What the nonprofits have in common is their lease agreement with the city of Houston. All pay $1 a year. And their leases, like those of dozens of other nonprofits and commercial businesses paying sub-market rent on city property, are now under scrutiny.
"We are looking at all of them, whether they were $1 a year or $100," said Bob Christy, the city's director of real estate. "Whatever the case may be, we are trying to go back through them and determine whether those are warranted or not."
Mayor Bill White, who participated in the announcement at the West Dallas site, wants a more businesslike approach in dealing with city leases, including those with nonprofits.
White thinks token rent agreements are justified only in rare circumstances in which the service provided in exchange is considered a core function of the city.
"The policy is to try to avoid what's called off-the-books financing arrangements, where there is an annual subsidy but the annual subsidy isn't accounted for anywhere in the budget," White said.
The city has long had different types of lease agreements with some nonprofits.
Earlier leases, like those signed by the mental retardation center and center for the deaf, allowed the nonprofits to provide a certain dollar amount of social services in lieu of rent. Although earlier reports said the facilities paid $1 a year, even that token payment was waived for services rendered.
For example, although the lease agreement with the Center for Hearing and Speech set $31,065 in annual rent, the amount has been waived every year because the nonprofit provides at least that much in services for hearing-impaired children. Executive Director Renee Davis said the services there are now valued at more than $1 million annually.
Although city officials say they are bound to honor the terms of the leases now in force, they already have started replacing some of the $1-a-year leases with agreements that bring in more revenue.
The University of Houston-Downtown had a 30-year contract to lease a nearby partial acre where the city's first sewer lift station was. The city is selling the land to the university for an expected $1.4 million.