Advocates Sue State Over Law Allowing Housing Discrimination Against Voucher-Holders

Housing advocates had decried the deplorable conditions many poor Houstonians were forced to endure in former Crestmont Village apartments, operated by a slumlord, before the city helped them find new homes.
Housing advocates had decried the deplorable conditions many poor Houstonians were forced to endure in former Crestmont Village apartments, operated by a slumlord, before the city helped them find new homes. Meagan Flynn
Housing advocates in Dallas have sued the state over a law that allows landlords to refuse to rent to welfare recipients, a law that the advocates from the Inclusive Communities Project say amounts to racial discrimination.

Filed last week against Governor Greg Abbott in his official capacity, the lawsuit claims that because most people receiving federal housing vouchers are racial minorities, and because their vouchers are generally accepted only in low-income, majority-minority areas, the state law contributes to racial segregation. Under the law, passed in 2015, cities are barred from passing any ordinance that stops landlords from discriminating against renters based on the sole fact that they are on welfare.

Advocates say this violates the Fair Housing Act.

"The passage of this law goes against the spirit of the Fair Housing Act and the spirit of the equal protection clause of our Constitution, because it specifically targets housing-choice voucher individuals who happen to be overwhelmingly African-American," said Greater Houston Fair Housing Center Executive Director Daniel Bustamante. "People of color primarily are living in certain areas of the cities, and that situation is really heightened by source of income — when they have housing vouchers. They're basically concentrated in low-income, high-crime areas, areas that need a lot of help."

Bustamante said that although the lawsuit arises out of Dallas, it's still particularly pertinent to Houston. His organization has received various complaints from black renters receiving federal housing assistance who are turned away from apartments simply because they have vouchers. According to the Houston Housing Authority, 89 percent of the city's 16,900 voucher recipients are African Americans, while only eight percent are white. In Dallas, 81 percent of voucher recipients are black, and recipients live in census tracts that are roughly 74 percent minority, according to the lawsuit.

"By permitting the multifamily landlords in White areas to discriminate solely on the basis of participation in the voucher program, the Statute excludes the predominantly Black voucher households from White areas," ICP wrote in the lawsuit. "The Statute segregates those households in minority concentrated areas that are marked by conditions unequal to the conditions in the areas from which they are excluded."

Inclusive Communities brought a housing-discrimination case all the way to the Supreme Court in 2015. The 5-4 decision by the justices — that any policy that even inadvertently causes racial disparity is still in violation of the Fair Housing Act — is bound to help the advocates' case this time around, too, Bustamante said.

The Texas Attorney General's Office declined comment on the lawsuit on behalf of Governor Abbott, citing pending litigation.

In a separate but similar issue, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recently accused Houston of having housing policies that have perpetuated segregation, given that the vast majority of Houston's affordable housing units are built in majority-minority areas. The feds had begun investigating Houston's housing policies after Mayor Sylvester Turner refused to even put to a vote the housing authority's proposed affordable housing development in the Galleria area — 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.

After various interviews with city officials and a review of housing policies, the feds determined that "racially motivated opposition" to the housing project, located at 2640 Fountain View, is what led Houston to reject it. The problem, HUD wrote, was that the city's support or rejection of these projects seemed to be based almost exclusively on how neighborhoods felt about them.

“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.”

According to HUD's letter citing the city's own housing analysis, 179 out of 185 Low-Income Housing Tax Credit developments, or 97 percent, were located in majority-minority census tracts. Seventy-three percent of HHA developments 81 percent of Low-Income Housing Tax Credit developments can be found in areas where minorities make up 80 percent of the population or more.

"I've worked in nonprofits all my life here, and I feel real strongly that poor people in our city are relegated to certain communities," Bustamante said. "It's very difficult to move forward when you're still dealing with poor infrastructure, poorly maintained housing and lack of of opportunity. It's a serious problem for our beautiful, big city."

Mayor Turner has recently shown a change of course, approving 11 subsidized housing units last week that are located all across the city, including in affluent areas and "high-opportunity areas," as the Houston Chronicle reported.
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Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn