Joel Osteen, the money changer who runs his own Houston temple, was the subject of withering criticism earlier this week after refusing to open his 16,800-seat Lakewood Megachurch to those seeking shelter from Hurricane Harvey. Now the doors are open, but it took several days of people wondering why this proponent of the “prosperity gospel” (aka “God loves you if you are rich”) was pulling up the drawbridge on his place of worship.
Less discussed—and Osteen must be relieved that this is the case—is how this televangelist got his hands on his megachurch arena in the first place. It’s a story that speaks to how our cities are unprepared for disasters like Harvey in part because of the way spending has been diverted into publicly funded stadiums—stadiums that become rotting carcasses or “white elephants” as soon as a billionaire wants a new one.
Taxpayer-subsidized stadiums have long become a substitute for anything resembling urban policy in the 21st century. And now as roads, bridges, and humanitarian shelters decay, they stand exposed as neoliberal Trojan horses that take public dollars and magically transform them into private profit for billionaire sports owners. They are a scam, a con, and, not surprisingly, a grifter like Osteen has long had his hand in this honey pot.
Osteen’s church was once a hoops hallowed ground called The Summit, home of the Houston Rockets and the site of the magic made by Hakeem Olajuwon and his 1994 and 1995 teams that won back-to-back NBA titles. In 1995, flush with this success, Rockets owner Les Alexander demanded a new sports arena from the city. These negotiations eventually resulted in the Toyota Center, which opened in 2003, even though the city voted down this plan in a 1999 referendum. In the end, the people of Houston paid $182 million of the $235 million in construction costs. Toyota paid $100 million in naming rights, all of which went to Les Alexander.
That was just the beginning. Texas taxpayers have continuously paid for upgrades in the subsequent years. In 2013, the public even paid for a new $8 million scoreboard to help prepare Houston for the NBA All-Star Game. (Imagine what that $8 million could be used for right now.) Then–State Senator Dan Patrick, who today is Texas’s vile lieutenant governor, was correct when he said at the time, “I love sports. But sports owners and the leagues are some of the greediest people you will find, and they will take and take and take and take.”
But it’s not just sports owners who took and took and took. Osteen, who leads the largest congregation in the country and lives in a mansion that Donald Trump would find gaudy, moved his church to the publicly owned Summit in 2005 for a bargain-basement lease and then purchased it outright in 2010. How much did Osteen pay for this historic, usable but now useless arena? $7.5 million dollars. For the cost of a backup power forward, Osteen had himself a megachurch. The Summit, no longer the house that Hakeem built, would now be home to a Sunday television program and a preacher who gets paid in souls by the pound.