Renton brothers seek reparations decades after sale of family land

James Houston vibrates with fear.

This is only the second time he’s returned to this land, his family’s old land, that he says his parents were pressured to sell to the Renton School District in 1968. That was when, he said, “all hell broke loose.” 

Just southeast of Honey Dew Elementary School, million-dollar houses with 3-car garages and neat grass lawns fill what was once sprawling farm and wetlands. His voice is hoarse. He had been scared to come home.  

The 73-year-old points a shaky finger as he, his wife and his brother walk down the sidewalk of this planned suburban community, as parents push strollers and kids zoom by on scooters. 

That’s where the pond used to be, where they built makeshift rafts, says his brother, John Houston, 69. Over there was the junkyard where their father fixed up jalopies, and the sheds where the family raised pigs and cows and chickens. Down that way was a small but sprightly block of Black-owned businesses — a grocery store, a barber shop, a barbecue joint. 

It’s all gone now. But in the eyes of the Houston family, it’s not too late to right this wrong. 

The Houston brothers and a growing group of supporters are fighting to get compensation and recognition from the Renton School District for the land they say their parents were pressed to sell 55 years ago. They join an emerging movement across the country of Black families seeking financial restitution for property forfeited and wealth lost, a form of reparations for land sold to or seized by public entities and local governments. In some cases, families are calling for land to be returned outright.

“I’m doing this not to get millions of dollars, I’m doing this for my kids and grandkids to know that at one time, their family meant something,” John Houston said. 

A difficult road lies before the Houston family as they make their case. Some of the details behind the district’s pursuit of the property have been lost to history, with limited public records and scant news coverage at the time. John and James Houston are relying heavily on their memories from over half a century ago, when they were young adults.

Meanwhile, district officials stress the land was legally purchased and that there’s no evidence of misconduct, leaving the door closed to any financial reparations.

‘People are still suffering’ from a painful past

As the Houstons tell it, trouble began when the district sought to open a new middle school to cater to families of workers at the nearby Boeing campus. Public records kept by the Renton School District describe some, but not all, of this saga — in school board agenda minutes, resolutions passed and documents stemming from the eventual sale of the property. Supporters say a more complete paper trail may still yet be uncovered.

“I’ve seen some documents and I’m confident there’s more,” said Craig Sims, a trial attorney and Seattle’s former chief criminal prosecutor who has been working with the Houston family. “There appears to be enough information to move forward and dig a little deeper.”

John Houston said his parents, threatened by eminent domain proceedings, sold the nearly 10-acre property after unexplained fires and an explosion at their home. He said the sale and what followed tore his family apart, with instability and poverty clinging to him and his siblings for decades. The district never built the school and sold the land to a developer a few years later.

It’s a painful past, John Houston said, one that falls along similar grooves of a particular form of racial injustice in American history — that of dispossessed Black families who had their farms, their homes and their land stripped away. These families would never know the financial security that comes with homeownership and the accumulation of generational wealth.

Many lost their land through eminent domain, the government’s right to seize private property with compensation in the interest of public use, such as to build highways or create parks. For decades, scholars and historians have detailed this practice, and the other ways families and businesses saw their property sold out from under them through tax schemes and unethical legal processes, or stolen outright, sometimes violently.

Some estimate that between 1949 and 1973, federal urban renewal projects across nearly 1,000 cities displaced about 1 million people, two-thirds of whom were Black.

“There’s a vast record of the theft of Black labor and land that deserves justice and there should be compensatory reparations and restitution provided,” said K. Wyking Garrett, president and CEO of Africatown Community Land Trust, a Seattle-based group that buys and develops land to support Black communities. “These are the sources of the racial wealth gap between Black and white families.” 

Patchwork documentation by government agencies and court systems and incomplete property records from decades past have made it difficult to calculate just how much Black families have lost in generational wealth due to government seizures, said Kavon Ward, founder of Where is My Land, an organization that helps Black families reclaim property. Measuring the cascading consequences that financial precarity has brought on to generations of Black Americans is even harder to quantify.

While there’s limited precedent, families, activists, academics and government agencies across the country are investigating what a system to compensate Black Americans for centuries of enslavement, racial discrimination and economic oppression might look like. 

“Regardless of how long ago it did happen, people are still suffering,” said the Rev. Robert Jeffrey Sr., who has called on the city of Seattle to compensate New Hope Missionary Baptist Church for lands seized in 1969 for a public park

Nearly 100 years after the city of Manhattan Beach, Calif., seized a Black couple’s beachfront property under the guise of creating a public park, Los Angeles County transferred ownership of the land to the descendants of Charles and Willa Bruce last year. Supporters hailed the move as a potential reparations model. 

That case inspired John Houston to create an online petition in December calling attention to his cause, and seeking restitution. Since January, he and his supporters have attended school board meetings to advocate during public comment. 

But even before the Bruces’ Beach transfer, John Houston had been building his case against the district for years, thinking about all his family has lost. 

Swampy land, but ‘perfect for us’

When George and Rachel Houston purchased this plot of land in 1953, it was one of the few places Black residents could buy property in the area. At the time, racially restrictive covenants pockmarked much of the Seattle region, according to research by the University of Washington and Eastern Washington University’s Racial Restrictive Covenants Project. John Houston, their youngest son, was born that same year. 

It was swampy land, a less desirable part of then-unincorporated King County that Black families could buy and afford, John Houston said, “but it was perfect for us.” He said his family didn’t have much cash money, but he, his siblings and older half-siblings would spend hours in the woods of their backyard, playing and fantasizing and dreaming. That, he said, was its own kind of luxury. 

“We were rich in a way that our white friends weren’t,” he said. “We were wealthy in a way that our white friends weren’t.” 

In addition to raising a bounty of farm animals, George Houston used to demo buildings up and down Seattle, keeping the unwanted lumber and bricks. Back then, the path home was just dirt and charcoal; every once in a while, George Houston would pay a man to haul and dump used oil along the road to keep the dust down. 

The land was giving, but hardship tested the Houstons. Twice fires occurred on the property, John Houston said. The first one destroyed their home in December 1956, and the second one sparked in December 1965, according to archival Renton Fire Department records. A December 1956 front-page Renton Chronicle article reported that faulty wiring caused the first fire, though the cause is listed as “unknown” in the Fire Department’s incident report. No cause was listed in the report for the second fire.

Around the mid-1960s, district officials began turning up at their door, both Houston brothers recall, though neither can pin down an exact year.

Records kept by the district provide limited insight. In June 1965, the district’s board of directors adopted a resolution to acquire land just south east of Honey Dew Elementary School to build a new middle school. In the resolution, the district notes it was “unable to agree with the owner thereof, after bonafide [sic] efforts to do so.”

The board concluded that if the owners and the district could not agree to a sale, the land must be acquired through eminent domain, directing the prosecuting attorney of King County “to institute condemnation proceedings.” 

It’s unclear from district records when negotiations first began between the property owners and Varner Realty, the appraisal company hired by the district to secure the land, or how those conversations played out.

The Houston brothers say their parents were adamant about not selling, despite having to rebuild and repair their home.

“Our whole family could’ve been killed,” he said, “and our parents still refused.” 

Then came the explosion. 

Deciding to sell and ‘bad timing’

Some time in 1966, around 2 or 3 in the morning, John Houston remembers waking up to the sound of a loud explosion, which blew up the front door and left a gaping hole in the porch. It’s unclear if it was a stick of dynamite or a bomb, he said. While both brothers recall firefighters responding that day, “they didn’t have any records for it since nobody was hurt,” John Houston said.

“Especially a Black family in the ’50s and ’60s, they didn’t give a hoot.” said his brother, James. The Fire Department has no record of responding to an explosion at the property in 1966.

There is no evidence the district was involved in the blazes or explosion. That makes it difficult to proceed with conversations about financial restitution, said district spokesperson Randy Matheson.

“I think we’d have to have some kind of evidence that the School District had been involved in that for us to move forward,” he said.

After the explosion, George Houston had been worn down, his sons said. He was tired of Renton, tired of rebuilding and restarting, and horrified by the idea of his family being killed. While he wanted to move to Moses Lake, his wife wanted to stay in Renton to keep the youngest kids in school with all their friends. The decision over whether to sell and leave or stay and fight created a rift between his parents, John Houston said, which ultimately became too wide to overcome. 

“Even though we’re empathetic to what happened to his family after the sale, there is just nothing in the documentation that shows anything out of the ordinary that would entice us to move forward to figure out whether or not there can be any kind of payment,” Matheson said. 

The district has had legal consultants review documentation surrounding the sale of the property, and found nothing unlawful. “It was clear that a transaction took place … and the family was paid fair market value,” Matheson said.

In the end, the Renton School District never had to pursue condemnation proceedings against the Houston family. In 1968, the Houstons sold the 9.84 acres to the district for $44,630.24, according to public records.

That same year, John and Gladys Longinaker, a white couple whose land was south of the Houstons’, sold their land to the district. 

Steve and Irma Harris — a Black family who lived on a smaller plot tucked between the land owned by the Houstons and the Longinakers — held out. In 1969, after failing to come to a deal, a judge ordered the seizure of their land under eminent domain. They received $12,250.

The three families received different amounts per acre: The Houstons received about $4,536 per acre, the Longinakers about $4,797, and the Harrises $5,000.

In total, the district paid about $92,200 — about $790,000 today — for the combined roughly 20 acres. But Apollo Middle School was never built.

With the infamous Boeing Bust that begin in 1969, tens of thousands of workers were laid off and the region’s economy was thrown into free fall. The promised families and jobs did not arrive, and a new middle school was no longer warranted, Matheson said. The failure of several school bond measures at the ballot was the final nail in the coffin, according to local news articles at the time. In 1972, the district voted to reject all bids for the construction of the school, and three years later, brought a measure to voters to sell the site, which was approved.

The School District sold the land in 1980 to a developing company called G.M. Associates for $186,675, or about $666,000 in today’s money, a difference driven by the high inflation of the 1970s. Scores of residential homes would eventually be constructed on the land, and the district would build Risdon Middle School a few miles north in 2015. 

“Even if it was bad timing with Boeing, why should my family have to suffer for their bad planning?” John Houston said. 

After selling the land to the district, George and Rachel Houston divorced. The proceeds from the sale were split between the two of them, John Houston said. His mother bought a house a couple blocks away from their old place; his father bought a house in Moses Lake. 

John Houston watched as a bulldozer tore his family home down, and he became angry, furious. His mother cleaned houses during the day and worked as a janitor at night, “so that gave me and my brother and sister time to roam,” he said. They started using drugs, drinking, something that never happened when their father was still home, he said. A few years later, after his brother and sister had moved out and it was just him and his mother, he recalls tiptoeing to her bedroom door and hearing her cry on the other side. Eventually, John moved away, too. 

“I left with a bad taste in my mouth about Renton,” he said. It would be decades before he returned to the city. In the interim, he moved to California, got married, had children, and then got divorced, all the while struggling with addiction. He became legally blind in the early 1990s, losing much of his vision to glaucoma, a result of delayed medical treatment after years of instability, he said.

Fighting for ‘a legacy’

John Houston ultimately made his way back to Washington. After a stint in drug court, he got sober and has remained so for over 19 years. He went back to school, and eventually started working at the Renton School District as a prevention intervention specialist, helping kids avoid slipping down a path similar to his. After working there for about 15 years, he now operates his own youth intervention program.

One day, soon after he returned to the city, he asked a friend to drive him up to the property his family once owned, the one his parents cleared with their hands. 

“I saw the 200 homes on the land, and it just didn’t sit well with me,” John Houston said. “After the fires and the bomb and the threats, I said, ‘I was going to fight for my parents’ name, for the Houston name, a legacy.’” 

What restitution would look like is difficult to parse. John Houston doesn’t have an exact figure in mind, but believes the district should at least give his family the difference of what they sold the property for in the 1980s. 

Matheson, the district spokesperson, said at this point, giving money to the Houston family without just cause would be considered “an illegal gift of public funds.”

Outside of the widely publicized Bruces’ Beach case in California, there is little precedent at this complicated intersection of racial justice and real estate. Very few cases have gotten traction. Most, like the Houston family’s claim, are still in the early stages. 

George Fatheree III, a lawyer who represented the Bruce family, said he is exploring other options for financial compensation to disenfranchised families, such as directing a portion of the property taxes now collected on land previously seized by the government to their descendants.

Some backers have called for an acknowledgment of the harm done, as a bare minimum. 

“We don’t expect reparations in current monetary form, but absent basic monetary reparations for lost generational wealth … there’s a lot of things we could do from a symbolic standpoint,” said Julianna Dauble, union president of the Renton Education Association, which represents district workers. That could mean allowing the Houston family access to use school facilities for community events, or renaming a building after them. 

For now, the Houston family plans to keep showing up to school board meetings, fighting for their history to be known and hoping for a kind of debt to be paid. Since January, John Houston has had sit-down meetings with Superintendent Damien Pattenaude and two School Board members, and that feels like small progress, he said.

Back in Renton, walking down the suburban streets, the Houston brothers still see artifacts of their childhood here and there. Just across the way, there’s still a creek, a small wetland area thick with trees and bushes. Now, though, a wooden fence and posted conservation sign protect this stretch of nature. 

“It was a beautiful piece of land,” John Houston said. 

“It still is,” said James Houston’s wife, Monica Glass.

A few minutes later, a yellow school bus marked “Renton School District No. 403” rumbled by.

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Mike McNamara

Mike McNamara

A Las Vegas Realtor since 2008. Mike has a wide range of knowledge around all things Las Vegas.

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