There’s a battle brewing in Houston’s Fifth Ward between the Houston Housing Authority (HHA) and two local churches, yet another instance of Mayor Annise Parker’s administration abusing religious members of the community.

The churches, Christian Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church and Latter Day Deliverance Revival Center, are largely responsible for transforming the surrounding community through their various ministries. Since inception, the churches have steadily expanded to create a Youth Center, Food Pantry, Outdoor Ministry area, and a host of other causes that serve everyone from recovering drug addicts and alcoholics to married couples and gang members.

Every expansion has been privately supported through the charitable donations of their respective congregations. Although their presence in the Fifth Ward spans over four decades, the HHA is now telling them it’s time to close their doors.

HHA is a governmental organization established by the Houston City Council to “exercise certain governmental powers, including the power of eminent domain.” Though Mayor Parker claims “Houston Housing Authority isn’t the City of Houston” and operates “independently” of the city government, Parker appoints its commissioners so the HHA is anything but independent.

While officials may not consider it an agent of the city, it most certainly is. HHA operates with very little public oversight, especially considering Parker’s refusal to accept responsibility for either its existence or the power it yields.

In a video published by the Liberty Institute, a pastor tells the story of when HHA approached them attempting to purchase their property. After their offers were refused, a representative allegedly went as far to threaten the pastor to accept the offer or else.

“I’d like to buy this property, but if you don’t sell it to me, eminent domain will get it,” he said.

Houston has expanded its economic development plans into Fifth Ward as property values began to rise. As with East Downtown, the area is underdeveloped and many believe it to have great potential. However, residents aren’t in favor of government mandates coming into their communities. Pastor Quenton Smith of Christian Fellowship said, “We just want the city to leave us alone so we can keep helping these kids.”

Such a complete disregard for private property rights is unfortunately what Houstonians have come to expect from a government led by a mayor who would subpoena the religious sermons of political opponents.

The Liberty Institute, a Plano based religious liberty advocacy law firm, has chosen to represent the churches pro bono in their fight against the HHA. Jeremy Dys, Senior Counsel for Liberty Institute, said, “The City has no right to tell churches where they can or can’t minister.” Dys explained that HHA sees a chance to obtain this land and sell it to a for-profit company which would not only bring in money from the sale, but a steady revenue stream by growing the tax base.

The institute filed suit on Monday, August 4, the same day the group of previously subpoenaed pastors filed suit against Parker and the City of Houston for violating their rights. The institute said, “The city’s actions violate Texas’ religious freedom law, including the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” The lawsuit goes on to say, “The HHA intends to condemn property throughout the Fifth Ward to pursue urban renewal.”

HHA’s “urban renewal” plan is dubious. How is removing two historical neighborhood churches that have arguably done more to benefit the Fifth Ward community than the City of Houston has done itself, beneficial to economic revitalization?

Latter Day’s Bishop, Roy Lee Kossie said, “When we moved into this area, it was considered the highest crime rate area in the City of Houston. People shot first and asked questions later…we knew this was exactly where we needed to be.”

Hiram Sasser, Liberty Institute Deputy Chief Counsel said, “These churches have served this community for decades. It’s tragic that the City of Houston wants to take the churches’ property away and give it to someone else, just so they can make money.”

The court granted a temporary restraining order saying, “It clearly appears to the court that the defendant HHA, should be immediately restrained from pursuing condemnation proceedings or taking possession or title of the properties…” Though halted now, the question is what will happen after the temporary restraining order expires?

HHA’s abuse of power should serve as a warning to everyone in the Bayou City. If it weren’t for the charitable nature of the Liberty Institute, these pastors may not have had the ability to fight back against HHA’s actions. If an agency with such little oversight, under direction of mayoral appointees, will go as far as to force religious organizations to give up their property, imagine what else they could do if left unchecked.

Charles Blain

Charles Blain is the president of Urban Reform and Urban Reform Institute. A native of New Jersey, he is based in Houston and writes on municipal finance and other urban issues.