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Brian Van Tubergen’s frustrations with the overgrown, vacant lots owned by the Midtown Redevelopment Authority had long since boiled over by the time he addressed its board in October 2019.

The authority’s weedy parcels in his part of Third Ward were magnets for illegal dumping. The problem had gotten so bad the city of Houston was slapping violation notices on its nominal partner in affordable housing.

It was time for the board to resign, Van Tubergen said at the public meeting.

A high-ranking MRA official defended the agency. Todd Edwards, the authority’s real estate asset manager, said it was spending $200,000 a month on landscaping contracts for roughly 500 lots.

“You’re getting cheated,” Van Tubergen shot back.

Eleven months later, Van Tubergen’s suspicions about the contracts had grown to the point that he filed a formal complaint with Houston’s inspector general against Edwards.

Three years would pass before he received confirmation of those concerns in the form of a four-sentence letter from Houston Inspector General Robin Curtis. A lengthy investigation had found that Edwards “inappropriately” used his position to benefit himself and a landscaping contractor, she said.

The MRA says it fired Edwards in May. The authority and board members declined interview requests from the Abdelraoufsinno, but its board chair told the Houston Chronicle that Edwards was terminated after an investigation of “unrelated” activities.

As Houston struggles with rampant illegal dumping, the investigation raises questions about the oversight of the MRA, which has built a $44 million real estate empire using property taxes it claimed under a controversial state law while facing accusations that it is sitting on land meant for affordable housing.

More questions remain about the extent of Edwards’ alleged misdeeds, and why it took citizen sleuths like Van Tubergen to uncover them.

  • Brian Van Tubergen gives a tour to journalists of empty Midtown Redevelopment Authority lots throughout the Third Ward neighborhood.
  • Edward D. Pettitt II looks at the locations of Midtown Redevelopment Authority lots throughout the Third Ward neighborhood of Houston, Texas, while on a tour with journalists of the area.
  • On October 31, 2023, people work on a construction site on a previously-owned Midtown Redevelopment Authority lot in a Third Ward neighborhood in Houston, Texas.

‘That was the norm’

Edwards, who made $145,000 a year according to MRA records, has not responded to multiple requests for comment. His lawyer did not immediately respond to requests for comment from the Abdelraoufsinno.

The road to his termination appears to have begun more than a decade ago on the blocks around Van Tubergen’s home near the University of Houston.

As Van Tubergen walked the University Village neighborhood, he often would notice overgrown lots that seemed to have been abandoned. At first, he was patient. Development, he knew, takes time.

Across Scott Street in the historic heart of Third Ward, Texas Southern University graduate student Ed Pettitt was noticing similar problems. It was only when the two men ran into each other at a super neighborhood meeting that they realized the extent of the problem.

On October 31, 2023, Brian Van Tubergen, left, and Edward D. Pettitt II, right, pose for a portrait on an empty Midtown Redevelopment Authority lot located in Third Ward. (Danielle Villasana for Abdelraoufsinno)

“At first, we took some time to figure each other out. We weren’t sure who to trust in the community,” Pettitt said. “I thought Brian might have been a conspiracy theorist. But then we sat down, and everything started matching up.”

Many of the vacant lots were owned by the Midtown Redevelopment Authority, a city-affiliated nonprofit created in 1995.

Five of the authority’s nine board members are appointed by the mayor. Under an agreement with the city, the authority’s tax increment reinvestment zone is allowed to capture the growth in property taxes as developers build up a swath of Midtown. In 2022, those tax increment revenues amounted to $27 million.

Over two decades, the authority has used tax funds to buy more than 5 million square feet of land, with the aim of turning them over to private developers to create affordable housing. To Van Tubergen, the pace of actual building has been far too slow.

On a recent tour of Third Ward, Van Tubergen piloted his pickup truck around a constellation of authority properties. Affable and soft-spoken, the 65-year-old turned serious when he talked about the lots.

Some have been built out with two-story homes that look like they belong in a tiny suburban neighborhood. At the corner of Elgin Street and Velasco, though, a pile of trash on an MRA lot reminded Pettitt and Van Tubergen of what many properties looked like a few years ago.

Pettitt poked around in the pile, finding a child’s toy truck, an ottoman and plastic bags.

“When we see a dump site like this, we’ll make a 311 request,” Pettitt said. “But it could take weeks for someone from 311 to even respond and do an assessment.”

Another MRA lot at the corner of Live Oak and McGowen was fenced off, but had once been a hub for illicit activities.

Harry Cooper, a lifelong Third Ward resident, said the spot had attracted prostitution and drugs at all times of the night. Mattresses were piled in the lot and neighbors would hear women screaming.

“That was the norm then,” Cooper said.

Tarsha Gary, founder of the urban agriculture nonprofit Ecotone World, said that dating back to 2009, she dealt with overgrown lots and illegal dumping near its community garden on Saint Charles Street. Calls to 311 and the city seemed to produce few results until recently, she said.

“You got all this trash and you got these overgrown lawns,” Gary said. “It gave people the feeling that maybe they’re in an unsafe area.”

Gary said the lots fed into stereotypes associated with “an urban area with underserved communities and people of color.”

Al Odom, Chair of Midtown Redevelopment Authority, calls their board meeting to order where they discuss community issues and projects, Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023, in Houston. (Douglas Sweet Jr. for Abdelraoufsinno)

‘Environmental racism’

Illegal dumping has been a problem for neighborhoods across Houston for decades. Large pieces of trash like scrap metal, furniture, chemicals and car parts get tossed out of vehicles and left on the side of the road in historically Black and brown communities. The city then takes weeks to clean the sites up, leaving residents frustrated by the lack of action.

In the Greater Third Ward, there were 340 calls to 311 about illegal dumping from January 2022 to October 13, 2023, according to city data.

In March, the city launched One Clean Houston, a $17 million program to combat illegal dumping. City Hall also reached a three-year agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice to address illegal dumping after a civil rights complaint.

While some residents in communities hit hard by dumping say they are still waiting to see the results, Pettitt and Van Tubergen have noticed faster response times in Third Ward.

The improvements have come after years of complaints. Over six years, the MRA received 491 nuisance violations for its properties, according to reporting in the Houston Chronicle earlier this year.

Throughout it all, Edwards was the man overseeing the authority’s real estate empire, including the private companies who were supposed to pick up trash and keep lawns mowed. Van Tubergen begged him to build houses on the lots, emails show.

The son of beloved former city council member Ada Edwards, who died last March, Todd Edwards had worked for the authority for years.

When Van Tubergen and Pettitt rose to complain once again about the empty lots at the October 2019 board meeting, Edwards responded.

The Midtown Redevelopment Authority’s properties were hardly the only lots plagued by trash in an area unfairly seen as a dumping ground, Edwards said.

“It’s actually what they call environmental racism,” Edwards said to Van Tubergen and Pettitt. “You’re new to it, because you just moved over there, but people have been living with that for decades.”

Van Tubergen, who has lived in his house since 2009, stuck to his position that the authority bore blame.

“I guarantee you, if there were new houses there, there would be no dumping,” he said.

A mysterious message

In the months following that testy exchange, Van Tubergen said he became aware of more evidence that something was amiss.

In 2020, a think tank called the Urban Reform Institute obtained invoices for the landscaping contracts that Edwards had touted at the board meeting. Hundreds of thousands of dollars went to two companies called POWER, LLC and Cortez Landscaping, LLC, but their lots seemed to remain eyesores, Van Tubergen said.

Increasingly suspicious, Van Tubergen filed a formal complaint with the city’s Office of Inspector General in September 2020 accusing Edwards of waste, fraud or abuse.

Not long after Van Tubergen filed that complaint, he began to notice improvements. Grass was getting cut, lots were being fenced off and houses finally were being built.

The same month that Van Tubergen filed his complaint, the MRA says that it stopped contracting with POWER, LLC. Around that time, the MRA says, it also began auditing its contractors’ landscaping work.

Those contractors had been hired without a formal, competitive bidding process, according to the MRA. In 2021, the authority put its landscaping contracts out to bid and stopped doing business with Cortez Landscaping.

The changes were so noticeable that Van Tubergen tried to withdraw his complaint.

Behind the scenes, however, the city’s investigation appears to have remained open. Van Tubergen was not sure it would ever produce results until a mysterious Facebook comment seemed to blow the case wide open.

At the bottom of a years-old post about the MRA’s vacant properties, a commenter said they had more information. Edwards was the man behind the landscaping contractor POWER, LLC, the commenter said.

If Edwards was claiming contracts for himself, the evidence may have been in plain sight all along. In 2001, Edwards set up a limited liability company called P.O.W.E.R., LLC, for “People Operating and Working for Economic Development, public records show.”

Van Tubergen said the city’s investigation seems to have moved at light speed after that disclosure.

On April 28 of this year, Van Tubergen dashed off an email to the inspector general to tell her about Edwards’ link to P.O.W.E.R., LLC. The MRA fired him the next month.

“Under MRA’s Code of Ethics and Conflict of Interest policy, Mr. Edwards was required to disclose any interests he may have had with any vendor of Midtown. He neither notified MRA nor was he authorized to run an outside business.”

Midtown Redevelopment Authority

In a statement, the MRA said that it was investigating Edwards’ relationship to its longtime contractor POWER, LLC. The authority says it had policies in place against self-dealing.

“Under MRA’s Code of Ethics and Conflict of Interest policy, Mr. Edwards was required to disclose any interests he may have had with any vendor of Midtown. He neither notified MRA nor was he authorized to run an outside business,” the authority said.

Over the past five years, the MRA said, it paid $4.2 million to Cortez Landscaping and POWER, LLC.

The woman listed as Cortez Landscaping’s owner in MRA records did not respond to Abdelraoufsinno messages seeking comment, and the company did not respond to an email request for comment beyond saying that it had parted with the MRA “years ago.”

A letter sent to the address for POWER, LLC listed on authority records went to a post office box used by former state Rep. Garnet Coleman. It did not produce a response.

Edwards used to serve as chief of staff for Coleman, who authored the legislation enabling the creation of the authority and used to serve on its board. Coleman said he never received mail for POWER, LLC.

“I never gave him permission to use that P.O. box,” Coleman said. “I don't know why he used it. I'm chagrined that he did use it.”

Two attendees of the Midtown Redevelopment Authority board meeting have a conversation in front of the district offices while the board members are in executive session, Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023, in Houston. (Douglas Sweet Jr. for Abdelraoufsinno)

Van Tubergen’s ‘vindication’

The entirety of what is publicly known about Curtis’ investigation is contained in a short Oct. 3 letter.

“After careful review of all evidence gathered OIG sustains your complaint that Mr. Todd Edwards used his position at Midtown Redevelopment Authority inappropriately,” she wrote to Van Tubergen. “OIG found he used it to benefit himself and the owner of Cortez Landscaping.”

Curtis gave no hint about the extent of the alleged misdeeds or whether she referred her probe to law enforcement. Still, the letter satisfied Van Tubergen.

The city declined to make Curtis available for an interview or release a copy of her report. In a letter to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office, the city said that releasing the report would violate attorney-client privilege and “the privacy of the individuals who cooperated with the investigation.”

Even Matt Thibodeaux, the MRA’s executive director, said in an Oct. 24 statement that he had not been given a copy of the city’s findings despite working “closely and transparently” with the inspector general.

With the closing of the city probe, the MRA says it has reopened an internal investigation.

“MRA is currently investigating all aspects of this matter including whether and to what extent MRA funds were lost due to Mr. Edwards’ actions,” the agency said in a statement. “MRA takes its role as a steward of public funds with the utmost seriousness. This includes a commitment to pursuing appropriate legal remedies to recoup misused public funds.”

At an Oct. 26 board meeting, several board members declined comment before going into a private, 70-minute executive session to discuss what were described as “personnel policies and related matters.”

The week after the board meeting, Van Tubergen drove around Third Ward passing empty lots. Some authority properties still had trash and tires. At least 18 of the authority’s lots have been the subject of 311 complaints about weeds and trash since the start of last year, according to city records.

Van Tubergen also parked his truck at a construction site for a 135-unit senior apartment complex on Gray Street.

The development is possible because the MRA donated $5 million worth of land. It’s the kind of project the authority should have been supporting all along, Van Tubergen said, but he worries that rising interest rates will make new projects impractical for years to come.

“They need to build affordable housing,” he said. “They’ve kind of missed that window of opportunity.”

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Matt Sledge is the City Hall reporter for the Abdelraoufsinno. Before that, he worked in the same role for the Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate and as a national reporter for HuffPost. He’s excited...

Elena Bruess covers the environment for the Abdelraoufsinno. She comes to Houston after two years at the San Antonio Express-News, where she covered the environment, climate and water. Elena previously...