Austin’s new fair housing fight is a flashback to the Civil Rights era

In a column today in the Austin American-Statesman, our co-director John Henneberger highlights how little the opposition to fair housing in Austin has changed since the Civil Rights era. Back in 1968, the Austin Apartment Association and other realty groups led a campaign to overturn a city ordinance, passed in accordance with LBJ’s Fair Housing Act, that banned racial discrimination in renting and home ownership. Today, in response to a new city ordinance that bans discrimination based on the source of a renter’s income, the AAA is leading both a lawsuit against the City of Austin and an effort in the state legislature to stop any Texas city from enacting source of income protection.

Opposition to fair housing still carries the racial connotations that it did in 1968: 90 percent of Austin renters who use Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers, the group the ordinance is meant to protect, are people of color. Ninety-one percent of Austin landlords refuse to rent to these voucher holders. And the rhetoric that the AAA used almost 50 years ago is alarmingly similar to what they’re saying now – the insistence that this is all about “property rights;” that race has nothing to do with their opposition to anti-discrimination laws.

If you’re a subscriber to the Statesman, you can read the full column online. Below, we’ve collected some images from the fight over fair housing in 1968, that show what the landlords thought back then – and what a relic of the past their opposition truly is.

(All images are from the public archives at the Austin History Center.)

Austin Statesman, May 22, 1968
Austin Statesman, May 22, 1968

In 1968 the landlord associations’ buzzword was “forced housing” – though the ordinance would not have forced anyone into anyone’s property.

Austin Statesman, Oct. 17, 1968
Austin Statesman, Oct. 17, 1968

“This is not a racial thing,” fair housing opponents claimed in the fall of 1968, just before a public referendum overturned Austin’s ordinance. Instead, they proclaimed that anti-discrimination laws were the work of “communists” and that an ordinance that made sure someone couldn’t be unjustly denied a home on the basis of their race “will not provide a home for anybody.”

In the AAA’s current statement on source of income protection, association president Robbie Robinson claims that property owners refusing to accept housing vouchers has “nothing to do with the potential residents.” The ordinance, they say, “unreasonably interferes with private property rights.” Thankfully, at the very least, the era of calling people “communists” does seem to have passed.

Austin Statesman, May 16, 1968
Austin Statesman, May 16, 1968

Above, the landlords rail against City Council members, including Austin’s liberal icon Emma Long, who would “make criminals out of God-fearing, law-abiding, tax-paying homeowners.”  The landlord associations ran advertisement after advertisement throughout the spring, summer and fall of 1968. The vitriolic opposition to the fair housing ordinance made their voices heard in the media, creating so much tension with the City – which ran its own ads in support of fair housing – that three councilmembers including Long lost their jobs the next year from challenges largely bankrolled by the landlord associations.

Austin Statesman, July 26, 1968
Austin Statesman, July 26, 1968

Prominent realtor Nelson Puett, one of the most active fair housing opponents in 1968, wrote the letter above to offer alternative housing plans “if there is a crying need for more and better housing for minority groups.” His plans include setting aside “one or two homes” for minority families at eight different subdivisions around town. At a time of widespread racial segregation and discrimination against minority renters and homebuyers – much of which remains today – Puett suggested that his plans should only take effect if “a minority person searches for a home on his own and actually can’t find what he wants” (emphasis added).

Austin Statesman, May 17, 1968
Austin Statesman, May 17, 1968

Tensions flared at more than one City Council meeting. On May 17, after a supporter of segregationist candidate George Wallace declared that the Fair Housing Act would never have passed in the first place were Wallace president, pro-ordinance realtor Sam Dunnam stated that the opposition to fair housing “has a whole lot more racism in it than Puett and others would like to admit.” He called the landlords’ ads about forced housing “deplorable.”

Austin Statesman, March 12, 1968
Austin Statesman, March 12, 1968

It’s worth pointing at that the 1968 ordinance was a response to both the federal Fair Housing Act and real, documented complaints of racial discrimination against minorities in Austin. In March of 1968, responding to housing managers found “guilty of discrimination,” the City began to move forward on a fair housing ordinance. In 2014, responding to discriminating against renters who use housing vouchers – again, 91 percent of Austin’s landlords refuse to accept voucher holders, 90 percent of whom are people of color – the City moved toward a new ordinance aimed at preventing discrimination.

As today’s Statesman op-ed asks: where is the Austin Apartment Association now? Right where they were in 1968, their out-of-date arguments from back then preserved for history, where they belong.

Houston Chronicle: Disaster recovery housing program badly mismanaged

Hurricane Ike struck the Gulf Coast on Sept. 12, 2008. (Photo: NASA / Creative Commons)
Hurricane Ike struck the Gulf Coast on Sept. 12, 2008. (Photo: NASA / Creative Commons)

On Saturday, the Houston Chronicle published reporter Harvey Rice’s exploration into the systemic failures in rebuilding disaster housing in the wake of Hurricane Ike. The article illustrates the problems at the state and local levels that have left some 2,000 residents without rebuilt homes or necessary repairs more than six years after the hurricane hit the Houston area.

Texas Low Income Housing Information Service co-director John Henneberger identified the state’s poor foresight as the driving issue behind the slow recovery. Hurricane Ike struck in the midst of the recovery process from Hurricane Rita in 2005, and rather than apply lessons from previous disasters, the state transferred responsibility for disaster recovery to a different department that had to initiate a rebuilding plan from scratch. Responsibility was then dumped on local governments, who were in most cases unprepared to handle the complex work of disaster recovery. As a result, important repairs and new home construction have lagged years behind schedule.

“There is no system in place from the beginning that would have moved this process along faster,” Henneberger told the Chronicle.

Houston remains the furthest behind of any Texas municipality, and went through a federal audit over its poor planning and mismanagement of funds. In 2010, TxLIHIS and Texas Appleseed won a landmark conciliation agreement with the state to ensure that disaster recovery funding went toward the counties actually affected by the storm, rather than pork-barrel projects elsewhere in the state, and that priority was given to low-income households in those areas as required.

The housing program in Houston finally seems to be moving in the right direction, and the article details the stories of some Houston-area residents who are now seeing progress on their new homes. But Henneberger told the Chronicle that legislation will be necessary to make sure that Texas is prepared for the next storm, and that these chronic delays never happen again.

“The time to figure out what to do is not after a hurricane hits but before the hurricane,” he said.

Read the full story (behind a paywall, but with limited free access) at the Houston Chronicle.

Congress threatens critical funding for affordable housing

Photo: Creative Commons / Martin Falbisoner
Photo: Creative Commons / Martin Falbisoner

So far, 2015 has been a dangerous year for fair housing.

Here in Austin, a new ordinance to prevent discrimination against low-income renters is under threat, from a lawsuit and from the Texas legislature. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court of the United States began oral arguments in a case from Dallas that could seriously damage the Fair Housing Act.

And now our Congress is taking aim at a valuable federal tool for providing affordable housing.

Rep. Ed Royce (R-California) will soon introduce a bill in the House of Representatives that would block the National Housing Trust Fund and the Capital Magnet Fund from receiving much-needed funding from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two large mortgage companies that the federal government took over during the height of the 2008 financial crisis.

The National Housing Trust Fund (NHTF) was established in a 2008 recovery act, to produce, preserve, rehabilitate and operate rental housing for extremely low-income Americans. As part of the same act, the Capital Magnet Fund (CMF) was created to provide competitive grant funding to support affordable housing development.

Both programs were to be funded via contributions from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, as part of their obligations as government-sponsored enterprises. But when the federal government seized complete control of both companies, former Federal Housing Finance Agency leader Edward J. DeMarco suspended their ability to contribute to NHTF and CMF.

As a result, NHTF has been left completely unfunded, while CMF received one round of regular appropriations funding in 2010. Last year, former Congressman Melvin Watt replaced DeMarco, but only after a contentious nomination process – Republicans opposed Watt’s appointment on the grounds that he would reinstate funding for NHTF and CMF.

In December, Watt did just that. And now Royce and other representatives want to block funding for NHTF and CMF before it even gets off the ground.

“Money coming in from [Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac] should go to the taxpayers instead of a slush fund for ideological housing groups to play around with,” Royce has stated.

Of course, the money from the “slush fund” would go toward taxpayers, if Royce’s bill is defeated. Just not the “taxpayers” Royce cares about.

If NHTF is allowed to begin working, funding would start rolling out to states in the early part of next year. In the program’s first year, states would be required to use all of their funding for rental housing that benefits households below 30 percent of the average median income. This is the “extremely low-income” (ELI) category the program is meant to target.

For reference, ELI households far well below even the standard of the federal poverty level. In 2014, the national poverty threshold for a household of three was $18,552 per year. In Biloxi, Mississippi, for example, the ELI threshold for three people in 2014 was $14,050.

These are the households that NHTF was meant to protect. The program targets the population most vulnerable to the economic downturn, and that remains without adequate support six years later. Meanwhile, the one round of funding the CMF program did receive led to the creation of 6,800 affordable homes. Imagine how many more homes could have been built if the program was allowed to be funded as intended.

2015 has brought strong signs that our economy is doing better than it has since the economic crisis began those six long years ago. And yet just a few weeks into the new year, fair housing attempts to support low-income households are met with threats on all sides: at the local level, in the judiciary and now in Congress.

Learn more about NHTF, and track the progress of the fight for its implementation, with the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

The single mom who almost lost her housing voucher because of source of income discrimination

This is the first in a series about tenants who have faced discrimination because of their source of income. With Austin’s new source of income protection ordinance threatened in the courts and the state legislature, these are the personal stories behind the fight to protect housing choice voucher holders.

When she received the news, Latorie Duncan had only a month to figure out a future for herself and her son. Her landlord had filed for bankruptcy, forcing Duncan out of the home she’d lived in for seven years. She found herself in the same situation as so many Section 8 renters in Austin: discriminated against because of her source of income, and unable to find a place to live.

“I was a good tenant. I would have never moved if I didn’t have to,” says Duncan, an African-American single mother who contacted landlords all over the city looking for new housing. “I was pretty much pleading, ‘can you please help me?’”

Duncan’s son has autism, and was getting ready to start fifth grade. She didn’t want to have to leave the community he grew up in and was comfortable with, or take him away from his school and his friends.

But after she was evicted and moved in with her mother, Duncan couldn’t seem to find any landlords near her Colony Park neighborhood in northeast Austin who accepted Section 8 tenants.

She says she was surprised that a traditionally African-American neighborhood offered so little Section 8 housing. Duncan has friends from the same part of town who were pushed out of their Section 8 housing around the same time. She spoke with landlord after landlord who told her they wouldn’t rent accept housing choice vouchers because they didn’t want to undergo the mandatory inspection, or because they feared the damage tenants might do to their property.

Eventually, even after several extensions of her Section 8 funding, she was only two weeks away from losing her vouchers for good.

“I ended up having a panic attack,” Duncan remembers. “You go through the stress to find a house, take care of your children at the same time, be a happy mother. That’s the hardest part – the stress and then the thought of, ‘what if I don’t find a place? Where am I going to be?’ It’s a lot of pressure, going through that.”

In December, the Austin City Council unanimously passed source of income protection in response to the situation Duncan faced. Ninety-one percent of landlords in Austin refused to accept Section 8 tenants, forcing thousands of people into the same frantic scramble for limited housing that Duncan went through.

The new city ordinance prohibits properties from excluding anyone based on their source of income, just as it’s illegal to bar a tenant because of their race, sexual orientation, age or other protected status. Duncan spoke before the Council on the day the ordinance was approved, adding her story to the public record of discrimination.

But now the Austin Apartment Association is challenging source of income protection, sponsoring both a lawsuit against the City of Austin and bills in the state legislature that would ban any Texas city from enacting such an ordinance. Duncan says the relief she experienced after the City Council’s vote has given way to disappointment.

“The fight’s never over. Some people just don’t understand. There’s not empathy there,” Duncan says of the Apartment Association’s stance.

Because while her own story has a happy ending, Duncan knows many people who are still searching for housing. Two weeks away from losing her vouchers, Duncan finally found Accessible Housing Austin! (AHA!), a non-profit housing provider that accepts Section 8.

She and her son were able to move into a house on a nice street in northwest Austin. Adjusting to a new school and a new neighborhood has been a challenge, but they’re grateful – and Duncan knows she’s fortunate.

“Two friends of mine are looking for a place now, on Section 8. And it’s the same story; they say ‘I’m at my last 30 days to find a place or I lose my voucher,’” she says. Her friends have asked her if there are any places available in Duncan’s new neighborhood. “But I’ve called around and none of them take Section 8 over here. It’s like, okay, this is real. It’s hard for a lot of people. It’s really hard.”

Dallas Morning News editorial: High court must not perpetuate segregation

In a strongly worded editorial the Dallas Morning News has called on the US Supreme Court to reject the State of Texas plea to overturn disparate impact in the ICP lawsuit.

The effect was to corral minorities inside existing ghettos. True, the new construction offered a temporary boost to downtrodden neighborhoods. But because of inherent flaws in the tax-credit system, over time the urban-decay problems have tended to surface again and again as new projects age and lose their shine. Instead of renewing neighborhoods, these tax-credit decisions have perpetuated segregation and deterred balanced development between northern and southern Dallas.

…The injustice of this situation should weigh heavily in the court’s deliberations. Hard-fought civil rights gains won since the landmark 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling are at stake in this decision.

If the justices rule that challengers like ICP must prove racist intent, it will impose an almost insurmountable hurdle. Rare are the times when state housing authorities publicly divulge their innermost, true motives on where they place their projects.

Although this newspaper certainly cares if a racist intent exists, what most matters is the effect on neighborhoods. A Supreme Court ruling supporting the state could allow authorities to restore outdated policies that effectively ensure perpetuation of segregated pockets of poverty.

… In our view, segregation is the greater evil. Not only would a favorable ruling for the state harm civil rights, it would seriously erode efforts to bridge Dallas’ north-south gap.

#KeepHousingFair rally kicks off crucial Supreme Court case

NAACP Legal Defense Fund  president and director-counsel Sherrilyn Ifill speaks at the #KeepHousingFair rally. (Photo: Twitter / @jpscasteras)
NAACP Legal Defense Fund president and director-counsel Sherrilyn Ifill speaks at the #KeepHousingFair rally. (Photo: Twitter / @jpscasteras)

For more on the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project, Inc. case, see our previous posts.

Inside the Supreme Court of the United States this morning, arguments began in a crucial fair housing case. Outside on the steps, braving the cold, supporters rallied to remind the justices of the dire need to #KeepHousingFair for all Americans.

The first day of oral arguments showcased some misunderstanding and ambiguity about disparate impact, the portion of the Fair Housing Act at issue in the case, especially on the part of Justice Scalia. But the message outside was clear – disparate impact is vital to reducing segregation and providing equal opportunity in housing.

The message has been broadcast by civil rights groups over the past week through the #KeepHousingFair campaign. Groups like the National Low Income Housing Coalition, National Fair Housing Alliance, NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights led the rally this morning and continue to raise the public’s awareness about the need for disparate impact.

Let’s hope the justices inside were listening.

Those who seek to limit Fair Housing law should be asked about Beaumont, Texas

Beaumont Housing Authority’s Concord Homes: a living legacy of housing segregation

Tomorrow, the Supreme Court of the United States takes up a case about housing discrimination in Dallas that has brought national attention to the cause of fair housing. Texas state political leaders seem to be willfully blind to housing discrimination and segregation in bringing this lawsuit to limit Fair Housing remedies. Almost fifty years after passage of the Fair Housing Act the long struggle against segregated housing is still being fought at the local level in many American cities and perhaps in no place is the problem worse than Texas.

The area around Beaumont in East Texas has been the scene of an ongoing battle over housing segregation for thirty years. A federal court case in the mid-1980s found that more than 90 percent of public housing in East Texas was racially segregated. In 1993, after a court order finally forced the all-white Beaumont suburb of Vidor to accept black tenants at its public housing development, the Ku Klux Klan and Vidor residents protested and harassed the four African-American men and women who moved into the formerly all-White public housing forcing them to flee town within six months.

This outrage came as the Clinton administration seized control of the local housing authority and forcibly integrated Vidor’s public housing under the protection of federal marshals. HUD also seized control of the Beaumont Housing Authority (BHA) in 2000, after Andrew Cuomo, then the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), confronted BHA’s refusal to locate public housing anywhere but in the most segregated, polluted, economically depressed area of Beaumont. HUD forced BHA to purchase “scattered site” homes and duplexes to use as public housing, making housing outside the “projects” available for the first time to the nearly all Black tenants of BHA in less impoverished, less crime-ridden, less polluted and less segregated neighborhoods.

Today, BHA seeks to expand its racially segregated housing. Using federal funds earmarked for disaster recovery for Hurricane Ike, BHA proposes to sell off the scattered homes, literally the only public housing available to families outside of segregated, high poverty neighborhoods. Despite having sufficient disaster recovery funds to purchase land and build quality housing in lower poverty, less polluted neighborhoods, the public housing authority also plans to tear down and rebuild in place Concord Homes, a 100-unit public housing development located in the North End neighborhood where BHA has long concentrated public housing. In doing so, this local government agency seeks to lock in and maintain housing segregation for future generations.

Five of BHA’s eight housing developments are within a half-mile of Concord Homes, an area that is 77 percent African-American and in the city’s poorest Census tracts. The area’s median household income is $14,935, barely a quarter of the national average. Concord Homes abuts a heavily-used rail line carrying chemicals to and from the Port of Beaumont and large petrochemical refineries. It is in a neighborhood zoned for industrial use next to a commercial junkyard and two toxic air pollution release sites: a concrete plant and an asphalt plant. Ninety-five percent of Concord Homes residents are African-American and all are poor.

Rejecting the opportunity to use disaster recovery funds to provide housing outside this segregated, industrially polluted, impoverished neighborhood, BHA wants to rebuild Concord Homes in the same place. Coupled with its proposal to sell off scattered site units located in residential neighborhoods, BHA’s plan would leave Beaumont’s public housing tenants with no choice but to live in one of the many projects BHA owns in this segregated, high-poverty part of town.

Texas Low Income Housing Information Service and our partner, Texas Appleseed, have proposed alternative solutions that would offer an alternative to more segregated housing and comply with fair housing law. BHA could develop smaller, multi-family public housing developments in lower poverty, higher opportunity neighborhoods or existing or new scattered site single family and duplex homes could be acquired for Concord Homes families. The funds are available to make this happen. Local racial attitudes and prejudice are all that stand in the way.

Several months ago we met with BHA leaders, Beaumont city and county elected officials and their supporters who asked us not to object to rebuilding Concord Homes. “We tried integration in Beaumont,” they told us. “It didn’t work.”

That is a shocking statement coming from a delegation of a community with Beaumont’s history. All we can say is that Beaumont has also created and enforced racial segregation for a hundred and fifty years. It has not worked and it is unlawful.

Fair Housing law does not give government agencies like the Beaumont Housing Authority the right to choose segregation for its current and future generations of renters.

BHA’s insistence on maintaining segregated housing is a tragic legacy. Concord Homes residents, present and future, have the legal right to an opportunity to live in a safe, non-polluted neighborhood. The 1968 Fair Housing Act, passed just days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., stands in the way of governmental and private actors who would maintain the legacy of discrimination and segregation that current and future African-American and Mexican-American families have suffered in East Texas for generations.

As the justices of the Supreme Court listen to the arguments of the State of Texas, which seeks to limit the applicability of federal Fair Housing law, they should ask: “What about Beaumont?”