The State of Texas must pay special attention to civil rights when it carries out disaster recovery plans

The state’s draft action plan for spending $57.8 million in federal disaster recovery funds was released on Jan. 18. The Texas General Land Office, which oversees the administration of the federal funds, has given the public 14 days to comment. Every day untilFeb. 1 Feb. 13, we’ll be asking fundamental questions about the action plan as we draft our own comments to the GLO to advocate for equitable disaster recovery for all Hurricane Harvey survivors. 

The State of Texas should have learned by now. Fair housing is not a checkbox. It isn’t a lofty goal. It’s the law.

In 2009, the state had not learned this lesson when it set up its plan to spend federal disaster recovery funds. At that time the State give local governments cart blanche to ignore needs of communities of color and to fund non-disaster related projects instead of helping survivors restore their homes and lives. Texas Housers and Texas Appleseed made numerous comments on the State’s action plan following those hurricanes which were then not acted on — until we filed a fair housing complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Five months after our complaint, the result was the historic 2010 conciliation agreement between us and the State of Texas. That agreement redirected hundreds of millions of dollars to the survivors of Hurricanes Ike and Dolly who needed those funds to rebuild. The conciliation agreement not only resulted in a more equitable distribution of funds but it also put fair housing guidance and provisions in place that helped local governments comply with their civil rights obligations. These provisions ensured that disaster recovery program benefits were provided consistently and equitably across all of the various localities that administered the federal funds. It established an allocation process that was non-discriminatory — as a result disaster recovery from Hurricanes Dolly and Ike was cost-effective, transparent and efficient.

Fast forward eight years to today and the State of Texas seems to have forgotten these lessons. In the new $57.8 million disaster recovery action plan, the General Land Office, which administers the funds, dismisses the many lessons in a single paragraph…

“The grantee certifies that the grant will be conducted and administered in conformity with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (42 U.S.C. 2000d) and the Fair Housing Act (42 U.S.C. 3601–3619) and implementing regulations, and that it will affirmatively further fair housing.”

Fair housing and civil rights have been reduced to little more than a box the State checks. This boilerplate language is not adequate, especially considering the State’s success under the clear and specific language in the Dolly and Ike action plan that produced good results.

If the GLO and State officials truly want to “affirmatively further fair housing,” they’ll do more than just check a box or copy and paste boilerplate language into the action plan. They’ll think thoroughly about how to promote opportunity for people of color, people with disabilities, and other protected classes.

One important fair housing initiative that worked after the conciliation agreement was reached was the voluntary Homeowner Opportunity Program (HOP). This program helped 363 families relocate to safer, higher opportunity neighborhoods. These were families who wanted to leave flood-vulnerable areas that were also racially and economically segregated to move to safer neighborhoods that were more economically and racially integrated and had access to better jobs and better schools. Imagine what could happen if Texas implemented a program like HOP in the Hurricane Harvey rebuilding process. Tens of thousands of lower-income Texas would, for the first time in generations, be able to choose the neighborhood that was best for their family. That would truly affirmatively further fair housing and dismantle the tragic legacy of Jim Crow residential segregation that shackles millions of Texans in poverty.

There are a number of other recommendations we make in our comments to the General Land Office about how to comply with fair housing law and promote opportunity and equity.

Here are some highlights:

  • The State’s updated Analysis of Impediments (to fair housing) must include and identify impediments to fair housing in each of the regions that receive disaster recovery dollars. There must also be a plan to overcome the effects of these barriers to fair housing.
  • Provide mandatory training to recipients (cities and counties receiving community development grants) on Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing and civil rights compliance.
  • Collect and share data that can help identify racial and ethnic disparities, as well as disparities based on income familial status and disability status, in who is being helped and who is being denied assistance.
  • Incorporate in the action plan the provisions from the 2010 conciliation agreement.
  • Assess the past successes and failures of the Homeowner Opportunity Program and modify the program as needed to implement as an option for Harvey survivors
  • Ensure the needs of communities of low-income people are met first.
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This Homeowners Loan Corporation map shows that government systems helped to create and perpetuate segregated communities. Mortgages were not backed by federal insurance if the home was in an integrated area, making homeownership inaccessible to people of color. These red areas on the map are still home to many black and brown people, and they’re still areas that don’t see enough public investment.

Many of the communities most impacted by Hurricane Harvey have been segregated, neglected, and disinvested for more than 100 years. While this disaster affected many across the socioeconomic spectrum, it isn’t by chance that black and brown people and low-income people often end up with the brunt of the damage. It is a result of purposeful decisions made by governments and privileged communities that have confined people of color to racially and ethnically segregated neighborhoods in low-lying areas that lack adequate public infrastructure like flood control.

These communities and their residents deserve a fair and equal chance, not simply reconstruction of the inequitable, separate and unequal status quo. Following fair housing law is an essential tool to address racism, discrimination and neglect. The State of Texas must apply the lessons it has learned in past disasters and commit itself to ensure this is a just recovery.

 

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