A mobile home rests atop a car after flooding swept through La Grange this past August in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. As Texas residents continue to rebuild in areas hit hard by the storm, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has eased enforcement of some fair housing rules, leading some Austin nonprofits to sue HUD. RESHMA KIRPALANI / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Local nonprofits sued the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and HUD Secretary Ben Carson on Tuesday, trying to force the agency to continue recently launched enforcement of some fair housing rules.
The requirement that local entities use federal housing money to “affirmatively further” fair housing policies has been part of the Fair Housing Act since its inception in 1968, but the provision only began to be enforced starting in 2015. At that time, HUD began to require reports detailing those efforts from communities receiving federal funding.
HUD halted the reporting requirement in January, until at least 2020. Now, Texas Appleseed and Texas Housers have joined with the National Fair Housing Alliance to argue that the move reverts to an “honor system” that hasn’t worked in the past.
“This has been a 50-year fight to get this part of the Fair Housing Act enforced,” said Madison Sloan, director of disaster recovery and fair housing at Texas Appleseed. “The suspension sends a message to communities that they’re not going to be held accountable. They can keep segregating and discriminating against people and keep receiving federal money.”
Locally, the groups said they expect Austin and Travis County to voluntarily comply with most of the provisions of the rolled-back rules. But in areas of the state still rebuilding after Hurricane Harvey, the nonprofits fear that local and state agencies will not be held to the standards requiring them to move people to safer ground fairly and locate new housing in a way that reduces segregation.
“It’s a bad time for HUD to send this message, when we have a really transformative amount of funding coming to parts of Texas,” Sloan said.
HUD officials declined to speak directly about the lawsuit Tuesday, but reiterated a statement made Jan. 4 in announcing the change. In it, the agency maintained that the deadline needed to be extended because a data and mapping tool the agency provided to local jurisdictions didn’t work correctly to compile the reports.
“More than a third of our early submitters failed to produce an acceptable assessment — not for lack of trying, but because the tool designed to help them to succeed wasn’t helpful,” the statement said. “In response to the comments we’ve received, we are extending the deadline to submit these required assessments while HUD invests substantial human and technical resources toward improving this Assessment of Fair Housing tool.”
The lawsuit argued that’s not a good reason to scale back enforcement of requiring affirmative fair housing efforts.
“The rule is supposed to require that local governments and HUD spend time ensuring that concrete action is taken,” the lawsuit states. “HUD is supposed to reject inadequate (reports).”
Because the reports, known as assessments of fair housing, were phased in over the past two years, only a handful of Texas jurisdictions have created them so far. Lewisville, outside of Dallas, had its assessment accepted, Sloan said. Corpus Christi, Fort Worth and Montgomery County submitted assessments just before the rule was suspended, and the agency hasn’t evaluated them.
HUD sent back an assessment from jurisdictions in Hidalgo County after Texas Housers argued it didn’t adequately lay out desegregation goals, particularly with regard to low-income colonias, which often lack basic infrastructure. Now those areas are off the hook until 2024, Texas Housers spokeswoman Christina Rosales said.
In Travis and Williamson counties, a coalition of nine localities, including Austin, were midway through completing their assessments when the requirement was lifted, said Christy Moffet, who administers HUD funds for Travis County. Thus, it has already completed the public input and analysis that is now no longer required.
Austin City Council Member Greg Casar called HUD’s delay in enforcing affirmative fair housing measures “troubling because it sends a strong signal that the federal government isn’t going to be serious about making sure local municipalities are using federal funds to desegregate the city.” And it makes it all the more important that local officials make that a priority, he said.
“We do have a really serious problem in Austin,” Casar said. “We’ve been ranked repeatedly as one of the most, if not the most, economically segregated cities in the country. … We need to continue on the same path as if this rule exists.”