Esteem to Injury — HISD Honors Local Artist While Seizing Her Home
HISD did one thing right — they updated their Arts & Culture poster for Black History Month to highlight contemporary local artists. Just one generation back, that same poster would have depicted giants who loom larger than life — Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Langston Hughes, Alice Walker — otherworldly legends — immortal and utterly inaccessible. By featuring local, contemporary artists on this poster, HISD brings greatness within reach of students. Unlike the stars of the Harlem Renaissance, students might actually see these artists around town, might even know them, might track them down and talk to them, ask them questions, be inspired and shown that they, too, can achieve greatness.
Lisa Harris is one such artist. Lisa Harris appears on that poster, made by HISD, to celebrate Black History Month. The Grammy-nominated opera and jazz singer / performance artist / writer / actor / filmmaker / educator is a graduate of HISD’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, and they are proud of her, they are honoring her, they are celebrating her and encouraging students to be like her…even as they boot her from her home.
Harris’s home — or the land that it sits on, rather — is part of the future site of HISD’s Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice High School (LECJ), and they have claimed it under eminent domain. Mind you, LECJ already has a home — 11 acres near Memorial Drive at Shepherd — and HISD has 11 different properties up for sale; still, they want that land. Must have that land.
The Harris home — tract four on block three in the Powars & Tharp neighborhood — is nothing special, to be perfectly blunt. It is a two bedroom, one bathroom, single-family home; 1,120 square feet on one story; a pier and beam structure built in the 1920s, which, according to the Houston Association of Realtors, was worth $45,785 in 2013.
Well…kind of….that’s the tax value, not the current market value. And if you subtract the value of the “improvement” on the land — the home — then the land value in 2013 rings in at $29,479…according to HAR.
And the current market value? That’s hard to say, but the neighborhood is popping. It’s got a fancy new name (EaDo), it’s on the rail line, and it’s just one mile from the junction of US-59 and I-45. If the three factors in determining the value of “real estate” are “location, location, location,” then the Harris home is pretty well situated. Nearby lots of comparable size start at $200,000.
But that’s only if you play that game — the dollar value game. Not everything can be quantified. Not everything can be plugged into a formula and have a corresponding dollar value assigned. One person’s “real estate” is another person’s ancestral legacy.
Lisa Harris’s grandfather, George Lee Harris, a WWII vet, bought the house for his mother. This was the early 1970s and the house had been turned into a church. George Lee Harris converted the church back into a home for his mother, and they have been there since — four generations of Harrises for over four decades in a house that’s almost 100 years old.
For four decades, they made their mortgage and property tax payments on time, thinking that if they played by the rules, they would build a bit of wealth to pass on to subsequent generations. They would provide the stability — the ROOTS — to grow and thrive and flourish, to weather life’s storms. They were wrong. When Lisa’s grandfather passed the house on to his daughter, Lisa’s mother Landa, she thought she might use it to supplement her retirement one day. She was wrong.
None of that matters now — what matters is that the value of the land that LECJ sits on near Shepherd at Memorial has skyrocketed. The current market value of that land has gone up so high that when HISD put it on the auction block, they set the minimum bid at $40 million, despite the most recent appraisal that valued it at $26 million.
“Never mind about the appraised value,” HISD effectively told bidders. “We won’t even think about anything less than that plus $14 million.”
Since they stand to make a pretty penny from selling that land, and since they just closed Dodson Elementary (about 500 feet from the Harris home), HISD decided to move LECJ to the former Dodson campus. That makes sense — they can make a lot of money by moving the school into a new building on vacant property they already own…except that property’s not quite large enough.
In November 2014, Landa Harris was served a condemnation notice for the house that her father bought, that she now owned. In December, a hearing was held that awarded the property to HISD, and a small amount of money was deposited in a new bank account in the Harrises’ name. With that deposit, HISD took possession of the deed — the house and land now legally belong to HISD.
Landa Harris wasn’t thrilled about that, but if it was for the students, she was willing to make concessions. The Harrises won’t disclose the amount they were proffered (the money is effectively being forced upon them). Rather, they have filed for an appeal.
From what I understand, it is the land value, only, at the taxed level, not the current market level. It is certainly not enough to buy a comparable lot nearby where they could conceivably move the house. Lisa moved out in February — after being threatened with eviction by HISD during the same month they honored her by putting her face on a poster. They go to trial in October.
In the meantime, Lisa Harris is attempting to win historical protection for the home. In order to qualify for such protection, she must make a case for its historical value. The building must be particularly old and architecturally noteworthy, or a famous person must have some connection to it.
As it turns out, until last month, the home was occupied by someone HISD itself has deemed significant — Lisa Harris! Not only that, it was also the site of Harris’s studio, where she did much of the work that earned her a place on that poster, including the production of her short, new opera film Cry of the Third Eye — funded by another City of Houston department, the Houston Arts Alliance — which tells the story of a little girl’s search for her dog in a rapidly gentrifying Third Ward. (She won funding for a sequel to the film, too, but wonders where she will shoot it, for continuity’s sake.)
Actually, in addition to the historical value added by Lisa Harris using the home as her studio, that fact should add to the commercial value of the “improvement” — the house that HISD refuses to figure into its values matrix. Her eviction has cost her not just the time and expense of finding a new place to live but also her workspace, which has a tangible and quantifiable opportunity cost to boot, which should rightly be compensated by that public entity, HISD, which refused even to consider any bids that were less than $14 million above the appraised value of their property off Memorial Drive.
The Harrises go to court in October. In the meantime, Lisa Harris has two questions for our readers: 1) Who defines “value” for you? and 2) Where do you protect value in your life? Send your answers to Harris at: email@example.com.