Southwest Key closer to opening new Houston facility

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- A private organization's efforts to open a new immigrant child detention center in Houston are leading to contention between the city and the contractors. It's continued fallout from the immigrant family separations that sparked a national debate this year.

It's a war of words, but a very polite one.

The plan to open a new privately run children's shelter is the subject of dueling letters between the city of Houston and the CEO of Southwest Key.

The city claims the organization's plan to open a fourth Houston shelter near downtown must be re-reviewed because the current occupancy permit is for a woman's shelter, not a children's facility.

In an important differentiation, the city says the building's current permit has been invalidated but not revoked.

Two letters sent in June by Southwest Key outlined its intended use of the site. Those letters were followed by an Aug. 3 letter from fire chief Samuel Pena and Mark Savasta, a city of Houston building official. That letter, addressed to CEO Juan Sanchez, followed media reports that the facility was in its final preparations for opening.

It states the occupancy permit for the building is "invalid" because the permit is for residential sheltering, not institutional occupancy and thus, Southwest Key would need to re-apply for its permits.
Southwest Key contends that it either has a permit or it doesn't and until the license is revoked, the state has no option but to approve the permit for the site at 419 Emancipation.

City of Houston inspectors were also dispatched to three other Houston Southwest Key locations on the chance that their permits were also incorrect, the Aug. 3 letter said. Initially, inspectors were not allowed in, but came out again this week and were able to do inspections, a city official said.

The reports of what those inspectors found aren't complete.

Despite the city's claim it's just doing its due diligence, Southwest Key officials say it's being targeted politically.

"Southwest Key is being singled out in a way that is not consistent with how the city traditionally does business," said Jeff Eller, a spokesperson for Southwest Key. "We will do what the city wants us to do (to comply). What we struggle with is that this appears to be a constantly moving set of regulatory goalposts."

Friday, Southwest Key sent a reply asking the city to clear up "apparent misunderstandings" about the permitting process. In that letter, anorganization official said it wasn't intended to house separated children, though Southwest Key doesn't get a choice of which children to receive.

It asked the city to clear up the issue and tell the state it had a permit since city officials told the state Southwest Key's permit was valid, the letter reads.

Hours later, the city politely, but firmly, replied.

"Please note that at this time, the existing Certificate of Occupancy has not been revoked; however, it is not valid for the intended use," wrote fire chief Richard Mann and Savasta. "My office has come to this decision based upon discrepancies that were noted in your written statements."

It would be the last letter of the day, again insisting the city would need two sets of plans to restart the permitting process.

While the written words have been courteous, Mayor Sylvester Turner has vocalized his opposition and his willingness to slow the process as much as he could.

Wednesday's simultaneous inspection of Southwest Key faciities showed a coordinated effort on the city's part to find fault with the organization's operation, a feeling echoed by a Southwest Key spokesperson.

Still, absent a slow process, building officials admit there is little to prevent the eventuality that the facility will open, barring the company pulling out of the deal.

Southwest Key makes hundreds of millions in government contracts by housing children across the country.

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