Looking for a place to live without “bullets flying through the property”

A University of Texas law professor and community leaders recently spoke with tenants at an apartment complex in Sunnyside, a historically African-American community in Houston. Their visit was described in an email this way:

This is a project-based Section 8 development that was remodeled in 2011 by a nonprofit, with HOME grant funds from the City of Houston along with other subsidies. The property had been repainted bright colors and looked pretty cleaned up. We visited with a tenant in the parking lot. She had just returned from picking up her two daughters, one of whom was holding a first place trophy from winning the spelling bee that day. With tears in her eyes, the tenant reported to us how there are bullets flying through the property at night and how she was working hard to “move out of the ghetto” with her three children.

This is the result of government policies maintaining segregation –  the daily reality for many families in Houston. Although this particular property (not the one pictured above) was not built with Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC), it is indicative of the conditions of some subsidized housing complexes in Sunnyside and too many other low income communities of color.

Local governments have the power to correct the segregation of subsidized housing. But in Houston, and in Texas generally, they rarely use it.

States control where LIHTC apartments are built through the Qualified Allocation Plan that the governor approves each year. Cities have the power to issue permits and decide where their housing departments will use federal grant funds for the construction of government-subsidized housing. Mayors in Texas appoint the boards that direct their local public housing authorities, which operate the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program and build and operate public housing developments.

When these public officials exercise their power over the locations of subsidized housing, they have complete control over where hundreds of thousands of low income Texans will live. Government does not intervene in the lives of middle and upper income Texans, who have the financial resources to choose the neighborhood that’s best for their households. But city and state officials determine low income families’ exposure to neighborhood environmental contaminants, their safety from crime, their access to affordable and healthy food from grocery stores, the quality of the education their children receive and much more. In short, the decisions government officials make are the major factor in the health, prosperity, safety and educational attainment of a major number of Texans.

This power, used every day by municipal leaders and state legislators, is being misused. That misuse of power is morally and legally wrong.

As anyone who follows the work of Texas Housers and our community partners knows, we have been recently focused on these failures by the City of Houston and the State of Texas. Houston is a city in which all public housing was built in majority-minority areas. Fifty-eight percent of the units in Houston Housing Authority (HHA) family properties are served by schools that received a rating of F from Children at Risk. Just 3 percent of the agency’s units are located near a school that receive a grade of C or above.

Ninety-five percent of the overwhelmingly African-American population of people receiving Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers from HHA live in apartments in majority-minority Census tracts. For this reason, in Houston, it should be renamed the Section 8 “No Choice” Housing Voucher program. “It is very prevalent that voucher holders trying to find an apartment have trouble because a large number of landlords say in their listing ‘No Section 8,'” HHA President Tory Gunsolley told the Houston Chronicle last week.

voucher_table

It is a good thing that the property visited by the UT professor received funds for repairs in the past. And despite negative stereotypes, there are many fine homes and hardworking families in Sunnyside. Yet the neighborhood suffers from the historical denial of public services like drainage, streets, street lights and sidewalks. Sunnyside suffers because of deplorable physical conditions and ongoing crime in some of the many tax credit and subsidized housing developments which have been built in the neighborhood. Sadly, these developments are the only housing options for low income residents, many of whom receive Section 8 vouchers.

Sunnyside residents are working hard to deal with community problems. The City has never done right by the neighborhood, and they owe it to the homeowners and renters in Sunnyside to repair homes and apartments, provide the infrastructure the City never got around to building and invest in the schools. Only when this happens will we begin to see evidence of a real comprehensive revitalization effort.

Simply building even more government-subsidized housing in a neighborhood with an already-high concentration of such housing is not revitalization. It’s time that we all become absolutely clear on that fact.

sunnyside_subsidized_housingThe map above shows subsidized housing in the Sunnyside neighborhood, one the greatest concentrations in Houston. In addition to individual tenant-based vouchers (black dots), there are large concentrations of residents in the Project Based Section 8 Voucher properties (red dots) and in LIHTC developments (blue dots).

It is unconscionable that a mother can’t choose to live in a safer place because the City of Houston has, for decades, provided nearly all subsidized housing exclusively in high-poverty, racially segregated neighborhoods such as Sunnyside.

This is bad for tenants, bad for kids and bad for neighborhoods like Sunnyside where the City has placed subsidized housing development after subsidized housing development. In doing so, the City has transformed many traditional neighborhoods of color from stable, working class, majority homeowner neighborhoods into overwhelmingly renter communities with the highest rates of concentrated poverty in the city.

The solution is to provide mixed-income apartment developments all across Houston that are open to everyone, including people who want to exercise a housing choice with their rent vouchers.

When HHA courageously ventured to build such a development near a good school in an affluent, majority white neighborhood, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner blocked it. The mayor’s caving to biased opposition to affordable housing earned Houston the distinction of becoming the only major U.S. city with an unresolved federal finding of violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act for racial housing discrimination.

It’s not just decisions around the location of affordable apartment developments that maintain racial residential segregation. It is also the refusal of most landlords outside majority-minority, lower-income neighborhoods to accept Section 8 vouchers. These are the practices that the nation’s second-largest property management firm, Lincoln Property Company, has been sued over in federal court.

In 2015, after the City of Austin passed an amendment to their fair housing ordinance outlawing the discriminatory practice of blanket discrimination against all voucher holders, the Texas Legislature passed a law making enactment of such anti-discrimination ordinances illegal.

Enshrining voucher discrimination was undertaken at the behest of the Texas Apartment Association. Many members of this landlord’s association make it a practice to rent to Section 8 voucher holders (who are overwhelmingly people of color) in their apartments in majority-minority areas, yet often refuse to rent to voucher holders in majority-white neighborhoods. The 2015 Texas pro-discrimination law was challenged last week in federal court.

Not satisfied with the current state of widespread residential housing segregation, one member of the Texas Legislature representing the Houston suburbs actually ran and was elected on a platform of abolishing government-subsidized housing and “fighting Section 8 housing.”

Each of Texas’ many local and state officials who actively work today, nearly 50 years after the passage of the Fair Housing Act, to maintain racial housing segregation should be made to account for their actions to the mother living in Section 8 apartment in the Sunnyside community. They need to explain to that mother why her daughter, the one holding her spelling bee trophy while standing in the parking lot of a crime-ridden apartment project, can’t live someplace where the bullets don’t fly through the property every night.

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