Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development sent a letter to Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner declaring that a city decision to table a mixed-income housing project in a wealthy neighborhood violates civil rights.
After investigating, HUD found that the reason a development in the Galleria area didn’t move forward “was motivated either in whole or in part by the race, color or national origin of the likely tenants,” and that overall, the way the city handles approvals of Low-Income Housing Tax Credit applications is “influenced by racially motivated opposition to affordable housing and perpetuate[s] segregation.” LIHTCs are frequently used to finance rentals for poor Americans, and since a 2015 Supreme Court ruling on discriminatory housing, HUD has pressed local governments to consider how to balance the placement of subsidized affordable housing. The goal is to avoid concentrating that development in poor, minority neighborhoods. In recent years, several researchers have published studies about how where a person grows up is tied to chances for future economic stability.
According to Houston Public Media, the mayor, who grew up in a low-income, predominantly black neighborhood, issued a statement right after the letter was received that questioned the strategy and its impact on already disinvested areas. Noting that the city is working on how to respond to HUD (noncompliance can lead to withholding of federal funds), he said, “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.”
In Next City’s “New HUD Rules Shouldn’t Leave Behind Disinvested Neighborhoods,” Oscar Perry Abello reported that if used effectively, there are tools that can tackle segregation and revitalize cities. Ellen Lurie Hoffman, federal policy director at the National Housing Trust, told him in late 2016, “A balanced approach would promote access to high-opportunity communities through mobility strategies as well as ensuring that residents who want to stay in neighborhoods that may currently be feeling distress and concentrated poverty will also benefit from investments that improve their housing and increase their access to opportunity.”
On Friday, Turner told the Houston Chronicle:
When you no longer build affordable housing in these low-income communities, then you are participating in the closing and consolidation of these schools, which impacts communities. You don’t get that growth and that development with the people there, maintaining that history, that culture, that personality of those neighborhoods, and so you force people out.
Turner also told the paper that the city is looking into another project for the Galleria’s district and that they’d soon be distributing housing vouchers to help hundreds of poor families move to high-opportunity neighborhoods.
How HUD will respond to Houston’s final answer to the letter might depend on the tone set by a new White House administration. Ben Carson, who is likely to be confirmed soon as President Donald Trump’s HUD secretary, has criticized what he views as a top-down approach from the federal government when it comes to asking cities to ensure fair housing.
Janine is Next City’s executive editor.