Nonprofit behind planned Houston facility for migrant kids seeks contract extension
The Austin-based nonprofit trying to open a shelter to house migrant children east of downtown is negotiating with federal officials to avoid the cancellation of its contract, which it had said would occur if the facility was not open as of this week.
In the lawsuit Southwest Key Programs filed against the city of Houston in mid-September, the nonprofit said if the facility it has leased at 419 Emancipation was not operating by Oct. 28, the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement would terminate its contract.
Southwest Key spokesman Jeff Eller said Tuesday that federal officials have not moved to do so, adding the two parties are discussing an extension.
“They have a desperate need for beds,” he said. “We’re hoping we can talk with them about a possible extension.”
Federal officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Southwest Key, which is paid more than $400 million by federal authorities to run 27 migrant child care facilities in Texas, Arizona and California, found itself at the center of a national firestorm in June when it emerged that it proposed to hold 240 immigrant children between the ages of “0 to 17” at the 54,000-square-foot building on Emancipation. The building formerly served as a shelter for homeless families and then, briefly, for those displaced by Hurricane Harvey.
The plan became public at the height of the furor over President Trump’s since-scrapped policy of separating children from their families at the border, leading Mayor Sylvester Turner to rally nonprofit, religious and political leaders to denounce the “unjust and immoral policy.”
The mayor indicated then that he happily would slow-walk the city permits required to open the facility.
In response to the city’s alleged “manipulation” of its permitting process, Southwest Key sued in September, claiming the city is conducting a discriminatory, baseless and politically-motivated campaign to prevent it from opening the facility by invalidating previously issued permits without due process and refusing to conduct inspections or issue new permits.
The suit claims those actions are discriminatory based on some combination of the city’s opposition to federal immigration policies, interest in “political gain” or the race, color, national origin, ancestry, alienage or immigration status of the unaccompanied minors who would be housed there.
The nonprofit asked the court to force the city to pay the $3.3 million in costs it had incurred at the site and the $5.3 million in liabilities it faces, and seeks to have a judge declare that it can proceed with its plans to open the facility.
Turner has said the city is strictly enforcing its building codes to protect the children who would be housed at the facility
As with so many divisive political fights, what is cast as a moral debate hinges, in practical terms, on a bureaucratic dispute: Whether the facility is a “residential” or “institutional” building use.
The Emancipation facility had received a fire inspection and been granted a certificate of occupancy as a residential “dormitory/shelter” under the building code, but city officials said Southwest Key had provided them incomplete information, and declared the proper use was “institutional.”
City officials have stressed that the facility’s role in housing younger children who must be supervised is a key point, but the lawsuit argues that city codes make no such age-specific distinctions.
Among the lawsuit’s requests is that a judge declare the children are not prevented from leaving the facility — not “detained,” in other words — and that there is no basis for labeling the facility an institutional rather than residential use.
Such a declaration also would resolve a dispute over the permits under which another Southwest Key center in Houston is operating. In a move that Southwest Key called “selective enforcement” but Turner and Fire Chief Sam Pena called “due diligence,” city officials visited the nonprofit’s other centers, and on Aug. 14 announced that a facility on La Concha Lane permitted as a residential use in 2012 is not operating in accordance with that designation and must reapply for its permits.
Southwest Key operates one shelter in Houston under an institutional permit, but has said it does so because the building’s original permits were institutional and it decided not to change them upon leasing the facility.