snowden serving?

Maybe his speechwriter Mr. Gilliam accidentally left off these facts from that great speech. Some of the land HHA wants you to buy you can’t even put public housing on. It’s unfit for human beings to even live on. 

Take these 6 acres on the south side of the bayou, part of the NRP deal. It’s contaminated with ash. $13 million of unusable land. The other 22 acres, well it’s got some dangerous neighbors. The old Velasco incinerator on one side and Lead Products on the other. That company is in a State cleanup program. Investigators found arsenic in the groundwater.

What a great place to raise kids, don’t you think?

It appears another two acres of land on the north side would be unusable too because of flooding. That means Mr. Snowden wants you to spend up to $15 million for land we can’t use to house anyone and another $41 million for land that’s surrounded by contamination.

Maybe that’s why HHA is now hiding environmental reports from the public.

“Our mission will remain the same, to provide safe, quality, affordable housing or our constituents throughout the Houston metropolitan area,” Snowden said.

“Think about those residents that they’re planning to put there. I mean, there, there could be some serious health implications in the future,” said East End resident Angela Williams-Truley.

East End resident Angela Williams-Truley has been clamoring for the HUD Inspector General to investigate this whole affair.

“It just shows that there’s a level of greed that’s just tremendous. They’re not thinking about the actual residents of that future project. They’re thinking about themselves,” East End resident Angela Williams-Truley said.

“We can make this project one that creates opportunity instead of perpetuating a history of disruption and displacement.”

Across the country housing advocates fight against putting any new public housing projects near freeways because of pollution and the noise.

And Houston is actually one of the reasons why. 

Clayton Homes and Kelly Village were built in the 50s along the banks of Buffalo Bayou. Then Houston built the freeways that cut right through the heart of the fifth ward.

“Separating residents from the businesses they relied upon and isolating Kelly Village. Once surrounded by homes, the residents of Kelly Village now lived at the confluence of—almost underneath—two major highways… our board is committed to mitigating the impact of a wrong committed long ago,” Snowden wrote.

You know who said that? LaRence Snowden back in June of last year. But he had to know the freeway would become a big problem.

Wait till you hear about the traffic study done for the Ojala project on the north side of the bayou. The land is now about a quarter of a mile from the freeway.

It’s real loud down here. Even with lots of cars off the road because of the Coronavirus scare. 

A company called CSTI measured traffic noise months ago for the planned project and found a decibel level on the land of 74.7. Just under the Feds’ 75 decibel safety cutoff. 

Just one problem. CSTI measured the noise where the freeway is today. The Houston Housing Authority knows the freeway is proposed to be moved about 1000 feet to the east. And the company says no one told them that.

Mayor Turner doesn’t need to measure. He knows full well the planned housing project will have a roaring freeway as their next-door neighbor. Thought we didn’t do that anymore. 

Didn’t hear that in Mr. Snowden’s speech, did you? And maybe the other commissioners will be too afraid to say anything after what happened early this year.

The last three HHA board members who smelled something fishy in this deal are suddenly gone.

“All in favor of Mrs. Wilson?” Snowden said.

Phillis Wilson was elected Vice Chair of the Houston Housing Authority at a late January meeting. In February she was suddenly gone too. Retaliation she called it in an email.

There’s a new Vice Chairwoman of the Houston Housing Authority, Kristy Kirkendoll. Wonder what she said in her latest application to serve Houstonians. Other than her name and her email every other question is left blank. Cat got your tongue? 

But we shouldn’t pick on her. We looked at Chairman Snowden’s latest application too and it’s blank. 

But he sure does give a good speech, don’t you think? 

“HHA believes this community is a great place to live and raise our families,” Snowden said.

“Mr. Snowden’s phone records and his text messages, they were so helpful to us in exposing this gigantic waste of public funds, this smelly deal,” Dolcefino said. “But he’s not really the big boss here. Sylvester Turner is. And guess what? Big surprise, the Mayor is hiding all his text messages and his emails and his phone calls with Mr. Gilliam and Mrs. Ellis. I’m shocked.”

And with a District Attorney who looks the other way, he’ll get away with it.

“I would like them to kill the project completely,” said Williams-Truley.

“Like a puppet on a string.”