HUD blasts city over af­ford­able hous­ing

Let­ter to mayor says poli­cies pro­mote seg­re­ga­tion, violate Civil Rights Act

Houston Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Re­becca El­liott

The U.S. Depart­ment of Hous­ing and Ur­ban De­vel­op­ment is blast­ing Mayor Sylvester Turner’s re­cent re­jec­tion of a sub­si­dized hous­ing project near the Gal­le­ria and said the city vi­o­lates the fed­eral Civil Rights Act by giv­ing too much weight to “racially mo­ti­vated op­po­si­tion” from neigh­bor­hood res­i­dents when de­cid­ing where to lo­cate a key form of low-in­come hous­ing.

HUD’s find­ings, de­tailed in a scathing 14-page let­ter sent Wed­nes­day, fault the city for “block­ing and de­ter­ring af­ford­able hous­ing pro­pos­als in in­te­grated neigh­bor­hoods” and re­quire Hous­ton of­fi­cials to im­ple­ment a se­ries of cor­rec­tive ac­tions.

Those reme­dies in­clude pro­vid­ing the re­main­ing con­struc­tion costs for the Hous­ton Hous­ing Au­thor­ity’s pro­posed 2640 Foun­tain View com­plex, which Turner blocked in Au­gust, or fi­nanc­ing an al­ter­na­tive in a so-called “high-op­por­tu­nity” cen­sus tract.

HUD also called on the city to de­velop a for­mal pol­icy to en­sure the place­ment of tax credit hous­ing does not main­tain seg­re­ga­tion, es­tab­lish a lo­cal fair hous­ing com­mis­sion to di­min­ish seg­re­ga­tion and help hous­ing voucher re­cip­i­ents find homes in low-poverty neigh­bor­hoods.

“The city’s re­fusal to is­sue a res­o­lu­tion of no ob­jec­tion for Foun­tain View was mo­ti­vated ei­ther in whole or in part by the race, color, or na­tional ori­gin of the likely ten­ants,” Garry Sweeney, di­rec­tor of HUD’s Fort Worth’s re­gional of­fice of

fair hous­ing and equal op­por­tu­nity, wrote in a let­ter to Turner. “More gen­er­ally, the depart­ment finds that the city’s pro­ce­dures for ap­prov­ing Low-In­come Hous­ing Tax Credit ap­pli­ca­tions are in­flu­enced by racially mo­ti­vated op­po­si­tion to af­ford­able hous­ing and per­pet­u­ate seg­re­ga­tion.”

Af­ford­able hous­ing is a crit­i­cal is­sue in Hous­ton, a city of 2.3 mil­lion where de­mand out­strips the roughly 78,000 sub­si­dized units pro­vided by a web of agen­cies.

HUD opened its five­month in­ves­ti­ga­tion into po­ten­tial vi­o­la­tions of Ti­tle VI of the Civil Rights Act — which pro­hibits re­cip­i­ents of fed­eral fund­ing from dis­crim­i­nat­ing based on race, color or na­tional ori­gin — af­ter Turner failed to sign off on the Foun­tain View plan.

‘Hard look at let­ter’

The project would have been the agency’s first in a low-poverty, low-crime neigh­bor­hood with good schools and ac­cess to jobs. Re­search shows that chil­dren ben­e­fit long-term from liv­ing in these so-called “high op­por­tu­nity” neigh­bor­hoods.

The Foun­tain View pro­posal, how­ever, sparked fierce com­mu­nity and po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion.

Turner cited “costs and other con­cerns” in block­ing the 233-unit, $53 mil­lion project.

The mayor re­it­er­ated those wor­ries Fri­day and said he is “in strong dis­agree­ment” with HUD’s con­clu­sions, pledg­ing to use “all avail­able av­enues to chal­lenge their find­ings.”

“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,” Turner said in a state­ment. “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.”

Turner added that the city and the hous­ing au­thor­ity are set to an­nounce a plan to pro­vide vouch­ers for up to 350 low-in­come hous­ing units in neigh­bor­hoods with high-per­form­ing schools.

‘Coded lan­guage’

The po­ten­tial po­lit­i­cal fall­out of HUD’s find­ings are un­clear for Turner, a pro­gres­sive African-Amer­i­can mayor who speaks pas­sion­ately about the need to mit­i­gate the city’s vast in­equal­ity.

HUD’s let­ter notes, how­ever, that fail­ing to com­ply could re­sult in sanc­tions — which can in­clude the with­hold­ing of fed­eral fund­ing — or a re­fer­ral to the U.S. Depart­ment of Jus­tice.

Some have spec­u­lated that Pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion could be less in­clined to pur­sue sanc­tions.

John Trasviña, who served as HUD as­sis­tant sec­re­tary for fair hous­ing from 2009 to 2013, said ca­reer staff, not po­lit­i­cal ap­pointees, typ­i­cally han­dle res­o­lu­tions to the agency’s in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

How­ever, he added, “Since we don’t know who the as­sis­tant sec­re­tary will be and we don’t know who the lead­er­ship of HUD will be af­ter Jan. 20, we’re in un­charted ter­ri­tory.”

The fed­eral probe was two-pronged, ex­am­in­ing the mayor’s de­ci­sion to stymie Foun­tain View, as well as the city’s gen­eral poli­cies for re­view­ing tax credit hous­ing pro­pos­als.

HUD noted that lo­cal elected of­fi­cials and res­i­dents used “coded lan­guage” in op­pos­ing Foun­tain View, which the agency said “when con­sid­ered in con­text has been rec­og­nized by courts as ex­press­ing racial an­i­mus.”

The agency also said the mayor’s fi­nan­cial jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for de­clin­ing to bring the Foun­tain View pro­posal be­fore City Coun­cil “is un­sup­ported by the facts.”

“The in­ves­ti­ga­tion found that (Low-In­come Hous­ing Tax Credit) projects seek­ing res­o­lu­tions are not typ­i­cally vetted by the city for is­sues like cost, es­pe­cially when no city funds are in­volved,” Sweeney’s let­ter states. “In fact, city re­view of projects gen­er­ally is so min­i­mal that the mayor did not re­call the city re­view­ing any other res­o­lu­tions dur­ing his ten­ure, al­though the city has is­sued at least ten LIHTC res­o­lu­tions since the mayor took of­fice.”

Turner was elected in 2015.

HUD noted that the city long was aware of Foun­tain View’s price tag and did not pur­sue avail­able op­tions to lower the cost.

Ad­di­tion­ally, af­ter re­ject­ing the pro­posal, Turner re­quested the Hous­ton Hous­ing Au­thor­ity’s board chair to re­sign and in­structed the board not to re­new the au­thor­ity pres­i­dent Tory Gun­sol­ley’s con­tract “due to his sup­port of the project,” HUD’s let­ter states.

Tax credit hous­ing

HUD framed Foun­tain View as an in­te­gral part of the Hous­ton Hous­ing Au­thor­ity’s ef­forts to ad­dress the his­tory of seg­re­ga­tion in its hous­ing pro­grams.

The prop­erty’s cen­sus tract has a poverty rate of 7 per­cent and is 87 per­cent white, 3 per­cent black and 11 per­cent His­panic of any race, ac­cord­ing to HUD. Hous­ton tax credit hous­ing res­i­dents are, on av­er­age, 58 per­cent black and 33 per­cent His­panic.

Lo­cal op­tions for tax credit hous­ing are con­cen­trated in mi­nor­ity neigh­bor­hoods. Be­tween 2012 and early last year, 85 per­cent of the tax credit pro­pos­als the city’s hous­ing depart­ment rec­om­mended for ap­proval were for sites lo­cated in ma­jor­ity-mi­nor­ity cen­sus tracts, ac­cord­ing to HUD. More than two-thirds of the sites are in ar­eas where 80 per­cent of res­i­dents or more are mi­nor­ity.

Gun­sol­ley said the agency looks for­ward to co­op­er­at­ing with the city.

“The hous­ing au­thor­ity looks for­ward to work­ing to­gether with the city of Hous­ton in any way that it can to en­cour­age strate­gic af­ford­able hous­ing de­vel­op­ment in a way that af­fir­ma­tively fur­thers fair hous­ing, while also be­ing able to re­vi­tal­ize neigh­bor­hoods in need of in­vest­ment,” Gun­sol­ley said.

Hous­ing ad­vo­cate John Hen­neberger, who co-di­rects the Texas Low In­come Hous­ing In­for­ma­tion Ser­vice, crit­i­cized Hous­ton’s pat­tern of racial seg­re­ga­tion in sub­si­dized hous­ing as morally and legally wrong.

“For decades, the politi­cians have made de­ci­sions that com­pelled poor fam­i­lies in sub­si­dized hous­ing to live in racially seg­re­gated, high poverty ar­eas,” Hen­neberger said. “Mayor Turner has ex­er­cised his power to choose where he wants to live. The Fair Hous­ing Act says that he must stop deny­ing the cit­i­zens he gov­erns that same right.”

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