In recent years, the presence of townhomes has been linked to the cultural demise of historic neighborhoods. The modern, two-story buildings have become signs and symbols of gentrification. Houston's predominantly Black and brown communities have become targets for commercial and residential development projects.
For the past two months, Riverside Terrace residents in Third Ward have been fighting to stop a 17-unit townhome development that is slated to live between single-family residences. The community was established in the 1930s, right across from MacGregor Park. The houses were built with deed restrictions in place from 1935 to 1960, whereafter they’d automatically renew with the input of the surrounding homeowners. The disputed lot is located at 5326 Calhoun, which has been vacant since 2010 after the city demolished a home. In 2019, a developer purchased the property and planned to build 17 townhomes, each 1000 square feet. This past weekend, more than 100 community members met to discuss the next steps and legal action. The neighborhood is filled with turquoise-colored pickets on lawns reading “Stop Calhoun Townhomes. Preserve Our Neighborhood.”
According to Attorney Melanie Miles, the deed restrictions prohibit the development of townhomes, which in this case, resemble something closer to student housing than single-family homes. “So really, what you’re talking about are apartments that are totally contrary to the character of this neighborhood,” Miles tells Houstonia in a phone interview. “Nobody is against developing an area for mixed-use, which would be townhomes and single-family residences, but keep with the character of the neighborhood,” she says. Miles argues the development is a response to the student housing demand outpouring from the University of Houston, which recently opened its medical center next to the park and its new law school.
Although the deed restrictions make it clear that they should have been looped in, the citizens of Riverside Terrace were not notified about the project until it had already begun, Miles explains.
“Deed restrictions are contracts between property owners. When a property owner violates the deed restrictions, the property owners around them have the right to sue to enforce that contract. The City of Houston is a neutral party and shouldn't be in the business of taking sides with one city or the other. The burden is now on the developer to prove the contract invalid.”
Other lawyers and community volunteers worked to find a new process to update the deed restrictions to be clearer and more explicit but were initially met with a poor response from the City of Houston. Today, in an exclusive update from Miles to Houstonia, we learned that a temporary restraining order motion was granted by a local to stop the project for 21 days.
“Each delay, I would think, would delay the profitability of this project,” says Miles. “The developer has to ask himself why he’s putting this development in a community that does not want it. Do I want a situation where the neighbors are picketing and calling inspectors? Or do I want to try to work with this community rather than force something down their throats? When you force things on communities, it usually doesn’t turn out well, rather than when you get their cooperation and buy-in, and meet them at the bargaining table.”