In a blistering letter sent to Mayor Sylvester Turner last week, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development concluded that the City of Houston has perpetuated segregation by allowing “racially motivated opposition” to affordable housing projects dictate the city’s decisions about where to build them.
As a result, the feds have found Houston to be in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — a decision that will likely have sweeping effects on the future of housing projects and policies in the city.
HUD’s investigation of Houston’s housing policies was sparked by Turner’s rejection of the Houston Housing Authority’s proposed affordable housing project in the Galleria area, at 2640 Fountain View Drive — a proposal that was “a key component of HHA’s plan to begin to remedy the legacy of segregation in its housing programs,” as the feds described it. The apartment building would include 20 percent of units at market rate, 70 percent for families earning 60 percent below the median income, and 10 percent to families earning 30 percent or less of the median income.
In order for housing projects that use Low-Income Housing Tax Credits to proceed, City Council must vote to issue a Resolution of No Objection — yet Mayor Turner refused to even put it to a vote. He chalked his actions up to “costs and other concerns” — yet the feds contend that Turner’s reasoning was unsupported by facts and that instead, the city gave into the will of the people, without any checks and balances in place to protect against a racially motivated will.
The project had ignited a storm of fierce opposition from neighbors in the area, who organized a mass email campaign imploring elected officials to halt the project. The neighbors even started a website called STOPFountainViewproject.org. Last March, hundreds of them showed up at a meeting the HHA held to express concerns about the Fountain View project, which included a higher crime rate, increased traffic congestion, school overcrowding and a decrease in property values.
Yet the feds asserted that a good chunk of these concerns were “shrouded in pretext,” and “reflected unsubstantiated assumptions about the residents of affordable housing —i n other words, the residents were stereotyped.” HUD excerpted a long list of examples; here are a few:
“Regardless of how charitable we would like to be; the reality is that in the lower income areas of Houston the crime is higher [sic]. Bringing them here will only bring down this area.”
“I have seen low income housing developments…I have seen the trash that’s around them. I’ve seen them move two to three families into one apartment because then they can be affordable.”
“It has been proven in the past what happens to the home values of neighborhoods that have seen the abuses of low income housing projects. There is so much other opportunity to develop these projects in the Houston area, and more rundown areas even that need and would appreciate improvement.”
Here’s why HUD still finds the city liable for discriminatory housing practices: Its process for deciding whether to issue the Resolution of No Objection for the affordable housing projects, HUD contends, is based almost exclusively on whether the neighborhood supports or opposes the project.
“The City maintains this system against a well-documented backdrop of racially motivated neighborhood opposition to affordable housing and a history of segregation,” HUD wrote. “The City’s complete deference to local opposition perpetuates segregation by deterring developers from proposing projects in areas where they are likely to face opposition.”
And the city is well aware of this problem, HUD notes. In the city's own analysis of impediments to fair housing, the city found that 179 out of 185 Low-Income Housing Tax Credit developments, or 97 percent, were located in majority-minority census tracts. Nineteen of 26 HHA developments (73 percent) and 150 out of 185 Low-Income Housing Tax Credit developments (81 percent) can be found in areas where minorities make up 80 percent of the population or more. The city’s analysis found “local opposition” to be an impediment to fair housing, and a consultant it hired in 2014 to review Houston's housing policies even recommended the city begin building affordable housing outside of “minority enclaves.”
In fact, of the 12 projects that do exist in areas with a white population of 50 percent or more, most are for elderly people or veterans — to the point that, in 2014, the state proposed a moratorium on LIHTC elderly developments in Houston because supply exceeded demand, according to HUD. One such project was even changed to an elderly affordable development from a familial one after facing fierce local opposition.
As further evidence that the mayor’s cited concerns about “costs” for rejecting the Fountain View project were unfounded, HUD noted that the city approved an affordable housing project of comparable cost just four months later — in a majority-minority area (Fountain View clocked in at an estimated $240,000 per unit, while the approved project would cost $226,000 per unit). The Fountain View neighbors also never mounted such a hostile campaign with their concerns of traffic and school overcrowding when market-rate developments in the same area were built — even right next door to 2640 Fountain View.
Mayor Turner voiced strong disagreement with HUD’s findings. The second African-American mayor of Houston, who grew up in Acres Homes and who has repeatedly prided himself as mayor of the "most diverse city in America," said in a lengthy statement:
"I have spent my entire career working to improve the lives of the less fortunate, and that continues now that I am in the mayor’s office. We are taking a hard look at the letter, but there should be no misunderstanding about my commitment to providing options for low income families. I do not believe that only wealthy areas can provide what our children need. I have chosen to stay in the neighborhood where I grew up and I will not tell children in similar communities they must live somewhere else. Our underprivileged families should have the right to choose where they want to live, and that choice should include the right to stay in the neighborhoods where they have grown up. I categorically reject any position to the contrary. Somehow this discussion has veered far away from meeting the needs of our underserved populations and it is time to get it back on track.”
(It should be noted that the construction of affordable housing in what HUD describes as “high-opportunity areas” does not require anyone to relocate to them from the neighborhoods they grew up in or currently reside.)
Turner said the city and its housing authority are expected to announce a plan to provide housing vouchers for as many as 350 low-income housing units in areas with high-performing schools in the coming weeks, which he said has been in the works as alternatives to the Fountain View project since he rejected the project.
Still, HUD issued a list of remedies and corrective actions it expects the city to comply with — including providing funds to supplement HHA’s costs for construction of the Fountain View project, or one in another low-minority, high-opportunity area. The federal government also expects Houston to develop policies that encourage the discontinuation of segregation and the clustering of affordable housing in areas plagued by poverty. In addition, HUD has directed the city to adopt objective criteria to aid it in approving Resolutions of No Objection for low-income housing that extends beyond local opposition.
Despite the fact that HUD has the authority to refer this matter to the U.S. Department of Justice should the City of Houston fail to comply, Mayor Turner said the city will “utilize all available avenues to challenge their findings.”