There have been some recent signs that Houston is slowly accepting the need to practice fair housing and treat all neighborhoods equally. But then there are other signs that the city and county officials have not learned a thing.
The Houston City Council recently approved awarding 4 percent state housing tax credits and $5 million in additional funding from City coffers for the Pointe at Crestmont, a proposal which would place yet another subsidized housing complex in Southeast Houston. The development’s tax credit application is now being reviewed by the state housing agency. The surrounding area is more than 85 percent African-American, with a median income more than $6,000 below Houston’s average.
The Pointe at Crestmont would add 192 units at 5602 Selinsky Road, where a large apartment complex has stood abandoned for the past eight years after being damaged by Hurricane Ike (pictured above).
The property has been owned by a developer whom City officials refer to as a “slumlord,” and who has refused to maintain or demolish the derelict complex. Slum apartments like the Crestmont site are a danger to neighborhoods, and there are far too many in Houston’s low income neighborhoods of color.
But the City has been ineffective in meeting its obligations to manage blight, provide for basic infrastructure or maintain public safety in these communities. That the Crestmont apartments have been allowed to stand, derelict and abandoned, for nearly a decade without the City doing anything about it is a disgrace.
City officials now claim that the only way to deal with blight is to use housing funds to do what should have been done by code enforcement long ago. Federal housing funding is not the appropriate or effective vehicle for clearing blight. The funds are meant to provide low income residents with housing opportunity – not to be used as a tool to further concentrate low income housing.
Affirmatively furthering fair housing
When it comes to blight and other issues in low income communities of color, Houston city officials seem to have one strategy: Build more subsidized housing in the blighted neighborhood. This ignores the City’s duty to care for all communities equally, its fair housing obligations and the already overwhelming concentration of subsidized housing in Houston’s impoverished neighborhoods of color.
The map shows where 4 percent tax credit housing developments are located in Houston compared to the city’s racial demographics. Note how they are mostly clustered in high minority areas outside of “the Arrow,” the largely white, more affluent area of west Houston, outlined in black, that an analysis identified as the city’s strongest markets.
Houston is required to affirmatively further fair housing (AFFH) under the Fair Housing Act of 1968 reiterated in a recent regulation from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which obligates local jurisdictions to identify, and attempt to address, patterns of housing segregation. The City of Houston has additional AFFH requirements because it receives federal disaster funds and HUD Community Development Block Grants, which make up some of the public money the City plans to use to rebuild apartments at Crestmont.
Houston’s 2015 Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice, a City blueprint for housing siting submitted to the federal government, states that “the City will work towards creating more housing and preserving housing options especially for persons in various protected classes including in higher opportunity areas where housing is generally not available.” (emphasis added)
The power of the Fair Housing Act was reinforced last year by a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling on a case from the Dallas area, around this very issue of concentrated tax credit housing. The Justices found that by disproportionately approving developments in predominantly African-American neighborhoods – and disproportionately rejecting developments in white neighborhoods – the State of Texas’ tax credit program created a “disparate impact” on African-Americans by perpetuating patterns of government subsidized housing segregation.
Wrongheaded deals like the Pointe at Crestmont disparately impact areas like Southeast Houston. And the reverse is also true – by ignoring its responsibility to offer affordable housing options in higher income, high opportunity neighborhoods, the City of Houston disparately impacts the predominantly African-American tenants of subsidized apartments, whom the City leaves with no options but to continue to live in segregated, substandard and impoverished neighborhoods.
The glaring disparity in how subsidized housing is treated in different areas of Houston is demonstrated by another tax credit proposal that will soon come before the City Council – a groundbreaking development in an affluent neighborhood that represents potential progress on fair housing. The Fountain View Apartments, proposed by the Houston Housing Authority, would be a mix of public, subsidized and market-rate housing in the Briargrove neighborhood near the Galleria and inside “the Arrow,” an area with good schools, thriving businesses and the kind of infrastructure, public safety and civic engagement often not present in low income communities of color.
But the City’s current behavior in the Crestmont and Fountain View cases looks like another chapter in its long history of racial housing segregation and unequal treatment.
The right to equal treatment
When richer, whiter neighborhoods are confronted with subsidized housing proposals, the reaction often looks like what’s happening with the Fountain View development – organized opposition, political roadblocks and threats of lawsuits. Just recently, some residents of the Houston suburb of Tomball convinced the Harris County Housing Authority to scrap its plans to build apartments for low income families in that more affluent and largely white community.
Houston City Council Member Greg Travis, who represents the district around the proposed Fountain View Apartments, has promised to lead the Council in rejecting its application for tax credits, which would torpedo the project. He made that promise at a recent public meeting in the neighborhood which drew a crowd of hundreds of mostly white Briargrove residents, overwhelmingly in opposition to the development.
The low income, mostly African-American community around the Crestmont site, meanwhile, was given no similar public forum to voice their opinions on the deal. The proposal was quietly presented at a separate meeting at the City’s Housing Committee and then given a quick vote at City Council. Neighborhood leaders and advocates were surprised by the project and the speed with which it was approved.
The Fountain View proposal, in the desirable Briargrove neighborhood, appears to be stalled. Thus far, it has not received the same enthusiastic support from the mayor and Council as did the Pointe at Crestmont, despite its clear advantages. It would represent the housing authority’s first affirmative investment in a high opportunity neighborhood.
According to the State’s Housing Sponsor Report, there are already 24 tax credit properties with 3,737 total occupied units within just five miles of the Crestmont site. Ninety-six percent are households earning less than 60 percent of Houston’s median income, or less than $41,580 per year. Based on comparable properties, it is safe to assume that almost all of the units at the Pointe at Crestmont will be occupied by very low income renters of color.
The right to choose
Let’s be clear: There is nothing inherently negative about the presence of a low income household in a neighborhood. But there is something very harmful about concentrated poverty and segregation.
An abundance of research shows how concentrated poverty harms residents, especially children. Low income children who are given a chance to live in a high opportunity neighborhood go on to earn a much higher future income. Children grow up happier and healthier in safer, less stressful environments. Minority students are much more likely to attend college when they attend integrated schools as opposed to racially concentrated ones.
Yet more and more of Texas’ children of color are growing up in subsidized apartments in impoverished and segregated neighborhoods because their families have no other housing choices. In high poverty areas, the addition of more subsidized housing in lieu of any other kind of investment – or, as in the Crestmont case, the use of housing as an expedient but inappropriate solution to a lingering neighborhood problem – only increases the area’s poverty rate and reduces the choices for families.
Fair housing is about breaking down the barriers to segregation and ensuring that everyone has a chance to live in a decent home in a quality neighborhood. It requires that all areas, including places like Briargrove and Tomball, join in the effort to provide low income families of color with more housing choice. And it dovetails with the responsibility of local governments to provide for every neighborhood so that opportunity is spread equally.
If the Council rejects tax credits for Fountain View after rubber-stamping the Crestmont deal, the City will be sending a clear message that any signs of progress on fair housing have been meaningless. It will show that the City of Houston has chosen to violate fair housing law by continuing to reject housing integration and by continuing the segregation of subsidized housing.
And it will prove to low income residents of color that, even today, their voices and their choices matter less than the Houstonians who prefer the segregated status quo.