Unsafe, Segregated Housing is Never “Fair”

Posted by John Henneberger on January 26, 2016

Concord Homes in Beaumont, Texas, is the archetype of distressed public housing in America: Physically deteriorated, environmentally blighted and built in an era when racial segregation was a public goal and neighborhood quality was not a consideration.

The 100-unit family development sits a few dozen feet from a heavily-used rail line that brings chemicals to and from the nearby Port of Beaumont and large refineries. The area is zoned for industrial use, and Concord Homes residents, 95 percent of whom are African American, are neighbors with a commercial junkyard, a concrete plant and an asphalt plant. The neighborhood surrounding the site is 77 percent African-American and has a median household income of $14,935, barely a quarter of the national average.

Concord Homes is not a good place to live, especially for children.

Place really does matter for a person’s lot in life—the longer you spend living somewhere racially and economically isolated and exposed to environmental hazards, the less opportunity you have to succeed.

The promise of fair housing is that every person, regardless of race, should have the chance to live in a safe, healthy and advantageous place. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) new affirmatively furthering fair housing regulation (AFFH) is designed to at long last enforce the Fair Housing Act by requiring local governments and public housing authorities to develop action plans to reduce residential segregation.

Nowhere is the new AFFH rule more important than in overcoming the racist legacy of public housing siting, exemplified by Concord Homes.

Earlier this month, I attended a HUD listening session on the Rental Assistance Demonstration program, or RAD.

At issue was whether public housing agencies (PHAs) should be allowed to extend the existence of places like Concord Homes through RAD conversion—or whether developments in racially and economically segregated, environmentally hazardous areas should be rebuilt elsewhere. Housing authorities argued that HUD should grant a “safe harbor” to permit PHAs to rebuild in place regardless of the neighborhood conditions and even if rebuilding maintains high levels of racial segregation. I disagree.

RAD allows PHAs to leverage private sector investment to preserve and rehabilitate their existing public housing stock. HUD acknowledged (and many PHA leaders rightly pointed out at the listening session) that there is currently a $25.6 billion backlog in federally-funded public housing maintenance. PHAs have been economically strangled by federal budget cuts as many old public housing developments fall into disrepair.

But RAD conversion, done wrong, makes things worse. While RAD conversion projects do not have to locate units on the site of the original developments, that is often the cheapest and easiest practice for PHAs. It should be unacceptable for PHAs to extend the life of failed developments like Concord Homes and to confine future generations of families to bear the burden of segregation. In converting to RAD, housing authorities must be held to the same standard as local governments to overcome past racist housing policies and to expand housing opportunity.

Housing authority directors note that RAD is their only opportunity to secure financing to revitalize outdated, sometimes dangerous units. This is true, but it is no excuse to ignore the consequences of rebuilding in place when that place is demonstrably harmful, especially to young children. In many cities in my native Texas, public housing is exclusively located in low opportunity, segregated, unsafe neighborhoods. The majority of Houston Housing Authority (HHA) properties are in Census tracts where the median family income is less than half of the Houston area’s, and since 2013, HHA has proposed seven new developments–all in low opportunity neighborhoods. The Corpus Christi Housing Authority (CCHA) was granted a RAD conversion on the deteriorating D.N. Leathers complex, located in a distressed, polluted neighborhood surrounded by refineries, port facilities, and highways that is now the subject of a historic fair housing and environmental justice mitigation agreement.

Because of the work of neighborhood residents in securing the mitigation agreement, CCHA is now engaged in a process that will use RAD authority to rebuild in a different, safer place for the residents of Leathers. My organization has also helped block a voucher-based conversion project in an equally polluted neighborhood in Port Arthur, and successfully petitioned HUD last year to reject the Beaumont Housing Authority’s proposal to rebuild Concord Homes at its current location.

The RAD program has the potential to make critical improvements to public housing. In doing so, it must comply with fair housing standards for deconcentrating poverty and expanding housing and economic opportunities by demonstrating the consistency of RAD proposals with local AFFH plans.

We cannot afford to repeat past mistakes by using RAD to “re-up” for another 30 years of public housing in the same unsafe, distressed places where residents have always been segregated. Let’s reinvigorate public housing with RAD and do it the right way–by insisting on fairness, safety and opportunity.

Photo credit: Photo of the D.N. Leathers buildings, courtesy of the Texas Low-Income Housing Information Service.

About the author more »

John Henneberger is the co-founder of Texas Low Income Housing Information Service and a longtime advocate of fair and affordable housing. He is a 2014 MacArthur Fellow.

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Joe Kriesberg
1 Feb 16, 1:42 am

John makes some excellent points and there are almost certainly situations, like the one described in this article, where the best thing to do is to relocate the housing development to an entirely new neighborhood. However, in many situations the right answer will not be so obvious and John fails to deal with at least two key questions that have to be analyzed before we demolish longstanding housing communities and tell everyone to move to a new neighborhood.

First, what do the existing residents want? Some may want to move; others may want to stay.  Resident preferences should not be definitive, but certainly the desires of local residents should be considered. Would they be willing to move to a new neighborhood? How would it impact their commute to work? Would moving their kids to a new school disrupt or enhance their education? What would it do so social networks? Would they have to find a new church?  I certainly don’t know how residents would answer these questions, but they need to be asked.

Second, what impact will demolition have on the surrounding neighborhood and those residents. Will demolishing the public housing result in vacant and blighted land? Will that improve the quality of life for surrounding residents or make the neighborhood even poorer, more isolated and less safe? By contrast, is it possible that a renovated development would not only improve things for the residents of the public housing but also their neighbors? While the neighborhood would remain poor and challenged, is it better to invest in something that will help all of the neighborhood residents or use that money to help a small percentage move out?  Again, I don’t know the answers to these questions but we need to consider the broader neighborhood impacts as well as the impact on public housing tenants.

Unless we are prepared to move everyone out of the neighborhood, we need to think long and hard before adopt a strategy of picking a few lucky lottery winners who get to move out while everyone else gets left behind in a situation that is even worse than before.

Again, I don’t profess to know the answers but I feel obliged to ask the questions.

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