We live in an era when few politicians, local or otherwise, can be cited for bravery, particularly bravery under fire. But last year Houston could boast one such official: Tom McCasland, the city’s director of Housing and Community Development, who faced a crisis of conscience over a city hall deal that didn’t pass the smell test. McCasland, who grew up in poverty and has a bachelor’s degree from Florida’s Hobe Sound Bible College, a master’s degree in philosophy from Baylor University, and a JD from Yale Law School, has always had a reputation as a straight arrow. What was so striking about McCasland’s move was that since taking office in 2016 he had been a quiet, dedicated public servant who usually struck compromises to get new roofs over the heads of needy Houstonians.
That approach changed when, during a presentation before the city council’s housing committee in September, McCasland took on Mayor Sylvester Turner—who had appointed him to his job—over a proposed housing project. The city’s housing department had recommended four developments in different parts of the city that would include 362 affordable apartments and cost the city $16.2 million—or $44,800 per unit. Turner rejected those developments and chose another project, known as Huntington at Bay Area, in the Clear Lake area in southeastern Houston, that would cost $15 million for 88 affordable apartments, or $170,500 apiece—nearly four times the cost. So why did the mayor recommend a plan that the housing department had ranked eighth out of twelve proposals? McCasland, in a statement to the committee that quickly leaked to the public, accused Turner of “bankrolling a specific developer to the detriment of working families who need affordable homes.” Further digging on the part of the Houston Chronicle revealed that one of the Clear Lake project’s developers was Turner’s former law partner.
McCasland declared that the mayor had pressured him to support another project handled by one of Huntington’s developers. “I cannot support Huntington at Bay Area without participating in what I know is a charade of a competitive process, when the outcome of the process was predetermined before the funding opportunity was even issued,” he told the committee. McCasland didn’t exactly accuse the mayor of fraud. He simply noted that Turner’s management style drives out public servants with integrity and the “culture creates the breeding grounds where fraud goes undetected.”
The next move didn’t surprise anyone familiar with the mayor’s temperament. After denying any wrongdoing, Turner fired McCasland and launched a smear campaign against him. No one expects the independent investigation that Turner has promised to go anywhere, and so far it hasn’t. In the meantime, Turner has dropped his support for the Huntington proposal. And in late November the Texas General Land Office released a report that criticized the mayor for undermining the process of choosing developers for the multifamily housing program that would have funded the Huntington project. (The report didn’t focus on the Huntington plan, which had already been canceled, but it did note that information that McCasland provided to the committee corresponded with the GLO’s findings.)
A cynic might say it’s hardly unexpected that a public servant who criticized his boss in public would lose his job. A cynic might add that Turner is accused of actions that are shrugged off as normal political back-scratching in many corners of our state. But Tom McCasland is no cynic. He has, to his credit, reminded us that our willingness to enrich wealthy developers with taxpayer dollars while the poor get little is precisely the problem.
This article originally appeared in the January 2022 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “He Was Mad as Hell and Decided Not to Take It Anymore.” Subscribe today.