A Houston civil rights group is suing to block the city from receiving federal funds for housing, community projects and Hurricane Harvey rebuilding until it changes housing policies the group says have helped perpetuate racial segregation.
Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, commonly known as Texas Housers, filed a lawsuit on Tuesday in Washington, D.C., federal court alleging Houston has refused to permit low-income housing to be built in predominantly white neighborhoods and that the Department of Housing and Urban Development has been aware of that for years.
If successful, the lawsuit could block the city from receiving disaster-recovery funds to distribute to victims of the 2017 hurricane funds for rental assistance and rebuilding until the city changes what the group alleges are its policies.
A spokesman for HUD declined to comment. Alan Bernstein, a spokesman for Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, said the lawsuit “is without basis in fact.”
Earlier this month, the Trump administration reached a voluntary agreement with the city in a dispute stemming from Mr. Turner’s decision not to allow the city council to vote on a proposal to build mixed-income housing in a tony area near the Galleria mall. Under the Obama administration, HUD concluded that the decisions violated the Civil Rights Act.
The agreement Houston reached with HUD included expanding a program that encourages landlords in higher-income areas to accept low-income tenants with housing vouchers and an investment in homeless services.
But advocates said the agreement was too lax.
“HUD very recently said to Houston, ‘All sins are forgiven,’ “ said Michael Allen, a partner at Washington, D.C.-based civil rights law firm Relman, Dane & Colfax who brought the suit for Texas Housers. “In places where segregation is really intense, HUD seems not to have the stomach for a real fight.”
The city of Houston typically administers more than $30 million a year in funding from HUD, which funds projects such as affordable housing, social services and infrastructure. The state of Texas received an allocation of $5 billion of disaster-recovery funds and is tasked with submitting a plan for HUD on how to distribute it to the neediest areas. Overall, Congress has authorized $28 billion for HUD to distribute to areas affected by disaster in 2015 through 2017.
Mr. Bernstein said, “The lawsuit is not in the best interests of people in the city of Houston, who were directly impacted by Hurricane Harvey and found themselves displaced by the flood waters.”
Mr. Allen said the intention of the lawsuit isn’t to prevent Houston renters and homeowners from receiving the assistance they need to get their lives back to normal. Rather, he said, much of the disaster recovery funding could be administered through the state.
Chrishelle Palay, Houston co-director of Texas Housers, said the group wants to ensure the rebuilding happens in an equitable way.
“Where will those apartments be rebuilt? Where will those housing units be rebuilt? Are we going to continue upholding segregation are or are we going to give families a real choice?” she said.
Corrections & Amplifications
A photo caption in an earlier version of this article misspelled photographer Jon Shapley’s first name. (March 22, 2018)
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