Lies And Betrayal
BREAKING NEWS: A former Commissioner of the Houston Housing Authority calls on Mayor Turner to stop planned public housing real estate deals in the East End as we confirm the FBI is now investigating.
The Oxford Place Apartments are a whole lot nicer than they used to be. And Phillis Wilson is clearly one of the reasons why…
“I’ve been doing this since 2002, back when this place was bad, drug-infested. I’ve been doing it ever since then,” said Phillis Wilson, former Commissioner of the Houston Housing Authority.
Phillis Wilson has been a voice for residents there for nearly twenty years, a champion for turning low income housing into a place for families.
“I am the resident council president of oxford place and I would like the welcome everyone to the grand opening of the new library,” Wilson said in a video from Oxford Place.
For 10 years Wilson’s even sat on the Board of Commissioners of the Houston housing authority. Her mission was pure.
“I was always told if you’ve got a voice use it. And I wanted to be a voice for the people. And that’s what I am,” Wilson said.
“The floor is closed for nominations. All in favor of Ms. Wilson?” said then President and CEO Tory Gunsolley at the HHA meeting in January 2020.
Last January, Wilson was re-elected vice chair but by the very next meeting just a few weeks later she was suddenly gone. She got no real explanation, no call from the mayor.
“You think you were asking too many questions,” said Wayne Dolcefino, President of Dolcefino Consulting.
“I think I was. Yes and I think I was going to ask more questions,” Wilson said.
In an email obtained by Dolcefino consulting Wilson complained her “role on the board has been sabotaged.”
She even worried about her safety, like serving on the city housing authority board was somehow more dangerous than living in some public housing projects.
And Phillis Wilson wasn’t the only board member who went poof. Two other HHA board members, banker Jody Proler and lawyer Michael Harris were suddenly gone too. They had served for only half of the two-year term.
Text messages show Harris was disturbed by what he was learning. Proler talked about suspicions. Wilson says they smelled something rotten on the HHA board.
And all three had become critics of a $70 million housing authority land deal being planned for both sides of Buffalo Bayou just east of downtown.
“When I said something in executive session, I noticed eyebrows started going up because I said I wanted to know everything. I wanted everything in writing this time. I want to know about the deals before they’re made. Oh boy,” Wilson said.
Now three months later Phillis Wilson sits on her back porch with us to warn all Houstonians.
“I didn’t know any of this until the FBI visited my house and they showed me your videos. I didn’t know any of this,” Wilson said.
We have been blowing the whistle on the gravy train we’ve already uncovered at HHA, the pay day for a politician’s wife and a fired bureaucrat. Now we’ve confirmed the FBI is investigating.
“I think they should get to the bottom of this because those are federal tax dollars that they’re playing with,” Wilson said.
Phillis Wilson now knows things the HHA staff clearly kept from her.
“They look me in my face every board meeting you know oh Ms. Wilson we’re glad to have you on the board. You’re such a great board member. When I was just getting snowed over,” Wilson said.
And she’s adding her voice to those who want the Mayor to prove he’s not part of the cover-up. She grew up in Acres Homes, the same place Sylvester Turner did.
The Mayor is pushing full steam ahead to finalize these controversial real estate deals under the cover of the Coronavirus. HHA’s website says it’s open for business but the agency says it’s really closed. They refuse to provide us critical financial records before the deals are done.
“It’s anti-transparency. That’s what this is. It’s anti-transparency,” said State Sen. Paul Bettencourt.
The city is now asking HUD to release the first $12 million for the Ojala project on the north side of the bayou. We know that $100 million project will then be taken off the tax rolls forever when completed. That’s a savings for the developers of $2.4 million a year.
What’s Ojala’s share of the money to be made on the deal? Apparently, you’re not allowed to know.
But before HHA started playing the virus stall game we found out who Ojala had on the payroll. The fired former housing authority chairman Lance Gilliam and Licia Green Ellis, the wife of Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis.
The FBI is knocking on my door. They’re knocking on the wrong doors. They got the key players. Why aren’t they at their doors?” Wilson said.
Cell phone records show the housing authority Chair LaRence Snowden talks to the Commissioner’s wife more than anyone else.
“There’s more than 300 phone calls with you and Licia Ellis in a year having to talk to about HHA business. You talk to her more than I talk to my wife and I love my wife. So can you tell me why she’s so influential in where we spend money for public housing?” Dolcefino said.
“I have no comment. I have no comment,” said LaRence Snowden, Chair of the Houston Housing Authority.
“Well what are y’all talking about?” Dolcefino said.
“Personal business,” Snowden said.
“I smell just what you said. There was a big payday for somebody,” Wilson said.
“I’d like to make a statement on the reinvestment in the east end for residents of clayton homes. HHA believes this community is a great place to live and raise our families,” Snowden said.
Wilson was on hand as Chairman Snowden gave his impassioned speech on public housing last fall.
She learned from us it was actually written by Lance Gilliam, a guy making bank on the deal.
“I was sick to my stomach. I really was. I don’t understand why is he still on the board?” Wilson said.
Maybe the Mayor likes having a puppet on a string. Texts show both Sylvester Turner and economic boss Andy Icken have been involved in some of these housing deals.
“Are we ready for the question? All those in favor vote by the sign of aye. Aye. All opposed. Motion carries,” Snowden said.
The Ojala project was first approved by HHA last August without any public discussion.
“If it’s such a good thing then why won’t you show us the plans? Why are you keeping it a big secret?” said East End developer Alan Atkinson.
This week an East End developer accused the HHA of lying to HUD, saying they have “deliberately misrepresented” key details putting future residents of the Ojala project in danger.
Dolcefino Consulting already told you the traffic study for the project appears flawed. Noise levels barely passed HUD rules. But the freeway is actually being moved 1000 feet closer than what the HHA board was even told.
“That’s very shocking. I don’t understand how could it be done,” Wilson said.
“the Ojala noise study is fatally defective,” the letter to the Mayor reads.
Traffic engineers told us they were kept in the dark too. The Mayor left that little detail out of the HUD letter.
“Who could sleep? How would the residents get any rest with all the traffic that’s on the freeway?” Wilson said.
Railroad tracks running 80 feet from the planned apartments will carry hazardous materials in tank cars all day long.
“The property is directly threatened by accidental release of explosive and hazardous materials and should never be approved for HUD housing.”
“Would you want to live 80 feet from a hazardous tank car?” Dolcefino said.
“I would not. I would not. And I don’t recommend anybody else would want to live there,” Wilson said. “I wouldn’t have never voted on that if I would have knew that.”
Is the city lying about the growing number of housing projects in the same neighborhood? The notice to HUD cites only three low-income housing projects within 1.5 miles. Oops. It appears there are at least nine others. Kennedy Place is just three blocks away. Kelly Village just five blocks away.
“Wow. How could you not know?” Wilson said.
Wilson first voted against the real estate deal on the south side of the bayou only because of the price tag. $54 million. We’ve calculated the low-income apartments built there could cost $260,000 a piece to build, tens of thousands more than normal.
But Wilson says she was kept in the dark about the far scarier news. Some of the land being bought with your tax money, it’s so contaminated, it’s unfit for human beings to live on.
The rest of the property? It’s surrounded by contamination. Lead products, the old Velasco incinerator.
“They’re not thinking about the health of the residents 14, 15 years down the line. If that soil is contaminated those people are going to be sick,” Wilson said.
You would think Phillis Wilson would have learned of the contamination from the HHA staff. She didn’t. It was from opponents of the East End land deals.
“That’s when I said mm-mmm. No more from me. No more from me,” Wilson said.
The developer on that project is NRP, and yes, they’ve got Gilliam and Ellis on the payroll too.
“You don’t think the city should go forward with these projects,” Dolcefino said.
“I don’t. I think they should kill this deal,” Wilson said.
Right before our visit, Phillis Wilson had opened the mail and there it was, the certificate of appreciation signed by the Mayor.
“It’s a simple choice for the mayor really. Does Sylvester Turner care more about the gravy train or the people that Phillis Wilson fought so hard to protect? I suspect he’ll choose gravy train but hey, maybe the Mayor will prove me wrong,” Dolcefino said.
“Making people sick, that’s not my mission, it was never my mission,” Wilson said.