Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Advocates in Texas are charging the department with rolling back fair housing laws.
A Texas housing nonprofit has filed a complaint against the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development over its enforcement of civil rights in Houston. The challenge is the latest legal action intended to press the Trump administration to hold communities accountable under fair housing law.
The complaint, which lawyers filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on behalf of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service on Tuesday evening, alleges that the department and its embattled leader, HUD Secretary Ben Carson, are engaged in a “prolonged, programmatic failure … to enforce civil rights obligations against the City of Houston.”
“HUD fails to require Houston to conform its conduct to civil rights laws, including with respect to the placement of affordable housing,” the court challenge reads. “As a result, Houston remains the most racially segregated city in Texas, and one of the most segregated large cities in the country, while administering more than $30 million annually in HUD funding in a fashion that exacerbates and perpetuates segregation.”
The challenge is an escalation in an ongoing battle over fair housing in Texas, one that seemed to reach its zenith in 2015 with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on “disparate impact” and racial bias in affordable housing. The latest turn in this case arrives against the backdrop of a national scandal over the HUD secretary’s expensive taste in office furniture—a variation on a theme playing out across Trump’s cabinet. But the Houston case serves as a specific reminder that under Carson, the department tasked with enforcing fair housing rules may be doing the opposite—dialing them back.
“We’re not even at this moment talking about what used to be called de facto segregation,” says Michael Allen, a partner at Relman, Dane & Colfax, the firm representing Texas Housers. “This is government-sponsored segregation.”
The argument that HUD has failed to enforce civil rights law in Houston predates Carson and the current administration: It goes back at least as far as 2011. Texas Housers’ case against HUD specifically flows from an affordable-housing debate that roiled Houston two years ago. In August 2016, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner refused to support a plan to build a mixed-income apartment building in the affluent Galleria neighborhood—the first-ever affordable-housing project to be built in a high-opportunity area anywhere in Houston.
An investigation by HUD concluded in early January 2017 that the city had violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. By refusing to forward the Fountain View apartment building proposal to the City Council, the mayor had bowed to political pressure to keep affordable housing out of a predominantly white neighborhood. The HUD investigation found that the city’s decision was “motivated either in whole or in part by the race, color, or national origin of the likely tenants.”
The letter to Houston’s mayor, dated January 11, further stated that the city’s procedures for approving housing tax credit proposals were “influenced by racially motivated opposition to affordable housing and perpetuate segregation.”
The resolution of the Title VI complaint fell far short of what fair housing advocates might have hoped for in Houston. In April 2017, Turner told reporters that he had received guarantees from Carson (before he was confirmed by the Senate as HUD secretary) that he was pleased with Houston’s progress on fair housing. A few months later, HUD released Houston’s federal funds, certifying the city was acting in compliance with federal law. Finally, earlier this month, the department dashed the complaint altogether: On March 2, HUD announced a voluntary compliance agreement between the department and the city resolving the investigation.
The agreement praised Houston for implementing a voucher mobility pilot program; the city agreed to adopt policies to prevent any single individual City Council member from vetoing a housing tax credit application. Housing advocates cried foul.
“Having concluded that Houston’s generic policies keep that kind of [affordable] housing from being put in affluent, predominantly white, high-opportunity areas, the [voluntary compliance agreement] offers nothing to undo the segregationist effect of Houston’s policies,” Allen says. “Fundamentally, it does nothing to provide another Fountain View development. It does not provide any actual relief in the form of affordable housing in these high-quality neighborhoods.”
Texas may be the only state in the country where state and local leaders have direct control over the process for approving developments that use Low-Income Housing Tax Credits, the main engine for building new affordable housing nationwide. That means that elected representatives can (and do) torpedo mixed-income housing in white, affluent districts. In other words, housing segregation is not just a de facto reality in Texas, but a platform some representatives run on for election.
Earlier this month, Carson objected to a report on a change in the official mission statement at HUD. In a letter to employees, he said the decision to strike phrases like “strong, sustainable, inclusive communities” and “free from discrimination” from the department’s official plaque did not represent a pivot on fair housing. In Texas, however, housing advocates argue that Carson has enabled the state to openly defy its duty to civil rights—even after the last administration called Houston out specifically. “State law is in a sense at war with the Fair Housing Act,” Allen says.
HUD declined to comment on the litigation.