From the Houston Chronicle: Why Houston remains segregated

This piece ran in the Gray Matters section of the Houston Chronicle on February 16. Texas Housers Houston co-director Chrishelle Palay co-authored the column along with three influential fair housing leaders involved with the Inclusive Communities Project in Dallas: Elizabeth K. (Betsy) Julian, Ann Lott and Demetria McCain. Read the column online (behind paywall) at the Chronicle website.

As fair housing and civil rights advocates, we know all too well the harms to which low-income families of color are subjected by persistent racial segregation. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Title VI investigation and finding against the City made clear what we have known and what many Houstonians of color have experienced for a long time: Houston, like many places across our land, suffers from a legacy of segregation in all aspects of individual and community life.

From schools to public facilities to public safety to healthy environments, the unequal distribution of and access to resources and opportunities is due to discrimination and residential segregation. And the inequality that damages too many communities of color is easy to perpetuate as long as those neighborhoods remain separate.

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Distribution of Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) developments and public housing is much lower in predominantly white, non-Hispanic neighborhoods than in the areas around the controversial Fountain View site (green star).

Our government excludes “those people” from access to the opportunities found in areas that have historically benefited from the unequal distribution of resources, using policies that keep affordable housing out of whiter, more affluent areas.

In the past, Houston’s communities of color were legally denied basic municipal services like street lights and drainage and amenities like parks and up-to-date educational services. Even after the courts struck down overt Jim Crow segregation, its patterns and effects remain in place. Myriad local, state and federal policies, to this day, result in those neighborhoods bearing an undue burden of the city’s failing schools, environmental hazards, crumbling infrastructure and service disinvestment.

And while the passage of the Fair Housing Act and improved economic conditions have allowed many individual people of color to break the color line imposed by official segregation, local, state and federal housing policies have ensured that almost no choices exist for low-income families to move to well-resourced areas of greater opportunity – and that the areas where they most often live suffer from segregated conditions.

Since the inception of subsidized housing in the Jim Crow era, nearly all affordable units in Houston have been located in high-poverty, African-American or Hispanic areas. That hasn’t changed: As HUD noted in its finding against the City, in the past four years, 91 percent of the developments that City Council considered for housing tax credits were located in majority-minority Census tracts. The Houston Housing Authority has never affirmatively invested in a majority white, low-poverty neighborhood – a situation they attempted to remedy with the Fountain View development (rendering pictured at top), which was then blocked by the City, causing the federal investigation.

At the same time, the neighborhoods where subsidized housing is overwhelmingly concentrated lack the basic services and investment that majority white neighborhoods take for granted. Eighty-eight percent of the city’s open drainage ditches are located in neighborhoods with a non-white majority. Census block groups where at least three-quarters of the population is non-white bear an absurd proportion of the city’s pollution: 78 percent of closed landfills, 84 percent of carcinogen emitters and 88 percent of hazardous waste sites.

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And, as of 2014, just 6 percent of schools that received an A grade from the educational nonprofit Children at Risk were located in majority-minority neighborhoods, compared with the 43 percent of schools that received an F.

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Segregation can be truly remedied only by addressing its dual harms – separate and unequal. The daily, lived inequality in communities of color must be excised by policies and practices that provide real choice and real access to opportunity. This must mean assessing and addressing what segregation has caused.

It’s fairly straightforward: If an area has all the benefits and resources historically afforded to white neighborhoods, but has no housing affordable to low-income people of color, then the legacy of segregation must be addressed by creating affordable housing.

If an area has a disproportionate amount of affordable housing options, but lacks the same type and degree of services and benefits historically afforded to white parts of Houston, then the legacy of segregation requires that these services and benefits be made available to residents through public investment. Equalizing services will require a comprehensive plan and hundreds of millions of dollars in dedicated public funding.

In short, any city with Houston’s history must address both the exclusion of low-income people of color from well-resourced areas and the unequal conditions to which people of color living in segregated areas are subjected.

We are very familiar with the kind of political opposition to integration that’s been seen in Houston. The reaction of some neighbors to the Fountain View development, and the overall picture of separate and unequal conditions painted by the HUD finding, did not particularly surprise us. These are tried-and-true methods of exclusion that play out over and over again around Texas and the country. The deeper and longer-standing the vestiges of racial segregation are in a community, the harder they are to expunge.

Unfortunately, it’s also very familiar to see politicians defending themselves by pitting the victims of historic segregation against each other – suggesting that standing up for the rights of the excluded is inconsistent with doing all that is necessary to make historically segregated minority neighborhoods equal and inclusive. It’s not an either-or situation: Both are required to address the constitutional and statutory violations that segregation involves.

The idea that complying with the federal integration order would somehow force people to move or take funding away from investment in communities of color is not based in fact. It is a fundamental misinterpretation of fair housing and civil rights.

We urge the City of Houston to dismantle the dual legacies of housing segregation in Houston, root and branch. This will require finally allowing affordable housing options like Fountain View in the areas from which they have always been excluded and a real plan and committed funding for equalizing infrastructure and public services in Houston’s traditional neighborhoods of color. There is no other way forward.

Elizabeth K. (Betsy) Julian served as HUD Deputy General Counsel for Civil Rights and HUD Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity in the Clinton administration. She has practiced poverty and civil rights law for more than 40 years and is currently Founder/Senior Counsel at the Inclusive Communities Project.

Ann Lott was President and CEO of the Dallas Housing Authority from 2001 to 2008 and is now Executive Director of the Inclusive Communities Housing Development Corporation.

Demetria McCain is President of the Inclusive Communities Project. She previously worked as an attorney at the National Housing Law Project and the Neighborhood Legal Services Program in D.C.

Chrishelle Palay is the Houston co-director of Texas Low Income Housing Information Service and formerly specialized in multifamily architecture design and development.

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