State of Black Harris County 2020

The Defender followed up its State of Black Houston with part two of the three-part State of Black series, the State of Black Harris County. This week’s conversation with an influential lawmaker featured Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo.

State of Black Harris County moderator, Defender CEO Sonceria Messiah Jiles, posed questions to Hidalgo from participants via a real-time chat room. Additionally, Several State of Black community partners offered pre-recorded video questions. These included hard-hitting questions from Juli McShay (NAACP Houston), Sharifat Lawal Price (Greater Houston Black Chamber), Wanda Anderson (National Pan-Hellenic Council Inc. Houston), Jackie Pope (Top Ladies of Distinction), Ray Shackleford (Houston Area Urban League) and Rev. Dr. James Dixon (Houston Metropolitan Baptist Ministerial Alliance).

Major sponsors for this virtual event series are Title Sponsor H-E-B, Presenting Sponsor Chevron, and VIP Sponsors Amegy Bank and Cadence Bank.

Next up for this series is the State of Black Texas, featuring Governor Greg Abbott. That date is still pending, but as soon as we know, you’ll know. To register for the final installment of these conversations, go to bit.ly/defenderstateofblack or visit Defendernetwork.com for more info.

Opening Remarks

We’ve been pursuing different legal avenues. We know that a lot of these companies’ fines are capped at a million dollars. We have our attorneys rushing to the court courthouse, suing for injunctive relief for court orders… We have worked on speeding up our flood control, voting access and reforming the way budgeting is done, so that funds go to where they’re most needed. But then COVID hit and exposed the issues that we already knew were there. The fundamental point that drives us is systemic change, not having programs for the sake that they sound good, but changing the things that sometimes are less exciting to talk about… And so, we’ll keep fighting.

Criminal Justice – Public Defenders

if you’re accused of a crime, which you may not have committed, and you can’t afford your own attorney, the judge will select your attorney. Now, of course, we want to think that the best attorneys are selected, but that’s simply not the case. There was an independent study done. And in fact, the New York times published an article based on that academic study, a couple of academic studies that showed that when the attorney was selected by the judge, the outcomes were much worse as compared to when the defendant was assigned a public defender… We have stories of the defendants who never heard from their attorney, whose attorney didn’t recognize them in the courthouse, in the courtroom. And so, the outcomes that we see unfortunately, is people not having the representation that they deserve, and we know which communities are on the losing side of that. So, for that reason, there’s a system the state created that says that we can do managed assigned council where it’ll be an unbiased way to appoint those attorneys.

Upcoming Election Voting

They’ve tried everything. I mean, they tried voter roll purges last year. We know of ridiculous voter ID laws that we have in the state. We know that they stood in the way of a sending mail ballot applications so that folks who qualified could apply. Now, where the folks that did apply for a mail ballot were planning on dropping off their mail ballot at one of 12 drop-off locations around the county, the state has said we can only have one. And so, the obstacles are clear. They’re disappointing. They’re sad. But we won’t be deterred. And what I want folks to know is that just as the community and these community leaders are working so hard to encourage people to participate, we’re honoring that at the County by making voting as accessible as possible… We have three times the number of early vote locations. We’ve got many, many more election day locations. Of course, people can vote anywhere on election day. We’ve had a beautiful outpouring from the community of sites that we’re using as voting locations from NRG, the Toyota Center, BVBA Stadium, to the University of Houston stadium, the Texas Medical Center. I mean, we have just so many incredible places to add to so we can have socially distanced, safe voting.

Election Administrator

So that’s another area where the research, not just in Texas, but in other counties and other areas around the country has shown that where there’s a nonpartisan independent elections administrator, the elections are run better. Because we have the tax assessor collector doing the registration, and then the County clerk doing the voting piece. They have to keep two sets of rules, which causes, um, more delays, more time. It’s just, it’s not as efficient. We know we can do better with an administrator… So, we’re going to hopefully have somebody who can start take the reins after the election. Obviously, Chris Hollins is going to get us through this election and he’s been fantastic. And so, it’s a panel that’s Chris Hollins, Tax Assessor/Collector Harris Bennet, the Democratic Party chair, the Republican Party chair and myself. And so, the five of us are in charge of choosing the best candidate.

Flooding | Hurricane Harvey Repairs

There was a $2.5 billion bond, and that’s good. But when you ask people why $2.5 billion, why wasn’t it more money or less money, that money was just pulled out, you know, for whatever politically expedient reasons. But if you look at really the need of the county in terms of being flood resilient it’s much more than that, into the tens of billions. And so that’s part of what we’re asking, is as we have new detention requirements, as we disperse the money, as quickly as possible, we prioritize the projects in areas that have been underserved that are worst hit first… We’ve reshuffled or created an order of projects that serves the worst hit communities first and not the wealthiest communities.

Disparity Study Showing Blacks Get Only .05% of HC Contracts

Number one it’s incredibly disappointing. I mean, we know the importance of economic strength. And to the extent that there’s a community or communities that are behind in that economic power, it sets everybody, it sets that community back in all kinds of areas and it sets that community back for generations… Part of the strategies around increasing MWBs, it’s not a mystery. They figured this out in other jurisdictions, but some of the things that can be done is breaking up the contracts to give smaller companies the opportunity to apply. It’s having workshops and outreach to proactively involve other than the usual players. Of course, you want competent firms, but to involve them in the application process. And then also it’s that development, that sort of incubation of these businesses to help build them up so that they can compete. So, all of those are strategies that the office is looking into and we’re going to have to implement all of those in the next few months and years to get that stood up.

Coronavirus Impact: Health

It’s putting numbers into decision-making. So, we’re done making a decision based on a feeling or who called us that day. Where we direct which testing sites we’re going to have, in which neighborhoods they’re going to, we’re looking specifically at the social vulnerability index, at the positivity rate in that area, the degree to which that area is in served by other entities, the degree of their slow insurance rate. And those all track of course, with Black and Brown communities. So that’s what we’re doing to take the guesswork out of testing… The other thing is the transportation issue. We have a lot of people not showing up to get tested. And we started asking why. Well, it’s because they don’t have a car and public transit is lacking. So… if somebody needs to get a test from Harris County, but they can’t get there, we’ll go to their home. We’ll go visit. So that’s some of what we’re doing to really incorporate these disparities into our decision-making process.

Coronavirus Impact: Housing | Evictions

Home ownership, people, renters being able to stay in their homes; that’s a big issue. That’s at the core of the community being resilient; the core of somebody being able to maintain a business, being able to maintain a home… Initially I had the ability to have a moratorium on evictions and the governor took away that power when he took away the other powers back in late April. So, we need our cities to try and have those evictions moratoriums. I’ve been postponing foreclosures. It’s a small number of homes… so, unfortunately the impact of that, it has an impact, but it’s a limited number of homes. And then the aid that we’re providing on rental assistance and on direct financial assistance, which has been $40 million of local county dollars, and then over $100 million of the CARES Act dollars for both of those programs, working with the city too.