Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Despite a landmark Supreme Court decision, state leaders are still finding ways to oppose low-income housing.
Dallas is a massive star, surrounded by rings of suburbs and exurbs. The largest ones are gravitational centers in their own right, like Mesquite or Garland, orbited by satellite communities. Beyond these inner planets are the outer exurbs, places like Duncanville and Allen, and many tiny pluturbs scattered along the farthest reaches of the metroplex. Waxahachie is something like Planet Nine, a proper suburb well outside the Dallas system.
Midlothian, Texas, which is near Waxahachie and not much else, is unremarkable within the larger constellation of Dallas communities. It is far from a national concern, for example, that the Midlothian City Council won’t support a pair of multifamily apartment projects because residents don’t want low-income housing in Midlothian.
Except that this question was seemingly settled by the U.S. Supreme Court last year. In Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that communities cannot steer low-income housing supported by federal tax credits toward poorer and minority communities. Yet empowered Texas residents continue to repel low-income housing.
It’s still happening
The Supreme Court affirmed that the segregation of low-income housing represents a “disparate impact” that violates the Fair Housing Act. The ruling was especially resonant in Dallas. In the lead-up to the Supreme Court decision, the Inclusive Communities Project—a nonprofit that helps black families find housing in non-minority areas—sued the Dallas suburbs of McKinney and Flower Mound, and eventually the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, for refusing to accept or fairly allocate Section 8 vouchers. Other organizations had also sued Dallas towns and cities for refusing the state’s efforts to award low-income housing tax credits in white neighborhoods.
And yet it’s all still happening. Not only has Midlothian settled on a strategy to veto a decision by the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs about awarding low-income housing tax credits in the city, but leaders in the Texas state legislature also wield this power. At the state level, this power is clearly defined. Gayle Reaves, writing for the Texas Observer, notes that it doesn’t take a coalition to stop low-income housing in Texas. It only takes a single state lawmaker, thanks to a 2001 state law.
The 2001 law gives state representatives a tool to thwart efforts by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to expand access to affordable housing, specifically the sweeping new Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule adopted last year. Here’s how it works: Each representative can effectively adjust the point system used by the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs to decide where and how to allot low-income housing tax credits. Reaves explains more:
[I]n Texas, HUD’s new approach runs smack into not only animosity toward public housing from some homeowners in affluent suburbia but also into the state’s idiosyncratic point system for selecting large housing projects backed by tax credits. Under the system, legislators hold so many points that in the vast majority of cases, they can make or break a housing project deal.
Reaves profiles a Republican candidate for the Texas legislature, Kay Smith, who is running on a platform that includes a pledge to block all low-income housing from her district. “The government wants to put Low Income Housing IN YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD [sic] which will diminish your property values immediately!” Smith’s website reads. “Kay is leading the coalition to stop this from happening.”
Even in relatively liberal parts of Texas, it’s no problem for state representatives to tweak the point system to overrule the interests of the community. (The state senate abdicated its power to award points in 2013.) Reaves writes:
Last year, state Representative Tony Dale, a Cedar Park Republican, filed a two-line letter objecting to a project that the Austin City Council had already approved for city funds. Dale told reporters he objected at the request of Don Zimmerman, the single Austin City Council member who opposed the project.
Houston leads the opposition
The Houston metro area is responsible for a disproportionate number of objections to low-income housing in Texas. At least half of the 22 letters issued to the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs originated in Houston, namely the northwestern suburbs that make up Harris County, according to the Texas Observer. District 130, where Smith is running for office—and where the outgoing representative has spiked low-incoming housing developments in recent years—comprises part of Harris County.
It may come as no surprise that voters in District 130 could rally around a candidate who promises to keep out poor renters. (There is no Democrat in the running, for starters.) Per capita income in the district is higher than the state average. Commute times are lower. There are more households at higher income brackets than the average across the state. Many more residents own their homes, and their homes are worth more money.
Yet the obstruction on fair housing in Texas registers as a calamity given the gravity of the Supreme Court’s decision on disparate impact—which, after all, got its start in Texas. HUD’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule promises to provide for fair housing even more directly. So, through seemingly legal (but likely unconstitutional) means, Texas has set itself on a collision course with the federal government. State leaders are acting as if fair housing is optional, not an official decree. It’s as if they are living in a completely different universe.