HUD blasts city over affordable housing
Letter to mayor says policies promote segregation, violate Civil Rights Act
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.
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.”