Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Bag You’re Holding That You May Not Know You’re Holding

After an extended hiatus the city employee who posts under the nom de blog Ubu Roi is back at blogHouston with his finely detailed explications and annotations of Houston City Council agendas.

That’s good news for Houston and especially good news for Houstonians such as our self with abbreviated attention spans, because Mr. Roi (or Mr. Ubu, if he prefers) promises a greater degree of selectivity in his postings by using his apparently vast knowledge of city government to concentrate on only the most “noteworthy” agenda items.

And that he has. We especially enjoyed---and were enlightened by---his deft, Derrida-like deconstruction of the mealy bureaucratese that constitutes Item No. 45 on Tuesday’s council agenda, which he summarizes thusly
… the intent of the new ordinance is to divert about $7,000,000 away from the Crowne Plaza and Magnolia Hotels, and toward the Rice Lofts. Everyone's cashed in their chips and left the taxpayers holding the bag on the first two, so the funds aren't needed there anymore. Could it be that the third is about to have "problems" paying the city? Just how much did the Rice Lofts loot receive from the Housing and Community Development Department? In short, this translation is: Dear HUD: thanks for being such suckers. We took your your guarantees and used them to underwrite really bad loans at terms so obviously disadvantageous that we must be stupid. What dummies we are! Of course, we weren't paid, so we just looked innocent, collected our money from you instead, and now we're back to do it again with the Rice Hotel. Oh and by the way, while we're at it, we're tired of pretending that housing funds are really supposed to be for, you know, affordable housing. Everyone knows it's really welfare for deserving wealthy developers. So we're just going to remove all single-family housing from eligibility anyway."
We can’t vouch for the accuracy of Ubu’s interpretation, but if he’s anywhere in the ballpark that sounds like a development, so to speak, worthy of greater scrutiny by some outfit that actually pays its employees to scrutinize such matters (Mr. Ubu, by contrast, is mere public-spirited volunteer who doesn’t let his blogging get in the way of his job, even though he reports spending up to six hours (!) previously crafting his agenda postings.)

To buttress his last assertion, Mr. Ubu cites a section of the Request for Council Action on the ordinance:
Based on the full utilization of all available EDI Grant Funds as described above, HCDD further requests City Council to approve the amendment of Ordinance Nos. 95-349 and 97-1167 to delete single family and multi-family housing projects from the scope of the City's Section 108 HUD-guaranteed Loan Program.
Ubu comments:
It's merely icing on that cake to note that $385,000 of the over $7 million being reallocated is to pay legal fees for "workout activities, default/foreclosure, and collection." For some people, the Houston Housing and Community Development Department is like a game of Monopoly: "Pass Go. Collect $200." Perhaps we should rename it the "Housing and Developer Development Department"?
Along those lines, we’ve wondered occasionally whether anyone in the journalism racket would ever have the time or inclination to undertake a thorough accounting of all the taxpayer money used to subsidize the private redevelopment of downtown, Midtown and adjacent areas. Maybe they're justified and maybe they're not, but these transfers are almost always accomplished with little notice or public scrutiny, and while everything’s new and shiny for a while the shine eventually comes off but somebody’s still gotta tote the note, and by that time nobody’s really paying much mind outside the vested parties.

Further along those lines, we notice that the developer of the Rice Lofts cited by Ubu is a consultant to Lamesa Properties’ planned mixed-use redevelopment of a chunk of the Rice Village that will probably be the last spade of dirt turned over on what’s left of that section’s small independent-merchant character (we know, there’s not much of it left anyway, but there’s still a few scattered outposts tucked in there amid the Starbucks and Jamba Juice). We’re sure the residential developer, who according to reports is to be responsible for 225 condos in a 7-story structure, will grace the West U-Rice area with the refined taste he’s brought to other parts of town.

The entire Rice Village project, you may recall, is the one for which Lamesa persuaded the geniuses on the city council to agree to abandon the 2400 block of Bolsover so it could serve as a pedestrian walkway for the private development. (We are preparing to ask the council to let go of our street so that we may purchase it for a nominal fee, say $15, and turn it into a two-block toll road.) The Houston Chronicle recently came out against the privatization of the street, which was a good if somewhat belated move. The editorial appeared on Jan. 26; the council agreed to abandon the block in mid-October.

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