Mayor Sylvester Turner has agreed to set clearer affordable housing policies for Houston and to help more low-income families move to neighborhoods with good schools as part of an agreement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The agreement, signed March 2 but announced Friday, resolves a 2017 HUD finding that Houston’s housing policies violate the federal Civil Rights Act.
The dispute stems from Turner’s August 2016 rejection of a proposal to build subsidized housing near the Galleria. Turner refused to bring the 233-unit Fountain View project to city council for a vote on tax credit financing that would make the development possible, citing “costs and other concerns.”
HUD concluded that Turner’s decision to halt consideration of the project violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits recipients of federal funding from discriminating based on race, color or national origin. The agency also said Houston’s process for reviewing applications for a key form of low-income housing maintains segregation, in part by giving too much weight to racially motivated opposition from neighborhood residents.
Earlier: HUD: City’s subsidized housing procedures promote segregation, violate Civil Rights Act
In a statement Friday, HUD Secretary Ben Carson said the agreement will "expand housing options for lower income Houston residents, especially in neighborhoods with better performing schools and higher paying jobs."
"We’re pleased the city is committed to making sure taxpayer-supported affordable housing development be supported and encouraged in a fair and inclusive manner," Carson said.
The agreement commits Houston to:
Implement a program city officials have discussed for months that would encourage landlords in areas with good schools to rent to 350 families with housing vouchers; denying units to recipients of housing subsidies is legal in Texas. The city will track lease and eviction rates and data on educational outcomes, and will expand the effort if the data show it is succeeding. The first family to participate in that program moved in March 2, city housing director Tom McCasland said.
Work with the Houston Housing Authority to invest $2 million in FEMA disaster aid to help victims made homeless by Hurricane Harvey, adding to $2.9 million the council recently approved to help HHA house 250 chronically homeless individuals.
Set objective policies to guide which tax-credit housing applications it will recommend that City Council support or not object to, and refrain from granting "veto" power to any individual council member when evaluating the housing applications.
Seek technical assistance from HUD to develop a comprehensive affordable housing strategy and to redesign programs in anticipation of an influx of Harvey recovery funding; the city’s Harvey recovery czar, Marvin Odum, said last week that HUD has agreed to grant Houston’s request for this expertise and support.
Read: City asks HUD to drop housing discrimination case
Turner thanked HUD for recognizing that the city has efforts underway that could address some of the agency’s criticisms, such as the so-called Voucher Mobility Program. He also pointed to the help that HUD’s support would provide in both the Harvey recovery and the city’s future housing efforts.
"We are not looking to bounce back from Harvey, but to bounce forward to a more just and more resilient city – a city of complete communities where all residents can find quality homes in neighborhoods with the economic and educational opportunities necessary to build a successful life," the mayor said.
Housing advocates blasted the agreement, however.
Washington, D.C.-based attorney Michael Allen, who represents the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, an Austin-based advocacy group that urged HUD last fall to take a hard line on Houston’s alleged violations, called it “a complete sham.”
“It’s entirely weak,” he said. “I’d even go one step further and say I think it dishonors the very principles of the Fair Housing Act.”
The agreement obligates the city to, essentially, do nothing, Allen said, and does not address the Fountain View proposal. The document merely suggests that forwarding deals similar to the Fountain View one to council would be “a good idea,” he said, but does not mandate it.
The agreement commits the city to make “a priority” of advancing projects “in high-opportunity areas like District G” to council but does not prevent the city from also targeting investments in “historically disadvantaged” areas.
“Housing vouchers in high-opportunity areas, that’s a good idea, but there’s nothing enforceable here,” Allen said. “And the reference to helping people made homeless by Harvey — Harvey hadn’t even happened when the HUD found the city in violation, so that remedy doesn’t even line up logically.”
Betsy Julian, a former HUD assistant secretary for fair housing, called the agreement “outrageous” and said it is difficult to square HUD’s serious original findings with an agreement that, at a minimum, does not require the city to go through with the Fountain View project.
“This doesn’t address the fundamental Title VI findings this is supposed to be resolving,” Julian said. “I am not one who throws compliments to HUD around casually, but that original Title VI finding was a very powerful and convincing document, so I’m a little appalled that the government would enter into a compliance agreement that doesn’t address those issues at all.”
Affordable housing is a critical issue in Houston, a city of 2.3 million where demand outstrips the roughly 78,000 subsidized units provided by a web of agencies.
The vast majority of local tax credit housing, the region’s most plentiful source of new affordable units, is concentrated in minority neighborhoods. The Houston Housing Authority’s plan to build a mixed-income, 233-unit complex at 2640 Fountainview would have been the agency’s first in a low-poverty, low-crime neighborhood with good schools and access to jobs.
The $53 million proposal sparked fierce community and political opposition, however, and Turner scuttled the deal.
HUD questioned Turner’s justification for blocking the project, saying the city typically vets such developments — which require no city funding — so lightly that Turner recalled reviewing no other such resolutions during his tenure, though Houston at that point had acted on at least 10 such projects. The city under Turner also signed off on a $226,000-per-unit tax credit proposal in majority-minority Independence Heights.
McCasland, the city housing director, asked that critics of the agreement look more broadly at the city’s actions over the past two years, such as the list of tax credit applications the council approved last year, when 10 of the 11 projects approved were in “high-opportunity” areas.
When the city does aim housing investment in struggling neighborhoods, he said, it will be as part of the mayor’s Complete Communities program, ideally accompanied by other investments in infrastructure, parks and economic development initiatives.
“There’s been a strong focus on making sure that deals are not going directly into neighborhoods that have a high poverty concentration,” McCasland said. “There’s a very high priority on making sure family developments are located next to amenities, whether those be transit amenities or, more importantly, high-performing schools.”
District G Councilman Greg Travis, who represents the area around the Fountain View proposal and opposed the deal, said he’s fine with the city setting objective standards for evaluating affordable housing deals.
“I have not been against such projects in my district in their totality. Some projects I’ve been fine with,” he said. “The issue I have is these high economic opportunity areas usually have high costs associated with them. But, more importantly, most of the social services if not all of them are not in District G. You’re putting people in places that are away from their support network, not just their family but agencies and government programs. Nobody talks about that, but I guarantee you the people who need those services, they think about it.”