By Theresa D. McClellan
For the Star
They want to be good neighbors. They also don’t want misinformation to derail their $15 million plan to provide safe housing for survivors of domestic violence who are no longer in crisis.
That’s why the Fort Bend Women’s Center (FBWC) addressed the issues raised by a petition signed by more than 1,900 people in opposition to the Magnolia Gardens Community.
Magnolia Gardens is the 104-unit apartment complex located on 20 acres in the Rosenberg-Richmond area that backs up to the single-family subdivision Long Meadow Farms. The apartments will be on the corner of Skinner Lane and West Bellfort Street with the entrance on Skinner Lane.
This is not a women’s shelter.
“For more than 30 years the Fort Bend Women’s Center has been providing shelter for victims of domestic violence with the goal of helping the survivors become self-sufficient and independent so they never have to return to an abusive relationship,” said FBWC executive director Vita Goodell.
In 1999 the center received funding to help clients with their rent for a year. The clients worked with career counselors or got junior college certifications until they could take over the payments. But over the last two years, especially in Houston, apartment occupancy rates were so high they had a hard time finding apartments in safe neighborhoods. So the agency decided to provide housing and support services in one space.
Magnolia Gardens is to be funded by grants from private foundations and through the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, which offers a tax credit.
“The best funding was the housing tax credit and to get enough points to get funded it must be in a low poverty area, have a certain number of schools and be within 1.5 miles from certain amenities such as a store and pharmacy,” she said.
There are multiple programs vying for the tax funding. The state department will make a decision in Austin on July 28, said state spokesman Gordon Anderson.
Recently, Magnolia Garden officials asked to be annexed into the local mixed use development (MUD) and were prepared to pay the fee but the Homeowners Association (HOA) controlled by Long Meadow Farms said no.
“We said OK, we’ll build our own wastewater treatment plant. We knew we had a plan B but we would have preferred to join,” said Goodell.
As news of the project grew, so did a petition in opposition created on change.org. To date, more than 1,900 people signed the petition raised multiple concerns saying the area was prone to flooding, there are no sidewalks, it could overcrowd the schools and finally the two big concerns for safety and deterioration of property values.
“My concern is not the women but the people they are trying to get away from could find them and they will be very close to my home. This is how crimes occur. I don’t want my family in the crossfire,” wrote Ashley Aetonu.
Other residents complained over the perception that the Fort Bend Women’s Center was not being transparent and many questioned why it had to be in their backyard.
But Jim Smith, resident of Long Meadow Farms and a self-described “long-time supporter of the Fort Bend Women’s Center, said he is proud to stand behind the project. Smith is the president of PCCA, a locally based international company that has supported FBWC with donations, cash and time for more than 25 years.
“Serving them has been a blessing to my company. I am very proud to think that our LMF community will have the opportunity to serve and to be served by the residents of Magnolia Gardens. What a great mark of our community’s character to be able to help support a haven of stability for women and children seeking to progress toward the realization of their dreams,” said Smith who is among the nearly 600 people signing their support.
If approved, Magnolia Gardens will have support services offices attached to the proposed two-story apartment building. Support services include on-site case management and counseling plus rooms for wellness, a business center with printers and computers, career development and child mentoring. They anticipate a staff of 10 members not including property management.
About 50 percent of the housing will be occupied by FBWC families and the balance will be families referred by other domestic violence agencies, she said. The opposition petition said the other half would go to low-income clients from Houston.
“That is incorrect” said Goodell. “Others will be referred from other domestic violence agencies.
Goodell also wanted to address the security concern.
“We have a lot of experience with domestic violence survivors and abusers and they (abusers) don’t come where there is a united front against them. On the other side is that we have been placing ladies in scattered sites and have gotten really good at being able to assess the danger level.”
Magnolia Gardens will be a gated community with 24-hour on security. She included a study in her report to the state, which shows property values will not decrease as long as the apartments are well maintained. They will also conduct more vetting of the residents, which is more than what happens for new homebuyers.
“You have no control who lives next to you. We will be screening out those who have violent sex offenses,” she said.
They will have a tenant selection process giving preference to their clients and those with whom they have agreements. Since they don’t have the funding yet, there are no artist renderings of the proposed apartments and the tenant selection criteria screening process is still being drafted.
“We will be very careful and supportive,” said Goodell.
Some opposition petitioners said they would pull their students out of school because they did not want them exposed to children who may have seen violence in their homes.
Goodell offered the reminder that domestic violence has no geographic, financial or racial boundaries.
“Domestic violence happens to everyone,” she said. “Abusers are charming and socially adept and can completely hide it.”
One of the supporters from Rosenberg wrote that her pregnant daughter is a domestic abuse survivor and asked how she could get an apartment. Another Rosenberg woman wrote, “I know we need this facility.”
Goodell said she does not want to fight with her prospective neighbors.
“We are good neighbors. It’s foreign to us to go through something like this. We are diligent with our money and it’s frustrating to hear people say we are doing this to get rich.”
She encourages anyone with questions to not rely on social media but to call or email her. Goodell can be reached at 281-344-5755 or firstname.lastname@example.org.