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.

Welcome Back

I am back, after a year-long hiatus from this blog.

It has been quite a year.  My Son was born.  I have changed jobs.  I have stepped-down from my position as President of the Braeburn Super Neighborhood.  I have been nominated to the Board of the Brays Oaks Management District.

Most of all, my wife and I have moved.  We are still in Houston, of course, but now we are in the neighboring Brays Oaks Super Neighborhood.
My articles will continue, as time permits.  There is certainly a lot to write about.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

What Houston Needs to Look For in a New HDHCD Director

Houston Department of Housing and Community Development (HDHCD) Director James Noteware resigned earlier this month to seek employment in the private sector. It’s very sad to see him go. Mr. Noteware was keenly attuned to Houston’s unique needs when it comes to housing and community development. He understood that the job is much bigger than just to meet the Department’s primary objective. His successor will face a very steep learning curve.

Houston is the largest city in the US to lack a traditional, comprehensive zoning ordinance. This is good because our neighborhoods have developed organically to be mixed use and mixed income. But the down side is that neighbors often feel that they lack protection from undesirable development. Our new HDHCD Director needs to be sensitive to neighborhood concerns; and not simply write them off as NIMBYs.

This City went through a building boom in the 1950s through 1970s. Multifamily housing was overbuilt. Those complexes are now at the end of their useful lives. Whole neighborhoods are dragged down by complexes that were once upscale, but are now dangerous slums. It behooves the new HDHCD Director to know all about these complexes, and he has to be driven to help the neighborhoods around them.

The State of Texas has extremely weak laws regarding urban blight and substandard housing. Those laws were made even weaker in 2011. Recent experiments have used low-income housing funds to help mitigate blight, while providing safe, decent housing for the poor. We need an HDHCD Director who believes in this approach.

The primary function of the Houston Department of Housing and Community Development is “to provide decent housing, create a suitable living environment and expand economic opportunities, principally for low and moderate income persons.” But we also need an HDHCD Director who really understands our City, is sensitive to local concerns, and helps neighborhoods solve their problems.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Changing the Culture of Lost Opportunities

Re-examining Zoned Schools

Helen Ladd, a professor at the Duke Sanford School of Public Policy wrote “Education and Poverty – Confronting the Evidence.” Almost on the same day, a study was published in the Houston Chronicle which gives Sharpstown High School the second worst dropout rate in the City.[i] I can’t help but break my rule against writing about education on this Blog.

It’s tempting to blame choice for the failure of schools like Sharpstown High. The assumption is that if you give kids the chance to leave their local zoned schools, those schools will fail because they’ll lose their best and brightest students. But the assumption is overly simplistic and very dangerous. It helps cause the failure of zoned schools, and it has been proven wrong by Ms. Ladd[ii].

When a zoned school starts to lose students to Magnet and Charter Schools, it creates unique opportunities. If the school can keep its teachers, students who stay can benefit from smaller class sizes and one-on-one attention. Furthermore, the school can focus on the issues facing its remaining students. Do most of them have parents who are too busy to help with homework? An after-school tutoring program could be established to help fill the gap. Is teenage pregnancy a problem? Programs could be set up to address it. Most of all, zoned schools can take stock of the neighborhoods around them. They can work with neighborhood groups, to make their curriculum fit with the needs of the surrounding community. Then they can market that curriculum to parents in the neighborhood, to help stem or reverse the exodus of students.

These opportunities are very often lost; and from what I can tell, part of the reason is that zoned schools are used for political reasons. Opponents of school choice hold them up and say “I told you so,” instead of seizing on opportunities to improve them. A culture of lost opportunities has been created, and it has been especially damaging to Sharpstown High School. Two decades of deterioration have left it one of Houston’s worst. The school has been named to HISD’s Apollo 20 Program, which offers a glimmer of hope, but which might fail[iii]. It’s a real shame, because there are beautiful, vibrant neighborhoods around the Sharpstown High School, with parents who are afraid to send their kids to it; and there are students attending the school, who deserve better.

[i] I had initially thought that Sharpstown’s poor graduation rate in the study was the result of faulty methodology on the part of Children at Risk. But in fact their research is sound.

[ii] Ms. Ladd’s work is important because it throws a wrench in the common wisdom that was behind The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. No Child Left Behind created a culture of ‘teaching to the test’ and did not address the problems it was supposed to fix.

[iii] The Apollo 20 program’s goal is to improve student performance with a longer school day, a longer school year, and one-on-one tutoring. But Apollo 20 labels schools as failing – in turn making it more difficult for them to attract students. The damage done by this label, could far outweigh any benefits from the program. To be fair, the schools are failing, but that’s not something that we should continuously remind people of. It’d be better if there were Apollo programs in all HISD schools, to help students who are struggling academically, regardless of what campus they are in.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Don’t Move – Improve: An End to the Urban Cop Out?

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, there was a concerted effort to help the poor relocate to the suburbs. Subprime mortgages allowed the poor to pursue a mirage of safety and good schools. HUD and state agencies prioritized the construction of low-income housing in the suburbs. This was a reaction to studies on ‘concentrated poverty’ from the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. These studies found that people who live in areas with ‘concentrated poverty’ suffer high rates of joblessness, poor education, and high crime. They even suffer high mortality rates, due to the lack of adequate health care in their neighborhoods. The belief was that people who live in socio-economically diverse neighborhoods, are less likely to have these problems.

Unfortunately, we’re now seeing mixed results from our efforts to address ‘concentrated poverty’. The suburbs are more ethnically and racially diverse than ever before. But the economic downfall has created areas of ‘concentrated poverty’ in the suburbs. Suburban Baytown has the highest poverty rate in Harris County. And even in suburbs that did not undergo demographic shifts, the benefits to the poor were not as pronounced as expected. HUD’s Moving to Opportunity for Fair Housing Demonstration Program” found that, while the poor are healthier in the suburbs, they do not have better rates of educational achievement and economic self-sufficiency. Worse, moving to the suburbs does not seem to curb risky and criminal behavior among the poor.

This stands to reason. Suburban schools were not necessarily prepared for the emotional and social baggage of children from broken homes and communities. The problem of educational achievement prevented the very poor from finding employment, which in turn fueled risky and criminal behavior. These problems are also present in impoverished neighborhoods, but instead of studying the problems and using our resources to address them, we simply helped people move away.

It’s understandable that we took this cop out. It’s very difficult to improve the quality of life in a poor neighborhood. Isolation needs to be overcome with better transit. Commercial space needs to be constructed to attract employers. Schools need to be carefully tailored to the needs of the community. Medical clinics need to open. Grocery stores and other retailers need to be lured back. Police officers need to be hired. Parks need to be built. Neighborhoods might even need to be rebranded. And all of this is in addition to the rehabilitation and replacement of substandard housing. It’s a huge endeavor, but well worth it. Just look at neighborhoods where this kind of holistic reinvestment has already happened – The South Bronx in New York City for example.

Some might ask: “if we concentrate on poor neighborhoods in cities, aren’t we turning our backs on fair housing and diversity in the suburbs?” The answer is ‘no.’ The suburbs will naturally become more diverse, as attitudes change, and as more minorities reach the middle class. As long as the free market keeps providing us with new suburban housing, there will be no shortage of older housing for the poor. (Taxpayer funding can be used to prevent this older housing becoming slums.)

There’s a saying in the South Bronx: “Don’t Move – Improve.” We owe it to our cities to follow that lead. We must concentrate on identifying the problems in poor neighborhoods and addressing those problems; instead of simply helping people move to the suburbs.