Houston’s fair housing failure segregates Katrina evacuees in SW slum apartments

Houston crime map shows crime is high in downtown and Southwest areas.

Houston crime map shows crime is high in downtown and Southwest areas.

Today’s dangerous housing problems in the Southwestern part of Houston have been greatly exacerbated by the actions of Houston city government in the settlement of large numbers of Katrina evacuees in the area. But the problem does not lie solely in past actions.  The City of Houston, in violation of provisions of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, continues to act to concentrate the predominately low-income, African-American evacuees in these deteriorated, high crime, segregated apartments.  So far neither the state or the federal government has acted to stop the city’s actions.

Let’s look back to 2005 to see how this developed.  Faced with a huge influx of Katrina evacuees the City of Houston assumed principal responsibility for finding apartments to accept the evacuees from Hurricane Katrina.  When the city sought vacant apartments a large number were found in southwest Houston in an area containing very high densities of Class C (older, poor condition) apartments originally constructed during the 1970’s and 1980’s in the wake of the Oil Boom.  These apartments already had substantial physical problems and were largely segregated with low-income families made up of ethnic and racial minorities.

According to the Houston Chronicle

Driven by housing patterns, economics and sometimes the desperate desire to find a safe new home, roughly one-fourth of the 83,300 Hurricane Katrina evacuees occupying government-financed apartments have gravitated to high-crime neighborhoods on the city’s southwest side.

The city and Mayor White have received praise for their prompt handling of the huge task of rehousing the evacuees.  This praise is deserved.

But it should have been clear from the beginning that the concentration of a poor and minority population in this already deteriorating area of high density apartments would produce problems if the evacuees stayed put for any length of time.  There is virtual unanimous agreement in affordable housing policy today that for low-income multifamily housing to succeed two things are needed: the resident population should be economically and racially diverse within the development and the housing itself should not be located in high crime, high unemployment, low performing school areas.  The relocation of the Katrina evacuees to the Southwest area of the city violated these principles for low-income housing success.

Problems quickly developed.  Crime in the area soared.  The already substandard quality of the area’s apartments further deteriorated.

Faced with this problem the clear solution should have been to work with the federal government to secure funds to reduce the densities of evacuees in the area.  This large new population of extremely low income families financially propped up many marginal slumlords in the area by guaranteeing a renter market for any type of cheap apartments, no matter how unsafe and crime ridden.

The reports of problems in the segregated neighborhoods of Katrina evacuees produced public discontent in Houston.  Evacuees were blamed for all these problems and political leaders sought to respond.  City leaders, having created a segregated ghetto found it suddenly in their interests to maintain it as a way to contain public fears of Katrina evacuees.

The once hopeful promises of integrating the evacuees into the city economically and socially were replaced by an official city policy of containment and continued concentration.  To justify this city policy makers engaged in some appallingly fallacious historical revisionism to describe how the Katrina evacuees came to be concentrated in the Southwest.

This revisionism soars in the proposal the City of Houston and Harris County submitted to the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs (TDHCA) and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to spend $60 in Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds earmarked by the state and federal governments to help provide permanent housing for the Katrina evacuees. The city wrote in the plan…

Houston and Harris County take some pride in our efforts to encourage evacuees back into the mainstream of our nation’s life, rather than segregating these citizens in particular apartment complexes or makeshift trailer camps.  So, the most cost-effective use of CDBG funds is to address the incremental need for affordable rental units and housing safety services caused by a rise in population in the areas where a high concentration of the evacuees have chosen to live.

– page 2

The circular reasoning employed by the city is almost comical if not for the serious consequences..

Furthermore the idea that evacuees “have chosen to live” in Southwest Houston is pure fiction.  They were relocated from shelters to apartments identified by the city government as available and suitable for them.  Most had no knowledge of the city to call upon to base an independent apartment search.  The evacuees have been presented no alternatives for housing over the ensuing three years.

And now the city proposes use more federal funds to keep the Katrina evacuees bottled up in the Southwest.  Under the proposed plan no assistance will be provided for those who would like to get away from the deterioration and crime.  This city’s proposal to HUD and TDHCA make this clear…

All of the City of Houston spending will be allocated to affordable rental housing programs in areas where it can be demonstrated that the population has seen a dramatic population increase due to an influx of Katrina evacuees.

– page 3

The city and Harris County have proposed dividing the federal funds for Katrina evacuees into three equal $20 million pots: apartment rehabilitation, more police in the Southwest ghetto and reimbursement for jails, MHMR and substance abuse programs to serve the Katrina evacuees arrested through the enhance policing of Southwest.

The apartment repair program is described in the city’s plan as follows…

THE STRATEGY BEHIND HOUSTON’S REQUESTS

Housing
Houston’s use of $20 million in the CDBG funds for housing will be undertaken in the most cost-effective and market-driven manner.  These funds will be plugged into an existing Apartment-to-Standard Program in an area where a large number of evacuees have chosen to live.  The rehabilitation of existing multi-family housing stock at approximately $20,000 per unit can be implemented much more quickly and cost-effectively than the construction of new apartments.  By increasing the supply of affordable housing units in an area, we increase the availability of good quality housing at a reasonable price point available to evacuees.

The best way to target housing assistance for an evacuee population will be to concentrate this assistance in the geographical submarket within Houston where the highest concentration of evacuees have chosen to reside and get on with their lives.  (See Attachment A.)  Specifically, Houston will target the funds in and around the Fondren/Southwest area, the geographical area south of IH 59 outside Loop 610, in the southwest part of the City.  In that area, public school enrollment increased by 2,840 students between September 2005 and January 2006.
– page 5

The enhanced policing is also targeted toward the Southwest…

Housing Safety
The $20 million intended for housing safety efforts in and around multi-family complexes is based on similar principles.  Violent crime rose dramatically in multi-family complexes located within four Police Districts that contain the high percentages of evacuees. Murder rose 62%, rape rose 20 %, robbery rose 3%, and aggravated assault rose 20% in multi-family complexes in these districts. These figures do not include crime that spilled over into the neighborhoods near these hot zones. (Attachment B).

Crime analysis by the Houston Police Department has shown that residents of lower-income, multi-family apartment complexes are disproportionately the victims of violent crime.  This CDBG program will provide an officer liaison for fifty apartment complexes located primarily in Police Districts in the Fondren/ Southwest, west, and Greenspoint areas where a concentration of evacuees reside and a disproportionately high rate of violent crime has developed.  The program is intended to decrease the number of crime incidents in and around multi-family apartment complexes in these districts.  Overtime police programs previously funded by Justice and FEMA have allowed deployment of more officers into these hot spots, making numerous arrests, and heading off what would have been an even more shocking rise in the violent crime rate.  Houston continues to shelter more than 100,000 persons displaced by Hurricane Katrina.  Safe housing remains a need for these evacuees.

– pages 5-6

So to summarize the city’s vision for the long term housing of Katrina evacuees, there will be funds to make modest repairs to 1,000 of the tens of thousand run down apartments in the area, there will be police liaisons assigned to fifty apartment complexes and finally the City of Houston and Harris County propose to reimburse themselves for the incarceration of the Katrina evacuees swept up in the violent crime the city knows has resulted from the long term segregation of the evacuees.  Once again I quote the city’s plan…

Coordinated Housing Safety Program-Multi-Family Community Liaison Program

Funding in the amount of $6,707,000 will be used to provide expanded public services through the Coordinated Housing Safety Program with the City of Houston. Harris County’s participation in the Coordinated Housing Safety Program, more fully described under the City of Houston’s Multi-Family Community Liaison Program, will be limited to expanded services to evacuees arrested as a result of the increased security and public safety efforts in the identified target apartment complexes. The County will provide expanded services to such evacuees by contracting for additional bed space for treatment of substance abuse and mental health issues to reduce the recidivism rate of evacuees who are arrested and incarcerated. The County will add 144 beds specifically for substance abuse and mental health treatment of inmates who are evacuees. Additionally, the County will hire by contract six (6) reintegration counselors to re-establish eligibility in Social Security Income (SSI) programs, Medicaid, Mental Health Mental Retardation Authority (MHMRA) programs, housing and other similar programs to ensure continuity of services upon release from jail.  Based on 2006 statistics, the Harris County correctional facilities processed an estimated 3,600 evacuees through its system. It is anticipated that approximately 20,000 evacuees will be incarcerated in the County jail as a result of the proposed Multi-Family Community Liaison Program.

– page 11

Mayor White and the City of Houston did amazing things for Katrina evacuees in the days following the hurricane.  But today they are failing the evacuees.  In the course of this deliberate policy of segregation they have compounded the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina and have consigned an entire section of the city to rapid deterioration, decay and crime.

The city and county’s proposed plan is more than outrageously bad public policy.  It is a clear violation of the Fair Housing Act. The state and federal government have an obligation to put a stop to it and order the city to come up with a plan to allow the evacuees to exercise the housing choice they are legally entitled to but have for so long been denied.

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