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Interview with: Morris Lee
Archive Number: OH 221
LM: Mr. Lee, I’d like to begin the interview by getting some basic background information on you. Are you a native Houstonian?
ML: No, sir, I came to Houston in 1921. I stayed for a week or so and went down to Texas City and stayed for a year and came back to Houston—been here as my home ever since. You better pick it up there. I don’t know what you want on this, but—
LM: What was your business experience before you went into real estate?
ML: Well, I studied law, and I got a degree in law from Houston Law School, but as I told my law professor, he made a mistake when he gave me a real estate contract to read. I studied that more than I did the course and decided I go into the real estate business. I bought my first piece of property when I was 14 years old.
LM: Where was this?
ML: That was in Pecos, Texas on the top of a mountain, a sand hill out there in one of these oil promotions, but it became interesting, and the longer I have been in it, the more interesting it becomes. I never did stand the bar, and I’ve been accused of trying to practice law by certain lawyers. I tell them, “No, I’m doing like they do.” They practice law and then charge a fee for it, and they sell real estate but tell the client they don’t charge any commission. They charge a fee. All of my legal advice is done without fee, so they can’t charge me.
LM: Did you work for yourself in Houston when you launched yourself on the real estate business?
ML: I went to work for—what was the name of that company? They’re broke now. They were a big outfit. They was operating all over the country. They had an office here, and they said that they would let me come down if I’d be the one to collect rent. I started out collecting rent from rent houses. From that I learned a little bit about unstopping a toilet and fixing a lock on a door because you get all sorts of complaints. That, I believe, is the basic way to learn something about the real estate business because you’re dealing with people in their home, and I believe in their right to have their home and do with it pretty well as they please, just don’t tear it up. I also believe in paying rent.
We got some experience, and that company went broke. They had a—that was about 1930, ’29 or ’30, and that was leading into the depression. If you’ll remember, there was a depression that we heard about here in Houston, but to know about it, we had to go somewhere else to find out. If we didn’t have some 35 or 40 vacant houses, why we thought we were having a bad month. We went right into the depression, of when this company went broke. I’ll think of the name of it pretty soon, I’m sure. Several of us got together and organized Texas Mortgage Company. We got a charter. I believe it was—I know it was in 1933, and it seems to me like it was in the month of August or September.
Well, and we took over the properties that this company had, which had gone broke, and made arrangements with the people who had the mortgages to handle the properties and do whatever was necessary and put prices on them and sell them. In any event, along about 1933, I believe it was, right after the banks were closed—rather, I should say, right after they were re-opened—I decided that it would be a good idea if I could just acquire these various interests, their stock interests in the company. It took until 1940 to accomplish that.
[05:34] At the present time, no stock is held in Texas Mortgage Company other than, I believe, it’s 100 shares in the name of an attorney, and I think maybe our auditor has a few shares in his name, but if he does, I’ve got his resignation from the time he got it. I thought that would be a good move, but I find it wasn’t so good because now the Internal Revenue Service has classified it as a personal holding company, so we have to be kind of careful of what we buy and sell, which we try to do.
LM: All of your operations then were conducted the Texas Mortgage?
ML: No, all of that time, I had—during the time we had others—outsiders we’ll call them— involved in it. I had an agreement with them that I could buy or sell or do whatever I choose to do with the condition that one of the main ones who was here in Houston—we had an agreement that if he came across a deal that he liked, he would submit it to me. If I wanted it, we’d go together on it, and I would do the same with him. He was the last one that I bought out too, and I bought him out, I believe, in 1940. In any event, all during that time, we represented individuals who would lend money. We would represent the insurance companies and investors who wanted to lend money here and the buying and selling and just general routine business in the real estate business, which became very interesting.
One of our clients was the reconstruction finance corporation, which during those years it was just a small government activity that had a nucleus operation. As a result of that—World War II came along in 1939 and ’40 and ’41. I think most people, a lot of people, knew we were going to get into a war because it was building up very rapidly. I had made application to go into the Air Corps. The recruiting officer here was also a good friend of mine, and he said, “Sure, we can take you tomorrow with a lieutenant grade.” I told him, “No, I thought I was entitled to a captaincy.” I guess that’s personal egotism or whatever you want to call it, but in any event, I was waiting. He took that up with those who were superior to him, and I got a call from the local manager of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, and he told me to come down to see him. “You’ve been working here since 8:00 this morning.”
I went down and found out that I was on a special assignment through Reconstruction Finance Corporation, assigned to the Department of Justice and the War Department. My job was to acquire land and land interests which I was told was needed for the war effort. I had quite an experience.
LM: In this area?
ML: My area was the Mexican border and New York City, all the way, so we made appraisals or evaluation surveys for any kind of land that they would say they needed. It went from thousands of acres for a bombing range down in south Texas, to an interest for some company would want to lay a pipeline from here to there. We would acquire the rights of way for that or the land, whatever was needed. This area here was the area that I was most familiar with, and it kept me pretty busy. In any event, that was a good education on the exercise of the right of imminent domain.
[10:23] I became fairly expert in that field, and that’s what I was having reference to awhile ago when I said some lawyers accused me of practicing law. Practically all of the legal work that I do is limited to work for them in the law firms and lawyers who are involved in condemnation proceedings, which incidentally is a field. It’s not directly zoning, but that’s where you take away property from somebody. In any event, that has been a very interesting and enlightening, and, I suppose, profitable field.
LM: Were you ever involved directly in land development in this area?
ML: We had some land development. We’d buy land and build some houses.
LM: What dictated the direction of your interests geographically speaking?
ML: Whatever we wanted—you mean—where our interests were or—?
LM: What made you build in a certain direction? Were there trains at the time? For instance, did you—?
ML: Well, no, I wouldn’t say that I was conscious of any trend. I believe from the time that I first came here—before that, as a matter of fact—that this was a going growing area. As an illustration, if people here would be much more willing to sink $100,000 in a dry oil well than they would in going out and buying 100 acres of land and developing it and selling it, the little profit that you had in the building of a house. However, one of my first—and we’ll call it specialties—we were advancing money to contractors to build houses.
[12:30] Incidentally, FHA came along about 1935. That’s Federal Housing Administration, and my company was the first FHA-approved mortgagee, and we made the first FHA loan that was made in Harris County. I was a member of what was called a mortgage council, which was a group of people appointed by the national association of real estate boards to consult in real estate activities. If you’ll recall those days—or you won’t recall them personally because I think that was before you discovered America—but in 1933, ’34, and ’35, people were having a hard time.
The organized real estate, which was the National Association of Real Estate Boards—I think it’s changed its name now. In any event, they appointed I think it was 9 people from various parts of the country to study and make recommendations to the Congress of the United States or anybody else who would listen to us, as to how we could get things going again. Building, I think, is a basic element of our whole economy. When that goes bad, other things are going to follow pretty fast. Well, anyway, it evolved into the FHA, Federal Housing Administration, under a guaranteed loan. My part in that was I had a number of years before that, buy a piece of property, and if I could borrow the money and pay cash for it, then turn around and sell it to somebody for $50 down and $50 a month. The mortgage financing in 1929 was 5 years.
LM: What areas of the city did you develop here?
ML: Any area.
LM: Were there any particular areas?
ML: Well, that was on our own. We were out in west end. It’s in the Jay Rynamen (??) survey, if you know where that is. We were building houses, and we bought the land, put in the streets. In those days, we didn’t have to have near all the approvals that you have to have now. We were stopped on that one by the Interstate 10, the interstate towards San Antonio. It came along and took part of it. They wanted to take more than I felt they needed, so we resisted their efforts to take, and they finally wound up taking all that we had not developed, not only for the freeway, which is now the freeway, but also a park. I learned a lesson there and have used it to—not to any profit—but to stay in longtime litigation in the courthouse.
LM: What park was this? What area today?
ML: [16:11] It was in the west end in the Jay Rynamen survey, and it’s now—I don’t recall the name of the subdivision. It’s off the Washington Avenue, and if you know where the state highway has one office. As you’re going out the freeway, you come up on Washington Avenue, and they’re right on the left. Then a little bit further out, they have two offices. It was just before you get there. I suppose that would be north of that area.
LM: What year is it we’re talking about?
ML: Well, I don’t know. That would’ve been just prior to World War II. My guess is it was somewhere between—well, it was 4 or 5 years prior to 1941. Those were the years too when we were making interim loan financing to the contractors to build their houses. I don’t know what else you want me to say.
LM: I was going to ask you now if you have been involved in land development of this period. When did you first have any experience with zoning?
ML: I believe it was 1929. The city of Houston had a movement on that they wanted to adopt a municipal zoning ordinance. Some publicity was in the papers about it. I felt that that would not be good for me or for anybody else, as far as that was concerned, because they put a cap on what you could do. They told you what you could do with your property. I went to the city hall to a council meeting, and a number of others did the same thing. We were able to convince them, over a period of several weeks or months, to put the thing on the shelf and not do anything about it. I do recall that I said to them, “Why not submit this question to a vote of the people? If the people say okay, then you go ahead.”
[18:36] You will find that there is enabling legislation passed by the state of Texas which permits a municipality to adopt a municipal zoning ordinance, which sets out uses for various sections of property. That was one of the things that I had read in law school, and I didn’t like it because it permitted them, the councils, to do something, and they laid down pretty definite rules for them to go by to do it. In my first contact with it, with the city of Houston, was that they wanted to tell me what kind of a house I could build, what kind of an improvement I could build on a lot. I didn’t like that because I wanted to build what I thought I needed, wanted, and could use. I expect that was the first cleavage.
M: Do you remember during 1929 who were the people who supported zoning, the major people who supported zoning and who were the ones who opposed it? Do you remember if there were any groups that advocating zoning as private citizens?
ML: No, we had no groups on either side. I can remember one name who was a councilman that was—I call him Jimmy House. I think he was a water commissioner. Another one was—and I can’t think of the name right now, but I’ll think of it in a minute—Jay G. Miller was one of the ones at that meeting. Now, he was opposed to zoning. I believe that Hill Potter, who was the president of the River Oaks Corporation, was there and was in favor of it.
M: Was Will Hogg also—he was a leading—I think it was—a civic federation at River Road. I know he was a proponent of the planning. We he involved in this most of the time?
ML: I remember him. I met him personally, but I don’t recall that he was at this meeting in 1929. I would imagine that he was in favor of zoning because in those days the politicians weren’t asked will you do something. They were told what to do, and Mr. Will Hogg was the one who could tell them what to do. He owned I think the absolute control of the Varner Company, which owned the land where River Oaks is now. The Varner Company and River Oaks I think were about one and the same. Hugh Potter was the president and developer of River Oaks and a very fine man, a capable man, and a good friend of mine. Now, if you wanted to jump way down to the end of this thing, I’ll tell you two instances, one of which would not pertain to zoning, and the other would be zoning. Now, which would you like to have, or if you would like to have either one?
LM: Say them both.
ML: Well, he was a very capable real estate operator, and he was two times president of the national association of real estate boards and, at one time, president of the Houston real estate board, or maybe two. I’m not sure about that. That’s where I got best acquainted with him. We were going one time to—well, I got on an airplane, and I was going to Washington, and I sat down by him. He was the director of Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was one of the board of trustees up there and going to a meeting. We sat down on the airplane, and we got to talking and visiting and various things. I told him, I said, “You know—I bet I have a piece of money that you have never seen. I’d like to ask you,” so I pulled out a 20-dollar bill, national currency. I showed it to him, and I told him—he’d never seen it either.
[23:53] I told him what little I knew about it. It was something that I had gotten because it was signed by a man that I knew who was the president of a bank in Hawkins, Texas. It was a kind of money. Anyway, we had quite a chat about that, and he went up and down the airplane telling people about what piece of money this was. He just asked me if I’d let him have it because he would like to take it to show some of these birds in the Institute of Technology in Massachusetts, so I did, but I said, “I want it back.” “Oh, I’ll get it back to you.” I got off in Washington, and he went on to Boston. I came back and waited for 2 or 3 weeks, and I hadn’t heard from him, so I called him up and asked him if he would let me have back my 20-dollar bill.
He said, “Morris, I knew you was going to call me. You know—I lost your 20-dollar bill. I’ll send you my check.” I said, “Now, I don’t want your check. I want my 20-dollar bill.” He said, “I know it, but he said, “I got drunk up there with a group, and that 20-dollar bill disappeared. I was telling them what it was all about.” He said, “I’ll send you my check.” I said, “I don’t want your check,” but he sent me his check. I said, “Well, I’ll get even with you. I won’t even cash it.” I’ve still got his check. That’s one instance, but he was interested in things, and when he came across a new subject, he would like to explore it and convince himself, and that was a kind of money that was issued by some authority. I think that was before the days of the federal reserve bank. They let certain banks have authority to print money. The president of the bank would sign it.
LM: You just mentioned something that he had been involved in the zoning?
ML: Oh, yes, you better bring me back because I get to rambling on these things. The other was he wanted zoning very badly, but he told me that it would protect the restrictions which he had placed in River Oaks. Before our whole battle was over and before he died, we had quite a talk, and he agreed with me that zoning is an authority that is government. Restrictions are private agreements between people, and that zoning would encompass his River Oaks, and it would be in addition to the restrictions which they had. His restrictions were—I believe they’re not in perpetuity, but there is a vast difference between zoning on the one hand, and restrictions by private agreement. I think his restrictions are subject to renewal by a majority of the people out there, and any violation of it, why they have a River Oaks Homeowners Association which takes care of it.
[27:31] That I think is unique, as far as land use is concerned. It is the private restrictions that are agreed to between people. He thought that zoning would help his people. It would stabilize the value. Well, it will stabilize the value. It fixes the value, and it’s not going to go up. It might not go down. Well, it will go down because if you comply strictly with the zoning ordinance in your area, if it’s for residents, it will stay residential. Then when various kinds of encroachments come in—and of course what they told us then and still do—a service station is going to be on the corner. Well, I say, “What’s wrong with a service station. When I’m out of gas, I like to go as soon as I can to get gas,” but there are many things just like that.
He did want zoning up until—well, the last time that I met him, we had a debate in the Houston Real Estate board meeting. He was there, and when it was all over, why I got a standing ovation from my remarks. I sat down by the side of him, and he congratulated me. When we left, we left together, and we were walking down the street. He said, “Morris, I want you to know that you have convinced me that you’ve been right on this thing all of the time,” because by that time, you see, Houston had already—we’d had about four of these scraps. That was the last one too that we had, and we had an election for that one. He did say to me, “You were right on it. That has helped this town to grow. It has maintained an activity which draws people in here and has caused it to grow.”
LM: What about the 1948 debate over zoning? Now, what brought that about? Who supported it?
ML: Well, in 1948, was the first organization of a group opposed to zoning. I don’t know who the proponents were who instigated it, but I have always since 1929, I had always wanted the council to submit it to a vote of the people before they get into the whole thing—you know—see whether we wanted it or not. They wouldn’t. They never agreed to it. We had had two or three movements. I think probably the architects, not as a whole but the leadership of the architectural group and their association, he would be a man who would want zoning. He could see that they could get an architectural work for his association. They put out little feelers, and the first thing you know, why, he’s got a bunch of people that want zoning. Prior to the 1948—was that ’48 or ’47?
LM: It started in ’48.
ML: [30:57] Well, it could very well have been because that would be the date of an election I suppose. They had one. Did they not?
LM: I don’t believe so.
ML: Yes, I don’t think they did in the’48 year.
M: Yeah, I think it was probably more the zoning. I think it was ’48. I think the entire controversy boiled in ’47.
ML: Well, the whole thing started—it never has died, even until today. I see pieces in the paper or letters from somebody—you know—if we just have zoning, why we could do certain things. Well, that’s coming about because of the city ordinance that has just been passed about the control of the location of these porno houses, but I’ll stay out of that. The 1947 or ’48 election started when it first came about, it began to have a newspaper talk about it. As I recall, Governor Hobby was all in favor in zoning. The mayor—and I’ve forgotten now—the mayor appointed a zoning commission to study these things. Among other things they had to do was to have public hearings, on the theory that the people wouldn’t come to the city hall for a public hearing, but they could go out to the neighborhoods, and a few of them would come, which they did. I started making those meetings.
Mr. Jessie Andrews, a lawyer, who had offices here in Houston and in Kansas City. The name of it is an old name. It’s Andrews, Street, and Loag (??) and Mobley, and I don’t believe they exist anymore, but some of the lawyers are still around here. Mr. Andrews has been dead for quite some time. He was chairman of this zoning commission. I will relate just one incident which is vivid in my mind, which caused me to get more interested in the subject of zoning. It helped to gel my opposition to it too. They called a meeting at what was then the—I guess it would be Jackson Junior High School. It’s some other name now. It’s out on Almeter Road and at Chartreuse and Alabama and Wheeler. I think it was Jackson school, but I’m not sure about that.
Anyways, that’s where the meeting was held. I am sure that he was surprised at the number of people who were there. I know I was, but the auditorium was just about, I’d say, three-fourths full of people. They had the map up on the wall, and various members of that zoning commission were there. He had his introductory remarks and said this was a result of what they had already done. When it came time to ask questions, why I stood up, and he said, “Yes, sir, what is it you want?” I said, “I want to know who gave you the authority to make a map of Houston and spot what’s going to be done on it.” He told me that this was the preliminary work that would be done. Somebody had to do it. I said, “Well, I guess somebody has to do it, if we’re going to have it, but from my part, I would like to come up there and look and see what you’ve got my property designated for.”
[35:19] I remember one, in particular. It’s a little piece of property that I—well, I have a mortgage on it now, but I’ve had it for all of these years—on Telephone Road at the corner of Lombardy at the railroad track. He had—I spotted it on the map—they had zoned that for R, which meant residential. I asked him why, and he said that was because it was its best use. I said, “That would be a debatable question because there is a commercial store on it right now, a grocery store.” He said, “Well, that’s misplaced.” I said, “Maybe it is misplaced, but I own it, and it’s satisfactory to me and to the tenant who rents it from me.” He said, “What would you do with it?” I said, “I would build a 40-story building on it, provided I could get some damn fool that would let me have the money to do it.” He said, “Young man, you see me after the meeting.” I said, “All right.”
After the meeting, why I went up there and I said, “You wanted to see me, Mr. Andrews?” “Yes, sir,” he said, “I’ll tell you what. You make a list of this stuff that you have that you’re concerned with, and we will zone it for whatever you want to zone it for.” I said, “Now, Mr. Andrews, that’s the wrong thing to say to me because if you have the power to zone mine for what I want it zoned for, then how many other people around here are going to get properties zoned for they want it zoned for? Now, that has been my major contention on this. I think we ought to have a vote, and let me vote whether anybody, especially an appointed commissioner, is going to tell me what I can do with my property.” Well, he said, “You make your list and see if we can’t do something about it.” “Somewhere in all this stuff I’ve been giving to Mr. Carlton, you’ll find a list of properties I’m sure that I gave to him.”
[37:29] Well, anyway, we didn’t agree on anything that he wanted to zone my property for, and finally he said, “Well, it seems that we’re not going to win this battle.” I said, “Well, I hope you don’t.” As a result, the city council did not pass it. Now, I don’t say that it didn’t pass because of my efforts on it. I’m only telling you what little part I played in these zoning hearings where they’d have them. I went all over town every time they’d have a meeting. I’m sure each of you will know that the more you go into subjects like that, the different points of view, you begin to make up your mind how you feel about it. It became an absolute conviction with me, that’s still with me that municipal zoning is not right or proper.
LM: Were there any major figures who opposed zoning at that time? In other words, did you receive any financing to go to those meetings?
ML: At that time, we organized what was called a Greater Houston Improvement Association. I can’t think of the names of those just right off, but we had an office in the M&M building. Then we had another one down on Main Street, but I don’t remember the names of the people who were even on my side or on the other side. I just don’t remember now.
LM: Was Hugh Roy Cullen one of the people who opposed it?
ML: Yes, sir, he was—and in the 1947 election, I would say he would’ve been one of the most vigorous opposed to zoning. As I recall, now that’s the year that he and Jessie Jones got in a battle in the newspapers, wasn’t it?
M: I think it was ’62.
ML: One of those. I don’t remember which, but I recall Mr. Cullen, at that time—I don’t remember these dates too well. You see, he was not a man who wanted to buy land. He was a man who would jump at the opportunity to sink $100,000 in a dry oil well, but he wouldn’t go out here and buy something. He is the one that I had a reference to awhile ago. Neither did Jesse Jones go out and buy the land either. He’d have corporations buy it for him. I don’t recall whether their real battle came about in 1947 or whether it was in 1964. I rather think it was in ’47 though, but I just can’t remember. That is one time that the powers squared off. I would say that they were involved in it, and at one time they really got in front of the newspapers too.
[40:54] I know that Governor Hobby was in favor of zoning because I went to see him with two more people. We had this organization called Greater Houston Improvement Association. I believe J. G. Miller went with me and someone else to see Governor Hobby. We showed him how he could lose a million dollars on his home out here, in the main across from the Warwick. Later he changed his mind and came out with an editorial in the paper that zoning would be bad for Houston. In any event, they were squared off, and I was just a little old tyke trotting in the middle that didn’t know really where I was going except one thing. Wherever they were going to have a discussion on zoning, I was going to be there and express my opinion.
M: I have two questions. How did you finance this association? What was the position of the board of realtors at this time?
ML: The board of realtors refused to take a position. In the 1964 election, though, they did take one, and I can tell you about that now or come back to it.
M: Let’s do it now.
ML: All right. They had refused to take any position on political questions. They would hesitate to endorse somebody for mayor. I have been always ready and rearing to take a position and say what I think. I was opposed to zoning, so opposed that I wanted the people in the real estate business who were also squared off—they have their very definite opinions for and against—but I felt that if the people who are qualified will vote on a question, it will come out all right. That may be a very peculiar position to take, but I believe in people. I think people can take care of themselves. I convinced the board to have some meetings of the board to discuss this thing. They were willing, and we spread that a little bit to have them invite somebody willing, until somebody invited somebody else who was also all in favor of zoning. What we were trying to do—and I think honestly I was trying to do—was just to educate the people to what this will do to you.
The people who say this will protect my home—that’s absolutely wrong. It will not protect your home. We had these meetings, and until we had one that almost got out of hand, and finally at that meeting I just suggested then that the Houston Real Estate Board, the board of directors meeting, call and say we want to know how our people feel and send out a question to them. Prior to that time, I had already done that. I had written this letter and said to them, “Dear realtor, I’m doing this on my own,” and various things. I think you’ve got some of those in this file. They began to answer the letters. They’d be willing to serve. They’d be willing to work. They’re opposed to it. They don’t like it, and you’re crazy for getting into this. We’re not going to have the board.
[44:50] I had gotten some letters, but with my own belief that if they understood, then the majority of them would take a stand. I at that time was willing to standby whatever they came up with, whether we won or whether we lost. We had the election, and somewhere in all of this mess that I’ve been giving you, we actually got the tally that was made, and it limited the voting to active members, those who paid their dues and were active in the business. As I recall, it was about 2 ½ to 1, opposed to zoning. With that, I felt that we could go on into the general public and have an election, and we wouldn’t be waging a losing battle.
Your first question there was how was this thing financed? That was remarkable. We would tell the people, “Some of us are doing this. We’re paying our own way, and if you think like we do, just send us some money.” I mean—the money began to come in, dollar bills, and 5-dollar bills, and 20-dollar bills. We had an office in the—we’re talking about prior to the 1947 election. We had offices in the M&M building and that would be the only address we had, so we would, “Just send your donations over there.” We got a few people who would make some $50 or $100 donations, but not very many. I don’t recall the name of any of them. As I recall, we sent a man to see Mr. Cullen, and he gave us some money. From that, why I felt we had a step to stand on that we could commit ourselves into more newspaper advertising and things like that. In that book there, I think you’ll have some of the flyers that we put out. That’s the way it was financed.
Now, in the second election, it was done the same way, except we re-activated this Greater Houston Improvement Association, and Buck King made his offices available. We had our meetings out there. I guess if you don’t know him, you know of him. They’re big developers of land, big land owners. I think probably they are right close to—well, I know they’re one of the ten largest holders of land in Harris County. They built many, many houses and subdivisions out by the University of Houston and on out beyond that. He had an office. If you’re going out Cullen Boulevard, just before you get to the first University of Houston campus—I don’t know whether the building is still there or not—but he had an office in the string of apartment buildings there. That’s where we met on the second. He was, of course, one of the ones.
If I may, I’d just like to expand that financing deal. I said at one of these meetings—and we were just in numerous meetings, and I made all of them I think. I don’t believe I missed a one—“If we just had some money, I’d go on TV, and I’d tell the people what this is all about.” After it was over, a guy came to me, and his name was Bell. He was a builder. He is also dead now. He had his office out here on Montrose. He told me, “If you’ll meet me downtown in the morning, I’ll let you have the money, and you can get your time on there.” That’s the first time we got time on a television station, and that was KTRH. No, that wasn’t. That was in—yeah, they had television in ’47 and probably radio.
[49:38] The one that I’m talking about was a television station, and he gave me the money, and I went over to the Chronicle building, and we bought the time. At that time, we had two paid public relations men. That’s what they’re called now. Ben Captain, if you know of him. He was one of them. His partner was Bill Chamberlain. Bill is around here, but he’s ill, I believe, stays in most of the time. Bill Chamberlain, he’s doing well. They were our publicity men. We employed them because Buck King said that they’d get their fee all right, and they did. They did the whole program. They were very, very good at it too. I got one contribution just for that radio program, by just telling somebody if I had some money, I’d do this, and the guy was right there. He became a very ardent opponent of zoning.
LM: I’d like to ask you now, do you see any difference between urban planning and zoning? Do you see urban planning as having a place in urban development?
ML: I don’t see urban planning or zoning in the development of real estate in any field, if you have a municipal government, state government, or the federal government behind what you do.
LM: Okay, following up on that, do you see any areas where the government should be permitted to make land designations?
ML: No, sir.
LM: What about flood control?
ML: No, sir, that’s a local proposition. Now, it would have to be statewide to make it work, and if you’re talking about this floodway, flood-prone area right now, I don’t think there’s anything in the country that’s worse than that because of the way that it’s been done.
LM: Can you expand on that?
ML: [52:07] Yes, the corps of engineers was called on by some outfit in—I think it’s HUD or some branch of Health, Education, and Welfare Department. HUD is supposed to be a subsidiary of that, but HUD is bigger than HEW now. The Environmental Protection Agency, it is EPA. I am unalterably opposed for any governmental agency, and those in particular, telling people what they must do with their land, and I do own a piece of land where I live. It is in the floodway, according to them. We’ve got a storm right here right now, and I’m a little bit nervous, you see. They tell me—and I haven’t tried this—but they tell me that I must go to some place in the county to get a permit, even if only building an outhouse or a barn. Now, I think that’s wrong, and as far as urban—what did you call it—urban—?
ML: —urban planning, all of those things are manned by people who have been appointed through political opportunity or persuasion, and they are not elected, and they issue orders and directives which we the people have to follow or get fined and all of that. I think that is just as wrong as it can be, but it’s a bigger situation than I want to get into it to fight, because I’ve had mine.
LM: Are there any guidelines that developers should follow?
ML: Yes, sir, the guidelines of the people that they’re going to build for. You see, now part of this problem goes back to FHA. Now, the Federal Housing Administration, they don’t lend you any money. They only guarantee the loan, and if they’re going to guarantee it, they have a right to say what kind of a house you’re going to build. Well, because they are a quasi—I say they’re a governmental agency, but they say they’re not, but that puts the government into it. Anytime that government comes in, they make it difficult because you’ve got to do your work based on what they tell you must be done or you won’t get something.
[55:06] I will illustrate that by the 55-mile speeding law. I agree with that, but I don’t agree with the way it has been put in, and certainly in Texas, which I believe I know a little something about. The president called Doc Bristle up to Washington and said, “If you go back down there and tell the people in that legislature they’ve got to adopt 55-mile speed limit because if you don’t, we’ll take away your public roads allocation.” He came back down, and they passed the 55-mile speed limit. Now, the result of that, to my way of thinking, is good, even though one will abide by it and 50 will not abide by it, but I think it’s good. I would like to get the government out of that too.
LM: What proponents—I’m sure you’re well aware of the proponents of zoning and not only zoning, but specifically of flood control legislation. You have used the example of developers opening up land that is subject to flooding. Do you have comments in this area, for example, that the people aren’t protected? What should we do in a situation like that?
ML: I would say that if the developer is going to get his financing from or through or because of FHA, then the fault lies with FHA or they wouldn’t be there. Now, that would be my response to that, and I know some of the places that you are talking about, and they’re all laid out with the approval of FHA. Then when they’re finally going to build a house, the houses are going up, and FHA has limits to what they can do. As far as guaranteeing is concerned—see, they have just recently permitted the man to use his wife’s income too as a part of his income to pay. I mean—it goes right on down to almost how many children you’re going to have, and so the contractor lays out his land, his development, with the approval of FHA. Then when he builds a house, he finds these people want bigger or more expensive houses, and some of them have got the money, so they build $30,000, $40,000, $50,000 homes.
Then the rains come and the floods come, and the windows are broken out—washed out, rather, I should say. You can find some of those kind of houses right out here off of I-45. I looked at them not very long ago. It is not the fault of the people. They wanted a beautiful home, and there it was, so this contractor said, “Well, I can’t get the FHA because of the price,” or “I can’t get the FHA because of you the borrower,” but we can get what’s called a conventional loan. He will wind up taking a second mortgage on it, so the guy moves in. The practice now is the theory we used to have. You make a small down payment and take the rest of your life to pay for it. If you stop to think, that 25 or 30-year mortgage, the mortgages only last about an average of 7 years, and somebody else picks them up to care of them.
LM: Do you see any need to protect residential areas?
ML: Yes, sir, private restrictions. As a result of the election, the zoning election in 1964, I went to the legislature, and I tried and somewhere in these notes I’ve got the law that I proposed. I think I can remember what it was. It did not pass, that we have a city ordinance with the neighboring legislation, the state legislature, to require that the builder or owner go to the city hall to get a permit to build, which he has to do. On the bottom of that permit say—one of them has to sign it—under penalties of perjury—swear to it—these improvements will not violate the restrictions in the area where this property is being built. Now, that goes back beyond the zoning. Zoning doesn’t have anything to do with it.
[59:35] That’s where a man owns 100 acres of land, and he wants to sell to a builder, or you’re a developer, and you want to buy my 100 acres of land. I say to you, “All right. I will sell it to you, provided you build homes out here for people,” and that’s a private agreement. I sold it to you, and you put your restrictions on it. Now, that theory and practice has been developed to where you’ve got it down to the courthouse. Now, you’ve got to go down there with your plat and have it all approved. That came out of FHA. They said, unless the county commissioners or the mayor or city council approve all of this, we’re not going to guarantee your loan. Mine was a private restrictions entered into by private people, so that when you go to build, you build for somebody that says to you they want this kind of a house, or you’re going to build a half a dozen of them, and you’re going to find a buyer for it.
The restrictions—you must tell that guy about it, or he’s is going to know about it and ask you, “Are these restricted?” Then when you go to get your permit, under penalties of perjury, you say that this building will not violate those restrictions. The difference in that and zoning—the zoning board is composed of appointed people, and it can be changed. One of the most used facets of zoning is the issuance of a variance. That’s where the devil walks in because who is on the zoning board?
You the contractor want to build. You’re not going to build one house now because of the setup now that’s going on. You’re going to build 50 houses because you’ve got an insurance company that will lend you the money to buy 10 vacant lots and build houses on them because they’re going to get the permanent loans. When you build these 10, you sell one of them, you can buy another one. You sell another, you can buy another one because you can keep in debt to the developer with your insurance company’s money for the price of 10 lots, so you’ve always got 10 under construction. The zoning board—as a matter of fact, the contractors and the developers know the zoning boards well. Let’s go to a definite, direct illustration. Do you recall or were you here during either one of these zoning scraps that we had?
M: No, I wasn’t.
ML: Well, we had an editor of the Houston Chronicle, and I can’t think of his name right now. He was appointed on the zoning commission. Jesse Jones owned the Houston Chronicle, you see. There were editorials coming out—you know—about the virtues of zoning and how good it would be and the callousness and the disregard of those of us who were opposed to zoning. I went to see him one day and trying to discuss some of our differences. Every collier who is over there now—I think he is editor in chief now—he can tell you also that—I can’t think of the man’s name. He was all for it, though. After he retired, I found out that he was from some place in Indiana, and he went back up there. He found that his home that he was born and raised in up there had been zoned for residence and was just two blocks off the square. He tried to get it un-zoned, so they could build a business building on it, and he couldn’t do it, so he got on the side of non-zoners too.
LM: Supporters of zoning use two examples of the value of it. One of them is the value of the West University Place in, of course, Red Rose, although Red Rose is not zoned. It has the restrictions you mentioned before. They point out the West University Place, that the values there have climbed because it is a zoned municipality. How would opponents of zoning define this?
ML: I disagree with that completely. As a matter of fact, there was a considerable movement to get some of the zoning regulations removed from West University Place. There was a very large tract of land facing on Bissonnet, somewhere close to where Buffalo Speedway goes through. There was a compromise made with the zoning commission to permit apartments or townhouses. They have now built townhouses there, but I know for a fact—and you can check it out if you’d like—that some of those townhouses built for residential purposes are being used for business offices now. That is one thing that’s wrong with West University Place.
[01:37] There are many people who violate the zoning ordinance daily because they’ll have an office in their home, which is a violation of the zoning ordinances out there. Zoning ordinances in West University Place—and the same thing is true with Southside Place—if you have a law, we are supposed to live by it and under it, but a city or a town or a village that has zoning have a group of citizens who are violating those kinds of laws everyday unconsciously. If I had my way—and well, Bellaire is the best example of that. I don’t know how familiar you are with the zoning out there, but they say they’re a city of homes and they’ve got a problem going on that just already recalled the mayor and the three of or four or five of seven councilmen.
They are going to run again for office all because the loop 610 went through there, and the great state of Texas, or any state, as far as that’s concerned, who says, “All right, people, here’s a neighboring legislation. Go and zone your towns,” they pay no attention to it at all. They go right through there, and they change the best use of the property and the values too of the property through there. I would add Bellaire to the West University that you had and include the Southside in between. I think that the fact that it makes lawbreakers out of the citizens, and if they knew they were violating the law, conscious of it, they wouldn’t do it. They’re law-abiding people. That’s what I meant awhile ago when I said—I believe I said—I don’t think I said this, but I’ll say it now. You got government in everything, and you violate a law 30 minutes after you got up this morning. I would say that we repeal the laws rather than to pass more of them.
M: You mentioned some divisions with the board of realtors. How do you account for divisions among the realtors? That’s the first question. Then while you were having the campaign against zoning, what did you consider to be the major issues that you want to present to the public? There are a number of reasons why you’re opposed to zoning, but what would you consider to be the major issues and which ones do you think the public responded to?
ML: The major issue, in my opinion, to get people opposed to zoning is just what I finished saying about the West University Place. People like to obey the law. That is, we’re basically formed that way. In our society, we are a law-abiding people, and when you get these regulations thrown at you so fast, and you unconsciously are violating the law, well, when you do become conscious of it, you just wish you didn’t have that around you. It is the freedom to act without violating a law. That is my basic thought that if you’ll let the people vote on the zoning question—it’s very simple, and I tried my best to get a certain group in Bellaire to put on this recall petition—that we would have an election for office, but put on there also, “Shall the city of Bellaire have municipal zoning or not?” You vote yes or no, but then take that time that the others were running for office and trying to recall somebody, to educate the people of what their zoning is.
[06:03] The group that I was talking to—and they asked me about it—they said, “Well, I’m afraid to do that because we think we have people out here who think it protects their home.” If you were asking me about what the realtors are—those that for it and opposed to, what we would tell them. We use the time from the time the board of directors said it would be all right to have a vote on it, to have meetings within our own group to tell those who were smart people, wealthy people, what this thing means. It means that they can have an inspector come into your house and tell you what you’ve got to do. For instance, if it is zoned A, that’s residential. Well, residential means that where a family is going to live, and that’s okay, but when you get your zoning orders, it tells you what size your family is. It tells you what you can do inside your house, and you must not have any place in there for a business, except—always an exception. If you’re a doctor, you can have a room in there where you can treat people. I’m sure there’s something in there that will except the politician too, that he can do something. It’s the exceptions that are in it that make it so wrong. What was the other part of your question? I’ve forgotten.
M: I see you have philosophical reasons against the zoning, and possibly as a realtor, financial reasons, because it possibly limits your ability. What do you consider to—well, a philosophic reason besides breaking the law? In other words, zoning tells you—it sets up. An opponent of zoning would say, “Well, this creates a more orderly city. It protects certain land values.” As an opponent of zoning, what did you consider to be the major danger of zoning? In other words, when you talked to the people, what were the major arguments that you brought across to the people to try to show them why zoning was bad?
ML: The restrictions on the owner’s ability to use his land like he wanted to. On my theory, that if a man if smart enough to acquire a piece of property, he ought to be intelligent enough to have a use for it without some hidden authority telling him what he has to do. While you were asking that, I was thinking of another illustration. Among other things that the enabling legislation requires is that a city must zone every square foot of ground within its limits. In the 1947 map, which you’ll have somewhere in this stuff I’ve been giving you, you will have the zoning map of Houston. Forest Park Cemetery out here on Lawndale was zoned for residential use. Not being smart in politics or what to do, I went over to the city council and showed them what they had done. I said, “I’m sure that those citizens out there are enjoying their rest, but I’m certain that they would enjoy it someplace else.” They changed that in the next zoning map that they made in a whole of individual maps, to a cemetery.
[09:59] Now, if they had adopted that zoning ordinance in 1947, and I had wanted to challenge it because they wouldn’t let me do something over here—I believe if the court strictly interpreted that, I would’ve won my case, or they’d made the city change the use of that. There was no provision made in that map of a church in Houston. There would be no churches. A family was defined as being one or more persons, male and female, related by marriage or—I’ve forgotten the other, but it meant that you wouldn’t have to be married. You could just have a woman living with you. We took that to them, and they changed that in the next one too.
It is very difficult to make a law or to write a law which somebody can’t find wrong with the phrases that you use. I say, why put it into the field of building houses or using real estate. I don’t know if that is a good argument to you or not, but it has worked two times here in Houston. Houston is the only city that has ever been able to vote on it except one, and that was Wichita Falls, Texas. They voted on it and voted for it, and I myself was offered a nice fee to come up there and help them get rid of that zoning ordinance.
M: You led into another question. Why do you think you were so successful? If Houston is one of the major American cities without zoning, why were you so successful in Houston?
ML: Well, now, I don’t say that I was successful in it. I just had a part in the successful moving of keeping it out of here. I can, with great pride, point, and say, “You see what Houston is now.” Other people come here. I have a man—he was running for some public office in California—and he just opened my door one morning and told me who he was. He had flown in here, and he said, “I do not believe what I read in the papers about you not having a zoning ordinance here, and I came to find out.” I said, “Well, I had some other things to do, but we’ll just fold them up, and we’ll just ride you around this town,” and I did. He had to get back. He was going to fly back that day. He told me, “It is absolutely amazing what I see here.”
[12:44] Now, Houston has the same things that they have in these zoned towns, or I’d put it another way. The zoned towns have the same things that Houston has, a service station and a house and a business place here. It’s all intermingled, and the reason for that in the zoned cities is the guys that own it are able to get a variance. Had you ever thought about how you would get a variance?
I can recall one instance that we were told about in this scrap. A man came in here from Memphis, Tennessee. I don’t remember his name, but they owned some land in Atlanta, Georgia. The Coca-Cola Company wanted to buy that property. They made themselves a deal, and he was going to build them a plant, but they went over there and they found that it was zoned for residential use. They had told him they would make him two proposals. One, they’d give him $75,000 for his land like it was, or they would give him $250,000 with a permit to build its Coca-Cola plant. That man told me that he tried to get a hold of those zoning commissioners over there and try to tell them how they would help the city by having a Coca-Cola plant there, have more property on the tax roles, but he couldn’t make it. He sold it to them for $75,000, but there’s a Coca-Cola plant today. I am told that one of his zoning commissioner’s daughters went through, earned more college, under a scholarship.
M: Going back to a question maybe I phrased improperly. I’m sort of curious to find out why Houston voters rejected the zoning? Why your movement—not to say you personally—was so successful in educating the populous.
ML: We told them what would happen. I can recall saying to people, “Who all wants inspectors to come by your house to see whether or not you are complying with this zoning law?” I say we educated the people, and I still believe now, stronger than ever, that if the people get an opportunity to vote yes or no, without a whole lot of—well, like the income tax law. It’s perfectly all right to understand that you’re going to pay a certain amount of your money for income taxes, but when you get all of these excepts and provided into it, you don’t know what you’re doing.
[15:26] Even the president has told us he is going to make Form 1040, the front page, an understandable document. I didn’t vote for him, but if he’ll do that, I think I’ll vote for him again, because I don’t understand it, and he has admitted he doesn’t. You don’t understand these things. I believe that each of you must agree. If you own a piece of property, you buy it, you pay for it or are paying on it, and it’s yours that you have the right to do with it like you want to do or are able to do, so long as you don’t interfere with your neighbor. Now, the neighborhood could go much wider than just the people next door too.
M: I have a question for you. How do you make sure that you don’t interfere with, let’s say, the health and welfare of your neighbor, let’s say, without zoning? Say someone buys a piece of land and wants to set up an establishment that might interfere with the area. How would you protect the area in the absence of, let’s say, of any deed restrictions?
ML: Well, now you said deed restrictions. I’m all in favor of deed restrictions.
M: Let’s say there aren’t any deed restrictions in that neighborhood.
ML: How would I—?
M: In other words, you say that a person has the right to use the property. I think you clarified by saying as long as it doesn’t interfere with the neighborhood.
ML: —with his neighbor.
M: How do you keep him from doing that if he wants to?
ML: Well, now, I would say that the knowledge of the difference between right and wrong would be the governing factor. If you are my neighbor, and you have the same feelings that I have, you’ll respect my rights. I respect yours. We are not going to do anything that is going to—I’m not going to build anything or have a business there that would be obnoxious to you.
M: What about that pornography, which I think is a little bit of a hot issue right now?
ML: It is in Houston. It’s going to be all over the state. It’s down in Fort Benton County where I live and Montgomery County. They don’t have them down there yet, but they’re coming.
M: Okay, let’s say pornography would not be a type of a business or an establishment you would want in the neighborhood, and we could appeal to some of these dealers if they’re right or wrong. How do you protect a neighborhood from, let’s say, an invasion of an industry like that?
ML: [17:54] Well, I would have to elaborate on my answer on that. If I were a member of the Supreme Court, I think I could define obscenity, and we could make a law against obscenity. There are certain things that people know are right and know are wrong, and I don’t think that zoning would have a thing in the world to do with it. I don’t think that they’re going to be able to hold this ordinance constitutional, and I said awhile ago I wasn’t going to get into that, and here I am giving you—at least it’s my opinion, and I have a right to my opinion. That is spot-zoning, and I believe you’ll find that that’s going to be held unconstitutional because it is spot-zoning. Now, I think that the people who run these porno shops should be educated. Unless they are hijackers, robbers, thieves, and if they’re that, they ought to be in the penitentiary.
LM: Do you have anything you’d like to add before we conclude the interview?
ML: Well, are we going to have more of these? I’m on a first time out on this kind of stuff, and I don’t know—I wasn’t prepared for—I guess I should go to read some of these things that I’ve given you before. I don’t know, but I do appreciate very much the interest that you have in it, which is a subject that I’m interested in and have been for years, on which I could’ve made some money out of, but I’ve had it as sort of a playtime. I can’t even take off the time for donations. I feel like I’ve been sort of wandering around. If you would give me some of the questions that you’re going to ask and let me sort of be prepared. I don’t think you want it that way, though.
LM: We ask questions many times off of the comments that you are responding or making to our previous questions, so that we really don’t—we have general areas we wanted to discuss, and we simply guide the questions by those areas, and you have certainly cooperated with us in doing that.
ML: Well, I believe that you will find that in Harris County there is only about 6 or 7 municipalities with a zoning ordinance, headed by Bellaire, West University Place, and Southside. I think there are about 5 of them out off of Spring Valley into Hedwig Village and a few of those. None of them had an election to adopt it. If I may, before you ask me that question, let me give you an illustration of how these things are done in these smaller towns. I will say in towns where people or some citizen doesn’t get up on his hind legs and say, “Look, I want to be at that meeting.”
[21:37] Zoning ordinances have been adopted by the city councils after they appointed a very few people who were in favor of it. Then they adopt this ordinance, sort of like a loose-leaf form, and never come up with this comprehensive map of zoning everything. I can point out just area after area that that has happened, not just right out of my head, but this material that I’ve been giving you will point that out to you. Again, I say well, that is wrong. If you’re going to adopt a rule or a regulation or an ordinance which is going to specifically affect every one of your citizens, then I think the adoption of that should be done strictly according to the rule laid down by the legislature it it’s enabling legislation.
The way that this stuff is put in and the way that it can be changed are—and I think I put this in this article that I wrote some time ago—they are the twins of graft and corruption. I have had many offers from people. Many people just tell me just me in casual conversation and other places—say anything to them about being from Houston, and they want to know how in the world are you building a city down there without a zoning ordinance. We, at one time, represented an insurance company, and they came in here to make loans, and they had on their form, “zoning.” They wanted you to say what it was zoned for. I had to scratch it out. I said, “We don’t have any zoning here.” He was the vice president of the company in charge of mortgage loans, and he couldn’t believe that a town could grow and go like Houston without zoning. Zoning is something you have to have somebody tell you what you must do with your property, regardless of what you might think.
M: I have one question. I was skimming through some of the material. I noticed in some of the literature that you had a statement that zoning was un-American, socialistic, or communistic. I don’t know if it is your material.
ML: I think I did it.
M: Could you elaborate on that?
ML: [24:07] Well, if I understand socialism correct—and I think I do—and if I understand some of the principles of communism—and I think I do—that zoning it embraces both of those theologies or theories of government. Communism is one that tells you what you’ve got to do in your business, what you can make, what you can have, what you can keep. Socialism is one where you just put everything in the pot and divide it up, both of which are contrary to the principles of our government as I think I understand them. That is you’re free to do what you are capable of doing, just don’t go out and knock the other guy down or you might get fined for a fight.
M: How important do you think that issue was? Many people don’t have your comprehension, let’s say, or an understanding of how this is socialism. During the course in the late ‘40s and the early ‘60s, communism and socialism was a very frightening issue to many people. Do you that scared many people by associating zoning with communism and socialism?
ML: Well, I just take one part of the Communist Manifesto, which said the adoption of a progressive income tax. Now, I didn’t say that, but I think it’s in Carl Marx manifesto. I would point out to you and have to the government that we have a progressive income tax here, which has already reached the point of strangling people. Now, I don’t know where it is going to lead to, but that is an element. Now, you’re bringing up one there that I used in 1947 and probably in the ’64 too because I believe that each of those—that many of these things where they tell you what you can or can’t do is a communist principle and also socialistic.
LM: I have no other questions at this time.
ML: Well, I want to thank you gentlemen very much. It’s been a pleasure to meet you. I don’t know that I’ve done any good, but I feel like I’ve wandered pretty much away from the subject, but I would be glad, if you like, to try it again and stay closer to the subject.
LM: We may do that later after we’ve had an opportunity to go through your papers and written material that you’ve given us. Until that time, I want to on behalf of the Houston Metropolitan Research Center of the Houston Public Library, I’d like to thank you very much for giving so freely of your time and for coming down and talking to us.
ML: Thank you both for taking your time and you thank Don Carlton too.
LM: On that happy note, I think we’ll close.
[Tape ends] [1:31:20]