Sunday, December 30, 2012

When Fair isn’t Fair: Questioning HUD’s New Approach to Fair Housing

The goal of US Fair Housing Law is noble:  to create diverse, vibrant cities, free from divisions based on race and ethnicity; to allow every American to live in the best possible housing that they can afford.  Landlords are prohibited from discriminating against tenants based on race, ethnicity, religion, family status, or disability.  Realtors are prohibited from engaging in practices like block-busting and racial steering.  Cities are supposed to use municipal policy to fight segregation. 

The laws have worked remarkably well since they were written in 1968.  Neighborhoods that were almost completely white are now diverse.  Houston’s Sharpstown was developed in the 1950s as a white suburb; today it has a wonderful mix of Hispanic, Black, White, and Asian residents.  Urban neighborhoods are no longer ghettos where minorities live in squalor.  Until recently, the Washington Avenue Corridor east of downtown Houston was a slum.  Now it’s a hotbed of dining and nightlife.  

For the most part this was done without strong enforcement from HUD.  But that’s changing now.  HUD is on the offensive against cities and towns – using lawsuits and the threat of withholding funds against those that oppose public and low-income housing projects.  ProPublica wrote about HUD’s involvement in a long, bruising fight over public housing in New York’s Westchester County.  (A fight that ended in settlement.)   Saint Bernard Parish Louisiana, too, has fallen prey.  HUD rushed to support a developer’s plans to build low-income housing, despite strong neighborhood opposition.  The case is still in court.

Closest to home, and perhaps worst of all, is what HUD threatened to do to Galveston.  Hurricane Ike severely damaged Galveston’s already deteriorated public housing projects.  Local officials demolished the housing soon after the storm.  Rather than rebuilding the projects, Galveston’s government wanted to use Housing Choice Vouchers to accommodate the island’s poor throughout the island.  The idea would have been more in keeping with the tenets of Fair Housing, but HUD said ‘no.’   They threatened to withhold all of Galveston’s rebuilding funds, unless the City put back its old public housing projects.

While HUD forces new public and low-income housing projects on cities and towns, Serious problems persist in existing housing:  crime; rodent and bug infestations; structural problems; sewage back ups; electrical fires.  When I was President of the Braeburn Super Neighborhood, I and my colleagues worked to address these sorts of problems at three apartment complexes, totaling about 1,000 units, near Sharpstown High School.  After a decade-long battle, only one of the complexes has been addressed in any meaningful way; and it was the smallest, least troubled of the three.  

Our slow progress wasn’t for lack of trying.  We hammered local officials on the issue.  We contacted State officials.  We worked with private investors.  (In fact, were it not for private investors using tax credits, we wouldn’t have even been able to address that one complex).  But we never got help from HUD.  They didn’t even have anyone to contact about our issues.  It really felt like they didn’t care about our area.  And my old neighborhood is not alone.  Neighborhoods all over the Country face deteriorating housing stock, urban blight, and a lack of funds to make repairs – and most get no help from HUD.  

The experience was really frustrating.  The ideas behind Fair Housing Law are noble; but HUD’s new approach is not.  They’re going to war with cities and towns, while ignoring the call to improve existing housing.  It’s not fair.

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