“This court is not persuaded” – U.S. District Court rejects Austin Apartment Association challenge to city fair housing ordinance

In a ruling this afternoon, U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks rejected a motion for preliminary injunction by the Austin Apartment Association to block implementation of the City of Austin’s  ordinance prohibiting landlords from discriminating against tenants who rely on a Housing Choice Voucher (Section 8) to pay a portion of their rent.

With this ruling, the way is cleared to implement the Fair Housing Ordinance, passed unanimously by the Austin City Council last year.

We have written extensively in this blog about the issue and the harm to low-income families, in particular to low-income families of color, caused by this widespread type of discrimination.

We applaud Judge Sparks’ ruling. The Austin Apartment Association has mischaracterized this case from the beginning. The Apartment Association claims to be burdened and suffer from an infringement of their rights as property owners while ignoring the devastating impact of the actions of many of their members in maintaining racial and economic segregation in Austin. Just this week a national study characterized Austin as one of the most economically segregated urban areas in the country. The discriminatory actions of members of the Austin Apartment Association against Housing Choice Voucher holders have, in no small manner, produced and maintained segregation in Austin.

The court ruled that the Austin Apartment Association failed in its “burden of demonstrating a substantial likelihood of success on the merits” of the case. The judgement also notes that “the Court concludes the [Austin Apartment] Association has failed to show a substantial likelihood of success of its federal preemption claim.”

Rejecting the Association’s claim that the fair housing law violates the “liberty to contract” the Court ruled…

Moreover, the Ordinance advances an obviously legitimate government interest: ensuring low-income persons — many of whom are racial minorities, children, disabled or elderly — have access to affordable housing (and thus to better schools and safer neighborhoods) throughout the City of Austin.

The Court references a Circuit Court ruling that notes “[F]reedom to contract entails the freedom not to contract… except as restricted by antitrust, antidiscrimination, and other statutes” (emphasis added).

This is the heart of the issue: that government, and all of us for that matter, have a fundamental responsibility to protect the civil rights of our fellow citizens seems to be something the Austin Apartment Association has an inherent problem understanding. Now that a judge has rejected their claims that their property rights trump the fair housing rights of citizens, maybe the landlords association will at last get the message.

Texas cities lead nation in economic segregation

Tim Patterson / Creative Commons
Tim Patterson / Creative Commons

On the heels of a recent study that ranked Austin as the eighth most gentrifying city in the nation, a new report puts the Texas capital at the top of a related and equally ignoble list. Segregated City, a report by researchers at the Martin Prosperity Institute, names the Austin-Round Rock metro area as the most economically segregated in the United States. And the rest of the state isn’t far behind.

Three of the four most economically segregated large metro areas in the country are in Texas, the report finds: Austin-Round Rock first, San Antonio third and Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown fourth. Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington places seventh, giving Texas four of the top ten. The state does not feature on the study’s corresponding list of the ten least economically segregated large metro areas.

The Martin Prosperity Institute determines economic segregation by looking at three interrelated types of segregation – income, education and occupation. More economically segregated cities have more defined divisions between areas with wealthy people and with lower-income people, between those with college and advanced degrees and those without, and between those who work in the “creative” field and those with “blue collar” jobs.

Several of the study’s findings illustrate what’s going on in the Austin area, and in Texas at large, that’s driving such drastic economic segregation.

Unsurprisingly, economic segregation is closely associated with income inequality. Texas, despite its high rates of economic growth over the past decade, is one of the least equal states in the country. A report last year found that Texas has the eighth most dramatic wealth gap in the United States, as in 2011, the top one percent of income earners took in more than 26 times as much as the remaining 99 percent. Houston, Dallas, Austin and El Paso all have higher rates of income inequality than the national average.

The Martin report also finds that economic segregation is “positively correlated with high-tech industry, the creative class share of the workforce, and the share of college grads.” In recent years Texas has seen some of the highest growth in the tech industry of any state in the nation, and as of 2012 was second only to California in total tech jobs. Texas cities have also seen large increases in their percentages of college graduates. Houston has had the largest increase in college grads of any American city – a 50 percent jump between 2000 and 2012, or double the average rate for a large city. Austin had the fourth highest rate over that time, at 44 percent.

Race plays an important role in economic segregation as well. Austin’s history of racial segregation is well-documented, and the city has lost some its African-American population over the past decade. But the metro area’s black population has grown, as higher housing costs force people toward the suburbs, while the area’s Hispanic population has skyrocketed, from less than 23 percent in 1990 to more than 35 percent today. The Austin area’s Asian population has more than doubled in that time. The Martin study finds that economic segregation is associated with higher shares of minority populations, while segregation is likely to be less pronounced in whiter cities. In San Antonio, a majority Hispanic metro area, the non-white population has grown at more than twice the rate of the white population since 2010. Houston became the most racially diverse metro area in the nation in 2010, as the white population has decreased by almost 20 percent since 1990 while Hispanics now make up more than a third of the area.

Increased minority populations, increased overall economic growth and increased white collar jobs have only made economic segregation in Texas more stark. While the state still boasts about the so-called “Texas miracle,” the Martin report is an important reminder of the flip side of the equation. Texas is now a national leader in economic segregation.

Video: Texas Senate committee briefed on affordable housing issues

This week our co-director, John Henneberger, was asked to speak before the state Senate’s Committee on Intergovernmental Relations, to brief members on the important affordable housing issues facing the state as the legislative session unfolds.

John touched on three main points: the lack of affordable housing options, the substandard nature of much of the state’s existing affordable housing and ways that the state can get more involved in solutions.

Watch the full testimony here, or read John’s complete remarks below:

I’m John Henneberger, co-director of the nonprofit Texas Low Income Housing Information Service. Since 1988, we have worked for safe and decent housing in quality neighborhoods for all Texans.

I’ll briefly highlight three Texas housing problems and some low-cost solutions for the committee to consider.

1) There is a massive shortage of housing affordable for the poor.

About three in four low-income renters and homeowners are burdened by excessive housing costs. There is just one subsidized affordable home for every five cost burdened Texas households. Poor families cannot afford private market rents.

Texas’ Fair Market Rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $872. To afford this level of rent plus utilities – without spending more than 30 percent of income on housing – a family must earn the equivalent of 2.3 minimum wage earners working 40 hours per week.

To respond to all housing needs the state provides only about $13 million from state revenues per year, including administrative costs. The State should expand the revolving Texas Housing Trust Fund and create a Texas affordable housing tax credit.

The state also has a new opportunity to expand affordable housing through the National Housing Trust Fund. This federal program is set to begin next summer and could provide Texas with more than $10 million each year. Another new federal deregulation allows Texas the option to increase our state’s CDBG allocation for colonia housing programs by $3 million each year.

2) Much of the state’s affordable housing is substandard, and located in places unhealthy for children to live.

Low income communities are far more likely to be located in floodplains, closer to environmental hazards, and have higher crime rates and failing schools. The state should fund flood control and public safety in border colonias.

The state should also continue its commitment to see that a fair portion of new housing is built in better neighborhoods.

The repeated tragic deaths of children due to fires in crowded, substandard mobile homes should lead the state to partner with local fire officials, banks and the manufactured housing industry to replace obsolete, dangerous mobile homes where children, the elderly and people with disabilities live.

3) Most state housing programs are effective for the few families they are funded to serve. But there is room for improvement.

A pilot program created through legislation by Chairman Lucio rebuilds disaster destroyed homes at one-half the current cost to the state in one-sixteenth the time. This is a Texas solution to the problems of current federally funded programs that delay people from getting back home after a hurricane or wildfire.

By taking advantage of low-cost, Texas-style solutions, this committee can help close our state’s housing and neighborhood affordability and quality gap.

Upcoming housing days at the Texas Legislature


Every other Thursday, our Housing Working Group meets at the Texas Capitol to discuss legislation and state issues related to affordable housing. The group includes representatives from non-profit agencies, private associations and government entities involved in the work of providing housing to Texans.

Several of the Housing Working Group’s members have scheduled visit days and events to inform the legislature about the issues they’re working on this session. Upcoming dates include:

Feb. 24: Texas Chapter of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials (TxNAHRO) Capitol Day
Feb. 25: Workers Defense Project’s Day of the Fallen
March 6: Texas Rural Multifamily Housing Summit hosted by Rural Rental Association of Texas, Inc. and Motivation Education and Training, Inc.
April 2: Texas Homeless Network’s Homelessness Awareness Day at the Capitol

You can learn more about each event, and how to participate, by contacting the organization directly. If you’d like your organization’s upcoming Capitol day listed here, please reach out to will[at]texashousing[dot]org. To learn more about the Housing Working Group, please contact Kevin Jewell at kevin[at]texashousing[dot]org.

Video: TOP demands Houston take responsibility for environmental disaster

At this week’s meeting of the Houston City Council, several members of the Texas Organizing Project (TOP) delivered their message loudly and clearly: the City must act to protect its residents from devastating environmental hazards.

The CES Environmental Services plant in south Houston closed more than four years ago after bankruptcy and criminal prosecution against the company for violating safety and environmental laws. But the industrial waste site still sits in the middle of a residential neighborhood, spewing toxic fumes into the community and threatening public health. The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took over the site six months ago to finally begin cleanup.

The City of Houston has paid little attention to the abandoned and dangerous industrial site, despite giving CES the initial go-ahead to build in a residential neighborhood. The City has provided the EPA with no additional financial assistance, efforts to divert unhealthy water away from residents or guarantees that the site will be used to the community’s benefit once the cleanup concludes.

As the Houston Chronicle has covered, our partners at TOP are in the midst of a campaign to force the City to assume responsibility for a disastrous environmental hazard in one of its neighborhoods – and to pass an environmental rights ordinance to ensure that this never happens again. Watch their complete testimony below:

Austin veteran no longer homeless with the help of a housing voucher

An estimated 600 veterans in Austin are homeless. (Photo: Adriano Aurelio Araujo / Creative Commons)
An estimated 600 veterans in Austin are homeless. (Photo: Adriano Aurelio Araujo / Creative Commons)

This is part of a series of stories about the experiences of housing voucher holders. For more, read our previous posts

For more than five years JDR slept in his van, unable to fully stretch out, tucked under a comforter on winter nights, waking himself by washing in blistering cold water that he was unable to heat. JDR’s friends didn’t know that he was homeless, and they still don’t – he asked that only his initials be used in this piece to keep his identity private. He would meet friends for coffee every morning but park his van a mile away from the cafe; the walk there provided both some distance between his lives and a chance to mentally and spiritually prepare for the coming day.

“It’s amazing what the human body can accomplish if you set your mind to it,” says JDR, 67, a Vietnam veteran and native Texan. “I didn’t want to lose face, I didn’t want to lose my friends and I didn’t want to lose my van. It has not been easy.”

Now, JDR lives in an apartment in North Austin thanks to the Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) voucher program and the support of Caritas of Austin, a non-profit provider of housing, food, employment and education services for refugees, veterans, the homeless and others. Without a voucher, and without assistance in finding a place that would accept his voucher, JDR says he’d still be on the street, “but a lot more decrepit, maybe with a van that didn’t even run. I had no idea this program was available. I didn’t want to die prematurely and I certainly didn’t want to die with nothing in my hand.”

An electronic specialist in Vietnam, JDR returned home to the Houston area to work as an engineer for radio and television stations. As cutbacks in the broadcast industry and his advancing age took more and more jobs off the table, he was forced to travel across Texas in search of work. He spent the last of his savings on a hotel in Austin, where he accepted a job only to be told the next day that it was no longer available.

“It wasn’t for lack of initiative that I was where I was,” JDR says. With his income limited to Social Security checks and a few short-term jobs he picked up here and there, he was out of options in a city where rent has skyrocketed and where the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition estimates that some 600 veterans are homeless.

JDR visited Austin often during his youth and remembers when it was known for its cheap cost of living. “There’s not much affordable housing like there used to be,” he says. “And it’s difficult being without work because you’re almost thrown out [of consideration for housing] – you’re unacceptable. It’s all you can do to sustain yourself with food. You can’t afford the deposit and the upfront costs.”

He found ways to survive, and to keep up appearances, including the support of his Sunday school group and the Wednesday night meals at his church. Recently a church friend, the only friend JDR had told of his living situation, suggested that he reach out to Caritas of Austin. After some coaxing, JDR looked into the Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) program.

One of the services SSVF provides for veterans is locating housing that accepts VASH vouchers. That’s not an easy task in Austin, where 91 percent of landlords cannot or refuse to accept housing vouchers. A recent city ordinance banned discrimination against voucher holders based on their source of income, but that measure is now challenged by a lawsuit and bills in the the state legislature.

“Having a voucher is on par with having an eviction or having a felony. You get the same number of ‘no’s,’” says Abby Tatkow, a landlord outreach specialist with Caritas of Austin who helped JDR search for housing. Tatkow’s clients generally have a long road to finding a place to live, as VASH vouchers are only provided once housing is secured – and securing housing is something of a crapshoot.

Luckily, JDR’s path through the SSVF program and into his apartment was relatively simple. Tatkow located a cost-eligible apartment near the intersection of Metric Boulevard and Parmer Lane where the landlord is also the property manager, which eliminates one level of approval in a process that’s often tough on voucher holders. The landlord had never worked with housing vouchers but had an open mind, and was touched by JDR’s story. He moved in a few months ago.

“You wish every landlord was like her,” Tatkow says.

JDR jokes that his only housing problem now is figuring out his apartment’s programmable thermostat. Thanks to SSVF, his voucher and, most importantly, his endurance, JDR has a place to call his own.

“It’s been a blessing. There’s no way that I could have afforded anything like it otherwise,” he says. “It’s quite a change from where I’d been living, a place where it’s nice and warm and I can take a shower every day. It’s nice just to have a door to shut and a place to lie down flat.”

No surprise: National gentrification report lists Austin near the top

Census tracts in East Austin are among the most rapidly gentrifying in the country. (Photo: Larry D. Moore / Creative Commons)
Census tracts in East Austin are among the most rapidly gentrifying in the country. (Photo: Larry D. Moore / Creative Commons)

A new study backs up what Austinites already know to be true: Austin is one of most gentrifying cities in the country.

Gentrification in America Report,” an in-depth study conducted by Governing magazine, ranked Austin eighth in the nation in gentrification rate between 2000 and 2010. Gentrification rate was determined through an analysis of Census tract data: tracts that were in their metro areas’ bottom 40 percent of median household income and median home value in 2000, but are now in the area’s top third in home value and percentage of adults with bachelor’s degrees, are considered to be gentrified.

The study found the 39.7 percent of Austin’s eligible Census tracts gentrified last decade, a higher percentage than New York City, San Francisco, Chicago and most other American cities. Portland, a city often compared to Austin, tops the list, and Austin is preceded only by Washington, DC, Minneapolis, Seattle, Virginia Beach, Atlanta and Denver. Elsewhere in Texas, Fort Worth cracked the list’s top 20 at number 17, while Houston was listed 22nd and San Antonio 37th.

Austin’s gentrification rate makes the top ten despite the study stopping in 2010, just before the peak of Austin’s current population boom. In the U.S. Census Bureau’s reports for 2010-2011 and 2011-2012, Austin ranked number one in the nation in growth rate – and remains at number two in the most recent report. Population growth, when coupled with the kind of economic growth Austin has also seen in the past few years, produces the gentrification that Governing analyzed.

Unsurprisingly, Governing’s map of gentrifying neighborhoods highlights mostly Census tracts in East and South Austin. The most striking case is Census Tract 8.03, which is bordered by I-35 to the west, E Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to the north, the MetroRail train tracks to the east and E 12th Street to the south – the residential heart of East Austin. Since 2000, home values in this neighborhood have increased by a whopping 205 percent, while the number of adults with bachelor’s degrees jumped from 10 percent to 49 percent.

Governing highlights a reality this neighborhood and many others have witnessed as gentrification increases: the displacement of residents of color, and the unequal distribution of economic success. “Neighborhoods gentrifying since 2000 recorded population increases and became whiter,” the report notes, with gentrifying tracts seeing a drop in the poverty rate and the white population increase by an average of 4.3 percent. By contrast, low income neighborhoods outside of gentrification zones lost population, increased in poverty rate by an average of 6.7 percent and became less white.

Gentrification in Austin has followed this pattern. As the Austin American-Statesman highlighted in a recent in-depth look at the city’s racial and economic divides that remain intact from the segregation era, while Austin’s population grew by more than 20 percent during the period covered by the Governing study, its black population fell by more than 5 percent. As home values soar, Austin’s minority populations have been pushed into more concentrated areas further from the city’s core or, often, outside the city entirely, to suburbs like Pflugerville. Austin is ninth out of the 100 largest metro areas in the nation in terms of income segregation. The University of Texas recently found that of the 10 fastest growing American cities in the last decade, Austin was the only one with a declining black population.

This all suggests that Austin is feeling the effects of gentrification as much or more so than any city in the country, and that the city must reckon with how to deal with these effects. That’s difficult in a climate of unprecedented economic growth, where proposals to increase affordability – like a city ordinance to help housing choice voucher holders move into higher opportunity, less segregated neighborhoods – are met with vociferous opposition.

If Governing conducts a follow-up study in the next decade, and if Austin continues on its current trajectory, it will not be a surprise to see the city even higher on the list.