Rep. Gary Gates, R-Richmond — except for the half-year he spends in Colorado — is back for a second legislative session with his self-help bill. This time some of his opponents are saying his moves ought to be illegal.
As Gates has acknowledged, his HB 183 would help him destroy several state-created management districts in parts of Houston where he owns sprawling apartment complexes.
As a commercial property owner, Gates and his companies must pay an annual tax of about 10 cents on every $100 of property value to the district in which his property lies. In return for the 0.1 percent levy, the districts provide economic development services such as extra police patrols, surveillance cameras, graffiti and litter abatement, neighborhood beautification, long-range planning, etc.
State law gives property owners the right to petition for the strangulation of a district with signatures that represent two-thirds of the value of the commercial property within its boundaries.
Gates — deploying a team of young and persistent employees to seek such signatures in person and by phone, e-mail and postal mail — has tried and failed to hit the two-thirds goal in districts that serve the Chinatown area in southwest Houston and the Hobby Airport area in southeast Houston. Both areas have heavy Hispanic, Asian and Black populations.
So, he wants to lower the threshold from two-thirds to half.
In 2021 testimony to the House Urban Affairs Committee, of which he is vice chair for the current session, Gates freely admitted the bill is intended to make his destruction campaign easier.
“I happen to be in a number of these districts because of some of the property I own and I have actually been trying to disband (them),” he said.
But it’s been too tough a climb, he continued, partly because some of the owners might live abroad and/or speak languages besides English.
“You also have challenges in finding the owners of many of these businesses . . . and the owner may live in another city or maybe another state or maybe even another country,” he said in 2021. “And then you run into problems with trying to get people to sign that speak different languages and different cultures.”
But Gates took a different tack when he testified to the same committee on March 14 of this year.
Almost all of his remarks focused on how elections and most legislative votes are decided by a majority rather than by two-thirds. His secondary line was commercial property owners are being taxed by unelected officials.
(Under state law, management district board members are appointed by their mayor and approved by their city council. District members operate like all other government agencies that must hold meetings in public and maintain open records).
Another factor that’s different this year is that some Houston management districts are pointing out what they say are Gates’ true motives.
In a letter to Urban Affairs members, Gulfton Area Management District Chair Tammy Rodriguez pointed out that some of Gates’ companies have been suing for years to block her district from operating based on alleged legal flaws in the way it was formed. The district denies the allegations.
Gates did not disclose the lawsuit in his testimony to Urban Affairs.
“Please do not involve yourself in this lawsuit by giving Rep. Gates additional leverage over our district,” Rodriguez wrote. “If Rep. Gates’ use of his position as a House member to further his personal and business interests is not prohibited by the law or the House rules, it ought to be.”
The Gulfton district is among the many districts that have paid for an increased police presence and other anti-crime tools in its area. Gulfton is thought to be the state’s most dense and most diverse area, with a significant population of immigrants and refugees.
In the adjacent Southwest Management District, which includes Houston’s suburban Chinatown, district Chairman Kenneth Li wrote a similar letter, saying Gates’ legislation was an act of self-dealing that should be prohibited.
Li beseeched the committee to “please do not involve yourself by giving Rep. Gates additional leverage over our district. To be sure, Mr. Gates does not reside in (the district) and does not represent any part of it in the Legislature.”
While the Urban Affairs Committee is now aware of Gates’ crusade against the District, some of his employees at the apartment complexes he owns apparently are unaware.
Late last year, photos published online by the Southwest Management District show Alice Lee, then a district staffer, providing anti-crime materials to Gates’ leasing office employees at two such complexes where the district had already deployed security cameras and private security patrols at the request of Gates’ people.
Gates might have missed such events because of the time he spends in Colorado. Coloradocitizenscoalition.org, the website for a group he founded, says he owns a home in Crested Butte CO, and is active in the community and a church there.
Until ReformAustin reported about it several months ago, the website had said Gates spends about half his time in the state to the north of Texas.
As of this writing, Gates’ HB 183 was pending in Urban Affairs, where the city of Houston filed a letter against it.