Rebuilding a Fair Houston

By: Joe Rich, Co-Director, Fair Housing & Community Development Project, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

On November 29, 2017, CarsonWatch partners the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, and PolicyLink sent a letter to Secretary Carson, joined by 20 additional civil rights groups, urging that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) enter into a voluntary compliance agreement (VCA) with the City of Houston to resolve a January 2017 finding that the City was in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as the result of its intentionally discriminatory practices regarding the approval and location of affordable housing developments.

HUD’s failure to resolve the Title VI violation through a compliance agreement with Houston since then seriously hinders the City’s efforts to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey. HUD has just announced a $5 billion allocation of Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) funds for the state of Texas, much of which will undoubtedly be directed to Houston. But the outstanding Title VI violation makes it impossible for Houston to certify truthfully that it is affirmatively furthering fair housing, a certification that is required for receipt of these disaster relief funds. Without such a certification Houston will be ineligible to receive critical assistance for its recovery efforts.

The Title VI finding grew out of the City’s refusal to approve an affordable housing proposal in a high opportunity area that would have promoted residential integration in Houston, but the finding was much broader than that one case. HUD conducted an in depth analysis of the impact of Houston’s affordable housing approval practices and procedures over many years that resulted in the virtually universal denial of proposed affordable housing developments in communities where a majority of the population is white. It found that 25 of the Houston Housing Authority’s 26 developments are in census tracts where the majority of the population is comprised of people of color, and 175 of the City’s 185 active Low Income Housing Tax Credit properties are in similarly segregated areas. Many of these neighborhoods have high levels of poverty and lack important amenities that are necessary for their residents to flourish, including high performing schools. Some of them are located in close proximity to petrochemical plants and other environmental hazards, and some are in areas that lack adequate storm drainage infrastructure, making them vulnerable to repeated flooding that disrupts the lives of residents, puts their health at risk, jeopardizes the habitability of their homes, and requires the repeated injection of extremely limited affordable housing resources.

A strong VCA must address the Title VI findings in a strategic and effective manner. The advocates’ letter emphasized that this is a particularly critical and opportune time to resolve this matter because the City is faced with the daunting task of rebuilding from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey. Rebuilding Houston’s damaged affordable housing in place would reinforce existing, harmful patterns of segregation and perpetuate the existing civil rights violations. The letter urged HUD to help the City craft a comprehensive rebuilding plan that will ensure that all of its residents, regardless of race or national origin, not only share in the recovery but also have access to affordable housing in neighborhoods that connect them to the kinds of opportunities that improve their lives. In addition, such a plan will bolster Houston’s sustainability in the face of the inevitable future disasters, create the underpinnings of a socially and economically robust community, and maximize the benefit of valuable and limited federal affordable housing and disaster recovery resources.

The letter supports the ongoing efforts of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service and Texas Appleseed to ensure equitable and fair distribution of disaster relief funds while at the same time addressing longstanding fair housing issues in Houston.