Houston’s Affordable Housing Conundrum
What Houston can learn from Dallas’s low-income housing debacle.
Ever since the Houston Housing Authority announced that it planned to build an affordable housing development near the city’s affluent Galleria neighborhood last year, residents have opposed it with familiar “not-in-my-backyard” complaints. Opponents claimed the housing would overcrowd their schools, clog up their streets with traffic, increase their community’s crime rate, and lower their own property values. In solidarity with the Galleria-area residents, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said last month that the project would never even make it to city council for consideration, essentially declaring the project dead. Without city council’s approval, the Houston Housing Authority won’t be able to secure federal tax credits tabbed for the development of low-income housing, which would likely make the $53 million project too expensive to complete.
According to the Houston Chronicle, the debacle has prompted a federal investigation to determine whether Houston violated the Civil Rights Act. If the feds find Houston in violation of fair housing standards, they could force the city into compliance by withholding federal funding. But Turner doesn’t sound worried. “Since receiving the letter, I have had a very positive conversation with HUD Secretary (Julian) Castro in which he made it very clear that this is standard procedure,” Turner said in an emailed statement to the Chronicle. “I fully expected they would want to review the decision.”
Affordable housing failures are not new to Houston. According to the Chronicle, it’s been ten years since the HHA last succeeded in building new affordable housing. And two days after he nixed the Galleria project, Turner criticized the agency for not, uh, building affordable housing.
Ten years is an inarguably woeful stretch, but it might not be fair to place all of the blame on Houston’s Housing Authority, at least not lately. Last year, shortly before the Galleria project was announced, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision in a Dallas fair-housing case, finding that Texas’s federal housing subsidy program could be found liable for discriminatory practices, even if those practices may have been unintentionally discriminatory. The original lawsuit, filed by fair-housing advocacy group Inclusive Communities Project, alleged Texas’s housing program basically fostered segregation because city housing agencies in Dallas were stacking affordable housing in minority neighborhoods without also building them in “high-opportunity” areas. SCOTUS ultimately sent the suit back to a lower court, but the decision served as a warning to housing agencies in cities across the country: make affordable housing available in affluent neighborhoods, or risk violating the Fair Housing Act and say goodbye to federal funding.
This is where things get tricky for the Houston Housing Authority. Pushback from within well-off communities is pretty much inevitable anytime someone wants to plunk down a large-scale, primarily low-income housing development in their neighborhood, and Turner seems determined to stand with the already established communities. Last year, when a similar (and ultimately unsuccessful) project was planned for the district he was then serving as a state representative, Turner told a community newspaper: “If you can’t convince the homeowner associations and the civic clubs and the management district that this is right for the community, then I will not support it.” This appears to leave the HHA with few options. If it can’t succeed in gathering support and federal funds to build affordable housing in well-off neighborhoods, then, because of the SCOTUS ruling, it may not be able to build affordable housing anywhere at all. That conundrum made it hard for people like Lance Gilliam, the former chairman of Houston’s Housing Authority, to do their job. “The one accomplishment that has eluded and, I’m certain, frustrated all of us is our inability to build new homes for the families we are blessed to serve,” Gilliam wrote in a resignation letter he submitted shortly after the Galleria project was killed, according to the Chronicle.
The affordable housing situation in Houston is becoming eerily similar to Dallas, which ultimately led to the SCOTUS ruling. As with Houston, there was a federal inquiry into the City of Dallas’s fair housing practices in 2013. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that “there was a pattern of negative reactions to projects that would provide affordable housing in the northern sector of Dallas,” HUD wrote in a letter to the city summarizing the findings of its investigation.
Since then, Dallas has taken steps to comply. According to the Dallas Morning News, it could have its first-ever citywide fair housing policy in place as soon as next month, a policy that includes a number of proposals to get affordable housing into high- and mixed-income neighborhoods. And in September, a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit that prompted the SCOTUS decision in the first place, finding that the fair housing advocates “failed to demonstrate that local zoning rules, community preferences, or developers’ choices did not contribute to the statistical disparity,” U.S. District Judge Sidney Fitzwater wrote in the decision, according to the Morning News. As Fitzwater explains, those combined factors don’t constitute an actual city policy that can be addressed by the court.
That ruling bodes well for the City of Houston, which seems destined for a similarly serpentine legal odyssey. According to the Chronicle, a group of fair housing advocates sent a strongly-worded letter to Turner shortly after a contentious public meeting in March, when it became clear that the Galleria project would probably fall flat in the face of fierce resistance from residents. In the letter, the advocates warned Turner that by failing to support the affordable housing project, the city would risk facing a lawsuit. So far, though, no lawsuit has been filed.
It should be noted that the project could technically go forward without the federal tax credits or the mayor’s support—the Houston Housing Authority has said that it has enough money to cover the Galleria homes, but it would rather not spend so much on a single project at the expense of others.
The Galleria plan was the Houston Housing Authority’s first attempt to build affordable housing in such an affluent neighborhood, and if the way this project was received is any indication of the response from other ritzy communities targeted for affordable housing in the future, then it may be a long, long time before any affordable housing gets built in Houston by the agency tasked with creating it.
*Editor’s note: Lance Gilliam is the former chairman of the Houston Housing Authority, not the former director. We regret the error.