Houston civil rights violation could delay Harvey housing fund

Homes are surrounded by floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in Spring, Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Houston could be ineligible for future federal housing grants, including disaster recovery funds for Hurricane Harvey, because it has not resolved a federal finding that its housing practices violate civil rights law.

The city has yet to come into compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act nearly a year after the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found it in violation, making it automatically ineligible for certain federal housing programs and potentially imperiling its ability to qualify for others, an Austin housing advocacy group said in a demand letter sent to HUD last week.

The Oct. 31 letter alleges Houston’s recent certifications of compliance with civil rights laws – prerequisites for receiving federal funding – are “inaccurate and unsatisfactory,” adding that HUD must withhold funding until the city cooperates.

Such an agreement should include commitments to build more affordable housing in affluent neighborhoods, and train elected and appointed officials on handling community opposition, among other steps, attorney Michael Allen wrote on behalf of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service.

“Unless and until voluntary compliance has been reached, HUD must reject any submission or certification by the city regarding compliance with Title VI because, by HUD’s own determination, the city fails to comply with Title VI,” Allen wrote. “HUD is therefore not authorized to continue funding or grant new funding to the city or mayor until the existing findings are resolved and the city is able to make accurate certifications.”

HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan confirmed the agency received the letter but declined to comment further.

HUD faulted Mayor Sylvester Turner in January for rejecting a proposed subsidized housing complex near the Galleria, saying his decision “was motivated either in whole or in part by the race, color or national origin of the likely tenants.” HUD also criticized city procedures more broadly for perpetuating segregation, in part by giving to much weight to racially motivated opposition aimed at keeping affordable housing projects out of wealthier neighborhoods.

Turner has sharply criticized the finding, and his legal department in February went as far as asking HUD to withdraw its letter. That has not happened.

“We’re still discussing and going back and forth, but there’s been no final conclusion on it,” the mayor said Wednesday.

Turner, through a spokesman, also doubted HUD actually would pull the plug on funding.

“The mayor is confident HUD realizes the importance of supporting the housing of people displaced by the disaster,” communications director Alan Bernstein wrote in an email.

‘A wake-up call’

Losing HUD money would be catastrophic for Houston’s housing department, which draws the majority of its funding from the agency. Such a move also would imperil Houston’s ability to rebuild from Hurricane Harvey.

“The fact that money is at risk and this is an obstacle to provide the funding is a great incentive for the findings to get resolved,” said John Trasviña, who formerly served as HUD assistant secretary for fair housing. “It really is a wake-up call to local officials, as was done with Secretary (Shaun) Donovan to the state of New Jersey and other places after Hurricane Sandy.”

Allen’s letter acknowledges the gravity of that risk and urges the federal housing agency to propose a plan of action by Nov. 15 – something Bernstein said HUD already has done, though he could not specify when.