Houstonians should be angry about public housing – because of segregation

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Note: A version of this post ran in the Gray Matters section of the Houston Chronicle on March 30.

Our piece on the neighborhood opposition to a proposed subsidized housing development in an affluent part of Houston generated quite a response – mostly from neighborhood opponents.

They’re worried about the Houston Housing Authority’s (HHA) plan to build a mixed-income apartment complex next to the agency’s current headquarters on Fountain View Drive, in the Briargrove area of west Houston (pictured above; photo from HHA). The development would have 233 apartments, 70 percent of which would be available to families who earn up to 60 percent of Houston’s median family income ($41,580 per year for a family of four). Twenty percent would be market-rate units and 10 percent, just 23 apartments, would be for extremely low income families, or public housing residents.

As detailed in a recent front-page story in the Houston Chronicle, opponents of the project say that the development would aggravate the overcrowding problem at local schools. In the comments section of our previous piece, they also argued that the development is in a poor location, will cost taxpayers too much and will make bad traffic worse.

They’re careful, for the most part, to deny any animus toward the low income families who would live in the development – and express their outrage that anyone would imply a racial or economic motivation behind their campaign to block affordable and public housing, despite the fact that 75 percent of the Houston Housing Authority’s tenants are African-American, 15 percent are Hispanic and all live in poverty. In the Chronicle, in our comments and on the “Stop Fountainview Project” website, some opponents say they’re in favor of more low income housing in Houston, and that they support the construction of public housing in other neighborhoods. Just not in their backyard.

When community groups organize in opposition to new affordable housing developments in their neighborhood, they often view the impact of the housing myopically, ignoring the interests of their potential future low income neighbors. In the case of this development, this narrow, self-interested view produces especially harmful results.

Public housing segregation

Make no mistake: While we do support this development, we disagree with many past policies of the Houston Housing Authority. In fact, our support for the Fountain View Apartments stems from HHA’s long legacy of racially segregating Houstonians through public housing.

Public housing in Houston has been kept out of predominantly white and upper income neighborhoods, including the city’s west side. Instead, as has been extensively documented by the scholar Robert B. Fairbanks, almost all of the city’s public housing was deliberately built only in racially concentrated, high poverty, African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods. This was a public act of racial segregation and discrimination carried out by a government agency, the housing authority, in the name of all of Houston. The consequences are with us today.

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The Census tracts where HHA’s current developments are located have an average poverty rate of 31.5 percent as of 2015. The tract where the Fountain View apartments will be built has a poverty rate of just 6.1 percent. That means that public housing residents in Houston, on average, live in neighborhoods which are more than five times as impoverished as Briargrove area residents.

The majority of public housing developments are in tracts with an above-average African-American population, and those that are not are almost entirely located in heavily Hispanic areas. Meanwhile, nearly all of HHA’s sites have predominantly African-American resident populations, as demonstrated in the graphic from 2013 below.

The pie charts depict the racial composition of HHA sites. Note that the one development with a majority-white population, 2100 Memorial Drive Apartments, is a senior community. The center map shows the locations of HHA sites overlaid on the racial demographics of Houston’s neighborhoods, with larger non-white populations indicated by deeper shades of red. The segregation of mostly minority public housing residents outside of the white areas of Houston comes through starkly:

HHA - Pie Charts

This racial concentration is the deliberate result of decades of actions by the city and the housing authority to keep public housing out of the affluent, predominantly white part of west Houston geographically described as “The Arrow.” HHA has built and maintained a segregated public housing system with tax dollars. This segregation is unlawful.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that concentrating low income housing only in areas with high minority populations can constitute a violation of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, one of our nation’s foundational civil rights laws. The landmark case originated in Texas, when the state was sued for concentrating subsidized housing in African-American neighborhoods in the Dallas area. The Supreme Court found that such an action could have a “disparate impact” on minorities.

Shamefully, HHA was the only public housing agency in the country to file a brief in the case on the state’s side, fighting to be permitted to maintain the racially segregated status quo. They lost that fight. Now the agency is legally required to dismantle its segregated system. Other than the public housing sites in the historically African-American but now-gentrified Fourth Ward, the Fountain View site is HHA’s first investment in housing in the heart of The Arrow, and its most prominent attempt to provide housing opportunity for people of color beyond racially concentrated, high poverty neighborhoods.

Why segregation matters

The chance for a low income family to live in a “high opportunity” area is about much more than diversity. Civil rights laws, including the Fair Housing Act, are intended to dismantle the legacy of economic and racial segregation and discrimination that has disadvantaged many low income minority families.

For generations, because of intentional public policy, the predominantly African-American families that live in Houston’s public housing have been forced to live in racially segregated neighborhoods where public services are minimal, schools are low performing, economic opportunities are few, crime is high and upward mobility is limited. The same is true for Houston families with housing vouchers. The neighborhoods where subsidized housing is mostly located are often the areas that were purposefully isolated during the pre-civil rights, Jim Crow era, and are places that received inadequate levels of public services and public infrastructure. These are “low opportunity” areas, where discrimination, disinvestment and concentrated poverty have made it very hard for the residents to get ahead.

Decades of research make it clear that moving from a low opportunity area to a high opportunity area vastly improves the chance that a low income child succeeds in life, particularly if their family moves while they are still in elementary school. Growing up in a high opportunity neighborhood can mean hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional future income. Minority students achieve better educational outcomes at schools with diverse populations than at racially concentrated schools. Children are happier and healthier, due to lower stress levels, when living in safer environments.

The children living in Houston’s public housing today enjoy few of these benefits. A few dozen might get the chance if the Fountain View Apartments are built. But rather than talking about how we can help these children – how we can make a small correction to a massive citywide historical injustice – opponents are instead arguing about budgets and traffic.

A bigger picture

If school overcrowding is the sincere concern of Briargrove residents, along with their complaints about traffic, taxpayer expense and more, then it is still a parochial one directed at the wrong target. Neighborhood inconveniences pale in comparison to historic, systemic public discrimination – and should be addressed in other ways.

First of all, residents of Houston’s more affluent neighborhoods cannot reasonably expect to live in a prosperous, vibrant urban environment and keep any new families from moving into their community. No growth is not an option. If there are not enough schools in an area for class sizes to appropriately match population growth, the answer is not to exclude low income families who want to make a better life for themselves. It is a problem the school district responds to routinely by adding classrooms as private developers build new housing in existing neighborhoods, free from the type of organized opposition that has been triggered by the Fountain View development.

It would be productive if residents considered other tactics to reduce school overcrowding, such as advocating for new school bonds to fund additional elementary schools in growing neighborhoods. Or they could question why the Houston Independent School District operates so few quality public schools that residents of privileged neighborhoods feel the need to guard their turf so fiercely – and why an HISD trustee is so focused on blocking public housing rather than improving school choice and quality.

Examining the quality of schools around most current HHA developments, we can see why children who grow up in low opportunity areas suffer academically. Here are the grades that the educational research organization Children at Risk gave each of the nearest elementary schools to the 19 HHA public or subsidized multifamily developments in 2015:

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Just two of the schools attended by children from HHA housing, representing just 3 percent of the agency’s total apartments, received a grade higher than a C. More than half of the developments, representing 2,653 apartment units (58 percent of the total), send their tenants’ children to an F-rated school.

Briargrove Elementary received an A-. It’s clear that HISD needs more schools like Briargrove, both in the growing parts of west Houston and the neglected areas to the north, east and south. What is not clear is why public housing residents should pay the price for HISD’s failures. While more investment in schools in traditional minority neighborhoods is desperately needed, the HHA, a governmental entity, cannot legally relegate its residents to live only in those areas and wait for conditions to improve. That, again, is publicly-enforced segregation and violation of fair housing and civil rights laws.

Other complaints of opponents, such as traffic, are similarly unrelated to low income housing. Why is car congestion the fault of future low income residents – whom, it should be said, are less likely to have more than one car per household and more likely to use public transit – than of poor planning and inadequate infrastructure? Is this apartment development even going to generate more traffic than the existing office tower it will replace, or more than an alternative private development with more units on the same site?

Many areas of Houston are in dire need of expanded transit options to relieve congestion and serve people without car access. West Houston residents concerned about traffic could support the MetroRail University Line proposal, a western extension of light rail from downtown along Richmond Avenue. Citizens can also voice their support for local and state funding to expand bus service, park-and-ride locations, carpool lanes and other traffic mitigation options.

The point is, these complaints are the product of Houston’s inevitable growth, increasing density and lack of appropriate planning, and have nothing specifically to do with whether the Fountain View development or some other future privately-funded development occupies the site in question.

Moving toward justice

For a low income family, moving into a high opportunity area is about more than just the chance for their children to attend a quality school. It’s about more than living in safety, or being closer to good job opportunities, or enjoying the benefits of a robust local economy. It’s all of the above – transcending the structural barriers that keep too many low income people of color stuck in poor living conditions. It’s a step toward a more equitable, fairer, more integrated city.

There is growing concern in our country about inequality and multigenerational poverty. The 233 affordable apartments, and especially the 23 public housing apartments, at the Fountain View development are a small step toward overcoming the problems created by discrimination in Houston. But that first step is an important one. Let’s relegate segregation to the past, start breaking down barriers and give a few of Houston’s impoverished children an equal opportunity to succeed.

Texas Housers communications director Will Livesley-O’Neill, community planner Melissa Beeler and fair housing planner Charlie Duncan contributed to this post. 

One thought on “Houstonians should be angry about public housing – because of segregation

  1. Finally an article that shows the real deal! So many have been blinded by lobbyist that are literally paid to make this sort of thing happen!

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