City of Houston housing director fired after alleging mayor is 'bankrolling' developer

BySarah Rafique KTRK logo
Wednesday, September 22, 2021
Housing director fired after alleging mayor is 'bankrolling' developer
Mayor Turner called the comments "puzzling, inflated and wrong." The problem started when taxpayer funding was given for a housing project in Clear Lake.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Tom McCasland, the City of Houston's top housing director was fired Tuesday, hours after alleging at a city council meeting that Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner is "bankrolling" a developer instead of prioritizing the interests of low-income families who need affordable housing.

"I know that I serve at the mayor's pleasure, but that means he can fire me. It does not mean that I have to be his puppet in everything that is directed here," McCasland told councilmembers.

Turner called McCasland's comments "puzzling, inflated and wrong," saying "there is no charade."

"I've kind of looked through everything that he submitted. What Tom's objection is, 'we don't see anything wrong here, there's nothing illegal here, there's nothing fraudulent here. The mayor simply did not take our recommendation' - that's Tom's objection," Turner said.

McCasland's frustration was prompted by the decision to award millions in taxpayer funding to a developer for the Huntington at Bay Area, a housing project that will provide 148 apartment complexes for seniors in Clear Lake.

The city plans to award $15 million in taxpayer funding to help build the complex. McCasland said he is concerned that only 88 of those units will be available to low and moderate income Houstonians.

He also pointed out that four times as many affordable units could've been built for the same amount of money if Turner accepted his recommendations for projects, which he says city documents show scored far higher on city evaluations.

"By moving Huntington forward we will be opting for 274 fewer affordable housing units but paying essentially the same subsidy cost," McCasland said in an email to Turner on Friday.

The Huntington project was ranked eighth out of 12 projects based on the scoring. Because of procurement rules, Turner is not required to award the highest scoring project funds.

As he briefed city council members, McCasland said he's been committed for five years to providing affordable housing to Houstonians, but that he reached a point where he could no longer support the development.

"I am being forced to participate in a charade that this was a competitive process, when I know it was not a competitive process. That's the problem here and I'm being forced to ask my teammates to participate in that charade and that is not something that we can do and that is not something that we will do."

Outside the city council room, Chrishelle Palay, a housing advocate at HOME Coalition, told 13 Investigates Ted Oberg that although she was disheartened by McCasland's comments, she wasn't surprised and is happy that the public is now aware of the issues.

"This is not nothing new to this administration and even in hearing the public comments today, we've been trying to work with administration for some time to really ensure that affordable housing is delivered to those communities that really need it, and today's project that was put forward is really an example of how we're not ensuring that these people who really need housing really receive them," Palay said.

Within hours of McCasland's comments, Turner said in a statement, "The Administration has lost confidence in his leadership and abilities to manage the department in the City's best interest, and it is time to move on."

Turner defends the decision to award funds to Huntington at Bay Area, saying he wasn't a part of the final review that included the city attorney, chief of staff, economic development director and McCasland. He said the city issued a Notice of Funding Availability and all of the developers' projects met the threshold determined by staff.

"(McCasland) raised no subsequent objection and did not do so in the final meeting. His only objection is that the Mayor did not go with his recommendation, which is perfectly within the Mayor's discretion," Turner said in a statement.

The Texas General Land Office, which oversees U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funding, said it will re-review all requests for federal funding to the City of Houston.

"(The GLO) is looking into the serious allegations of fraud or corruption regarding projects by the city of Houston's Harvey Multifamily Program," GLO spokeswoman Brittany Eck said in a statement. "The GLO is responsible for ensuring all money allocated through the Community Development Block Grants for Disaster Recovery are spent appropriately. These projects and funds are intended to be utilized to aid the greatest number of low-income Texans as possible."

McCasland said he wasn't alleging fraud occurred, but did want to raise concerns about the process.

"Even if there was no fraud in this instance, it is something that you should care about because of the way it damages the way the city does business," he said.

As first reported by our partners at the Houston Chronicle, Turner's former law partner, Barry Barnes, is listed in state documents as both a co-general partner and co-developer of the deal.

Barnes didn't return a call from 13 Investigates on Tuesday. Turner, who left the law firm after getting elected, said he didn't know about the connection until reporters asked about it.

"There's no relationship between me and the law firm at all," Turner said.

Although he just addressed the Huntington project, McCasland pleaded with city council members to consider other projects with similar concerns.

"I need both you and the general public to be aware that the structure of a strong mayoral form of government should not mean that the strong mayor is free from public or city council scrutiny, nor should it mean that the strong mayor has free reign to make decisions without providing legitimate justification for those decisions," McCasland said.

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