Property Rights Foundation of America®

from Proceedings of the Fifth Annual New York Conference on Private Property Rights (PRFA, 2000)

Sustaining a Local Property Rights Group
Barry Klein
President, Houston Property Rights Association

Thank you very much. I have some formal remarks to make but first I would like to start with a few informal remarks based on what I just heard. I want to point out that, after we defeated zoning in Houston in 1993, I found myself being approached by people from around the country who were fighting zoning in their cities and counties. In about a dozen cases, we managed to help them stop the zoning that was proposed in those jurisdictions, one of which was Socorro County in New Mexico. Perhaps you know Donna Brush. Donna was successful for two or three years, but now that push for zoning has come back and she has had to retire from the fight for the moment. So when you have success, as somebody just pointed out, you have a high for awhile but the proponents always have the forces of government at their side to come back for a second or a third effort.

I want to mention also that when you have 17 percent of the population in the rural states working together or trying to work together, you still have 83 percent of the population that you can't approach. Our success in the end is going to have to involve an approach to some of the urban groups across the country in the major jurisdictions, meaning that we have to find a way to reach the renters and the urban dwellers across this country. I am pleased to see that later on in the program you have a presentation from a person who is involved, I think, with the rap industry. We have to find a way to show the rap listener that they have a stake in property rights,—because the people that they admire, the people whose records and CDs they buy, have a stake in property rights with their trademarks and their copyrights to their songs, etc.

Your ordinary renting urban dwellers are unaware of their stake in property rights and the fact that if they are in a non-rent-controlled city they have competitive rents that are possible because of property rights. So our job is going to be very much involved in trying to get the people who live in the big cities so that we have a way to get to that 83 percent of the population in this fight.

I want to also mention that money is, in fact, the content of a few of my remarks and how important that is. Zane told you that they very much rely on, two thirds of their funding comes from, a gentleman who is 90 years old. That means that that funding could disappear in a day or two. We never know what is going to happen around the corner, and so you always to have access to more than one funding source and you have to have significant amounts of money, not only for litigation, but also for the political work which I'll be talking about in a minute.

I have a few donors and I was given a nice grant from a friendly donor a few months ago, and I spent a good chunk of that buying books. I bought them from the American Planning Association and I bought them from the free market groups. I wanted to have these in my library because the American Planning Association has many books that document the frustration, the disappointment of planners with the state of planning in this country. They are actually criticizing the ideas and the results of their predecessors in the planning field, and I wanted to have that on my shelves. And, of course, I wanted the free market literature because then you get the more objective and trustworthy critiques of planning and zoning that control our property. I think all that is important to try and have ready so you can boil it down and present it to your potential allies as you make the case against zoning controls.

Well, let me say I am honored to be here today. My job today is to explain how a local property rights association can sustain itself. Carol LaGrasse, of course, represents an example of a national property rights association that has managed to sustain itself. The secret to Carol's success is probably not different from mine. Each of us has found enough money to add to our personal investment in the cause of property rights to be successful.

I want to attempt to explain how a local group such as mine can keep itself functioning week after week for eight years, as we have managed to do in Houston. We are a Texas nonprofit corporation. I am its only employee. I work under contract. I am free to take on other clients.

I will start by telling you about the beginnings of our group and the issues we have worked on. The truth is that we have sustained ourselves by being active and productive and winning people's support.

First, a brief word about myself. I was working as a real estate agent in 1982 when the Transit Authority in Houston announced that it was moving ahead with its plan to build a rail transit system. I believe that to be a very bad idea and that issue converted me from being a mere civic club activist into a full-time political activist. After the voters defeated the rail proposal in 1983, I took up additional issues. I was forced to study all the urban issues, and I became sort of a self-taught expert on these matters. I work from a strong free market perspective and have been subsidized by my friends in the free market movement and other supporters.

Now, my group grew from a handful of people meeting in a hotel restaurant in 1991. This was the idea of a retired appraiser, a man named Meredith James, a veteran who was successful in campaigns to defeat zoning in Houston in the Houston referendums held in 1948 and in 1962. At that time Meredith and I were desperately looking for a way to stop the city's plan to zone Houston, the largest city in the country without zoning. By the way, the second largest city is right next to Houston, a city called Pasadena with upwards of 120,000 population, and it drops down to very small cities. Our city council did not intend to let the people decide the issue as had occurred in the past. The ordinance was being written and due to be adopted in mid-1992. Now, fortunately the process of preparing a zoning ordinance for a big city is a daunting task and the completion date was pushed back. This gave us time to plot and to find allies. Without going into the complicated detail, let me say that we did manage to find a way to force a referendum on the issue, which involved a petition drive to amend the Houston charter. In fact, we actually got two elections. In November 1993, the voters were given an opportunity to approve the zoning ordinance and they turned it down, as voters had before in 1948 and 1962. Then, in January 1994, just two months later, another election was held, this time to amend the city charter. This was the result of a petition drive that our group organized. The voters approved our amendment to the charter that requires a referendum on any zoning ordinance proposed in the future.

A local law professor who specializes in zoning law who had been promoting zoning for years in Houston declared to one reporter, "The November election put zoning six feet under and the January election put it ten feet under." I have to tell you that I do like to dwell on the memory of that statement. It gives me comfort. Our group spent in excess of $100,000 to get to this point. The petition drive plus the final campaign attracted some very large donations. Let me also say that I think that if we weren't forced to go to the petition drive, we might not have been as successful. That took several months. People out there with our petitions also had our literature and that was a way of prioritizing our message. It also kept the press interested as they watched to see how many signatures we were getting.

Now, for the record I should state that a second anti-zoning group emerged after it became clear an election would be held. That group was connected to members of our business establishment. It raised over a half million dollars, which allowed it to buy time on television. Their work was very helpful. The pro-zoners didn't really have a lot of money, maybe $50,000, $60,000. For three years up to that point the city of Houston had been promoting zoning; so they had that momentum going for them as they went into the election. I want to also mention that the fellow who promoted that on the city council was obliged under our term limits law to come up with 20,000 signatures, just as we had, to get on the ballot and he failed to do it. That meant that when we had our election in November 1993 he was not on the ballot, so he was not renewed in his job and within two months he disappeared from view politically.

In the course of the campaign against zoning, we developed a routine of weekly meetings, almost always with a speaker on topics of local interest, and of issuing a weekly newsletter by FAX to about 2,000 people. Except for occasional lapses such as when the computer breaks down or the president goes out of town, we have kept that up to the present day. Today we have about 200 members. Our dues are $25 a year. Many members choose to pay more.

In the years since the 1994 election, our group has worked on several issues, usually in the role of the opposition. Among them are a proposed historic preservation ordinance, school bond issues, a proposal to build a new baseball stadium, a new football stadium, a detailed parking ordinance, tax abatements, and tax rebate schemes. One of the proposals we worked to help pass was a charter amendment to put a cap on city taxes. That measure failed, regrettably. In the course of that, I learned how dishonest, just blatantly dishonest, advocates of the status quo can be to protect the status quo.

As I see it now, the Houston establishment has learned how to deal with us. It now knows to not hold bond election as special elections where an under-funded campaign can have an effect by targeting likely conservative voters. Now all bond elections are held at general elections, and I mean city-wide or county-wide or school district-wide, where the meager dollars we might raise are almost futile against the mega-bucks spending machines set up by the advocates, of course, that are typically funded by the economic interests who expect to benefit from the new program.

This summary tells you what the Houston Property Rights Association has done in the public arena, but it does not tell you how our success, which is a bit spotty, to be sure, can be duplicated in other settings. And that is the point of my presence here today, I think. How, in fact, has HPRA sustained itself? The answer is simple and predictable. We have sustained ourselves with money and volunteers. It takes money and volunteers to carry off the activities I have been explaining. Similar groups have to do the same. Clearly my organization has passed the market test. The work of HPRA has pleased enough people that memberships or donations either to HPRA or directly to myself have been sufficient to keep this operation alive. HPRA's revenue is about $15,000 yearly. That is not much, but HPRA has the benefit of my services as a long-time activist whose primary reward, just like Carol's, I think, is the pursuit of a philosophical goal. Now this is a common story in the annals of political activism both on the left and on the right and there is no way to predict when this kind of person will come on the scene when you need him or her. Mr. Walley would be another example of that. Also it must be noted that my group has several dedicated board members who are generous with either their money, their time, or their talents, and oftentimes all three.

Now, having taken up your time with a few war stories and an unstartling conclusion about the lack of lessons or insights to be gained from our experience, I will tell you that I think what should be done to make such groups truly viable. The following suggestions are based on what HPRA does today or what it will do when it has a better cash flow.

First, I think that 501(c)(3) IRS status is probably essential to attract the donations needed to be truly effective. Now, this strategy involves constant outreach and education which is wholly compatible with that IRS category. It is not as politically restrictive as you may think, as we used to think, by the way, and so my group has decided to take that path.

There must be an outreach program to find the politically minded and reform-minded people. I use the term frequently as a political village in Houston we have about a thousand civic clubs. We have maybe a thousand, twelve hundred precinct chairmen, both Democrat and Republican. If you take maybe eight leaders per civic club, you get up to 5,000 to 8,000 people. That is not the whole city when we have in our county perhaps 3 million, maybe. It is a small fraction, but they influence many, many other people and have a lot to do with the way the politicians think so that is going to be our target. It is a manageable target. And I suspect all you come from jurisdictions where you have manageable targets, political villages of your own. If you find them, you can try and bring them into your orbit, start to teach them and instruct them on property rights, bring them to a better understanding, and as you find the more decent and honorable people among your political villages, you will find allies for reforms that you want to achieve. Okay, I put them all on my mailing list. The hope is to create bipartisan or non-partisan coalitions. This is easier when dealing with local issues, I believe, than with state and national issues.

I would look for ways to "change the rules of the game." That is a quote of myself. By this I mean we should amend city and state law to make it easier to hold referendums, to modify a city charter, and to repeal ordinances. I should point out to Mr. Walley that one of the problems that Donna has in New Mexico is that your state does not require or barely even allow for referendums at the county level or at the city level. I would urge you to use your influence to see if you can get such a bill passed. That would give Donna a way to stop the zoning that is proposed in Socorro County. By this, I mean we should amend city and state law to make it easier to hold referendums to modify a city charter and to repeal ordinances.

The next step is to use the referendum power to create good laws and remove bad ones. I would also make recall elections easier than they usually are. We never have them in Houston. We have a very difficult provision in our charter, so recalls don't occur. If we have an easy recall, it is sort of like the right of the customer to fire his provider by simply walking away from that store that provides shoddy service. And if you have a way to fire your elected officials, they might be more sensitive.

Fourthly, a component of the educational work is to form small committees of three to six people that would do outreach and coalition building and coalition building. This is the key to my strategy. A speakers bureau is a key part of this idea. Let me show you a handout. I brought this. It is on the table out in the main room. I urge you to each pick up a copy— of six people, $1,200 in two years, that in a nutshell is the strategy that I am promoting in Houston on how to have an effect on any issue you choose to work on. It doesn't take a lot of time, maybe two to four hours a week, six people working together. Just one night of TV time over two years I think would make a big difference, and I think even three people can do it if they are willing to be a little more dedicated.

Fifthly, a coalition of bipartisan committees of grassroots leaders to put pressure on elected officials is needed. When an official offers an opinion and it is critical, it is still part of the status quo, the bipartisan committee can approach this man or woman with this statement, "We support you on this and we want you to do more." Elected officials who posture with statements that sound good on the evening news should be pressured to become lead spokespersons in committees organized to change the flawed policy. When you have an elected official who has declared his position in a way that is agreeable with your own, then he is putting himself against the establishment, against the established order which you are trying to partially dismantle. I think, we all are trying to do this, and so you want to pull that elected official into the fray that makes the general public and the press much more interested in your point of view. The key idea here is to make the elected officials become agents for reform. If they choose not to accept the bipartisan pressure, then they risk negative consequences in popular opinion. I understand, I am hoping, this is somewhat a hope, but it is somewhat true in Houston in our fight against zoning, we had we actually beat that board with Democrats and Republicans. Republican leadership are more intellectually inclined our way, but it was the grassroots Democrat that voted in great numbers to defeat that zoning proposal as they had in the past. They had a stronger need to protect their property rights because many had hopes that they could use their home for a business or they recognized that their need to be able to fix cars on their property, have extra vehicles there, all those things that come with property rights. Republicans are a little more staid in organized life and don't need that flexibility with their property, and they are less sympathetic to our point of view. I don't know which groups I might be offending here...

A sixth idea for reform groups is to pick issues from time to time that may be minor issues but for which the current policy is clearly a failed policy and thus it should not be hard to build a coalition for change. Issues that offend our sense of justice might be ideal. When I say this, I am thinking that in my city right now we have a policy at the county level where when somebody is about to be released from jail, it may be hours away, they will call the family and say, come down and get your son. So elderly folks may be down there for hours out in our hot summer or even on our cold, wet winter days waiting for their son to be released from jail. Or it can be a woman with her children, waiting for her husband. This is a heartless policy and I think it is one that is ideal for my group. If I had the volunteers, I would kick it off, because if you go around from group to group saying we have a heartless policy that is only offending or harming the innocent, the family of the person who is the accused, I think all people, Democrats and Republicans, would join with us to demand a change in that policy. That gives my group a chance to make connections with the Democratic side of town. Even though they were our allies in 1993, I think we have most of our support among Republicans on other issues, and it would give my group a chance to have better contacts, relationships there for other issues in the future, and would give us, I think, an easy win because in a sense it is politically incorrect to treat anybody in that fashion. So if you can put yourself on the side of a politically correct issue, then you are going to have an easier win.

There is genuine value in winning a fight with the government. You improve your win-loss record and you make new friendships and solidify your relationships with people who can help you on the next issue. And, also, the symbolic value of any victory is very high.

Seven, I think one goal of this work is to show how your local pattern of special interest activity has its counterparts in other cities. I think this helps people develop a deeper understanding of how they are being abused. I get publications in the mail. I subscribe to many publications. I get things mailed to me, and I am quite aware that the things that we see happening in Houston are happening around the country. But the ordinary citizen in Houston is not aware that the events that they see transpiring in the paper are part of a national trend, an appetite shared by many people to try to control their neighbor's property, and they are unaware of the history of revealed abuses that come from these policies in other cities. So one part of this program of reform would be to try and bring lessons on a kind of a systematic basis to the local citizenry so they become knowledgeable and hence more skeptical of what their local government leaders are telling them.

There you have it in a nutshell. Houston Property Rights Association has survived by being a good watchdog and sometimes winning an issue. I think our prospects of future political success are weak in terms of reversing the major trends of rising taxes and zoning regulations. We defeated zoning in 1993, but Houston has more regulations today than it had then and certainly far more than it had 30 years ago, and our tax burden is higher. In a sense we are losing the big battles. That is going to be true until we are better funded. I figure it will take major donors providing the funds for the additional staff to allow us to be more aggressive. To truly be sustaining I think the IRS status 501(c)(3) allowing donors to get a tax break for their gifts is the way to bring this about.

I brought some handouts with me and I hope that when you go back out to the main room you will pick these up. These are two of the handouts we are currently using to fight a proposed change in our historic preservation ordinance. It will be far, far more restrictive than the current law, and my volunteers have passed out about 8,000 of these in the neighborhoods that will be most directly affected. We know that the city council is getting a lot of phone calls off of our flyer. In Houston we have what is called the strong mayor form of government. On the record, this mayor supports these changes and so there is no assurance that we will win this, but we certainly are putting up a good fight. Stay tuned and in the future you may get to hear the outcome of this one. But it tells you how our group works on a day-to-day basis. It is this kind of thing that encourages our donors to come forward with more gifts and money because we are being productive. They see the product of their money almost monthly.

Thank you very much.

* * *

Question: Barry, what is the greatest obstacle to having weekly meetings? How do you overcome that?

Barry Klein: Well, Houston is, of course, a big city so we can pull together 20 or 30 people, largely retirees. I realize that in Houston we are at an advantage that many of you may not have because we have a large population we can draw from so it is not hard to find 20 or 30 people who have the leisure in their lives to come to a meeting. Obviously my remarks would have to be adapted for your particular local conditions. But as I imagined it, you might have a monthly meeting in a small town of 20,000 or 30,000 just in a regular restaurant. You might have a separate room where people of your thinking can meet and maybe bring in your speakers there for those events.

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