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Complaint targets city’s role in promoting fair housing

Friday, January 31, 2014 by Mark Richardson

A citizen’s complaint filed with the City Of Austin Thursday is demanding that officials take steps to reverse the city’s “patterns of housing segregation established during its origins as a racist, Southern city,” and take immediate action to end de facto housing segregation.


Among other things, complainants argue that Austin should get rid of the fee-in-lieu clause in its density bonus program.


The coalition filing the complaint – made up of the NAACP of Austin, the Gray Panthers of Austin, the Coalition to Save Austin Urban Schools, and citizens Carl Webb and Monica Guzmán – demands that the city comply with all federal regulations to further fair housing. The complainants were represented by the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP) and the National Lawyers Guild.


“Historically, segregation trapped most of Austin’s minority community into isolated areas,” said Brian McGiverin, an attorney with TCRP. “Most were low-income communities, because racism limited the minority residents’ job opportunities. When you concentrate poverty, you perpetuate poverty. People in poor neighborhoods are isolated from good-paying jobs; high-performing schools; and other tools people need to climb the economic ladder.”


McGiverin said that because the city accepts community block grants and other funds from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, it is obligated to reverse Austin’s legacy of segregation and to enact policies to protect communities against displacement by gentrification. He said that federal regulations require the city to respond to citizens’ complaints within 15 business days.


According to McGiverin, if the complainants are not satisfied with the city’s response, they would consider filing a complaint directly with HUD officials. “If the city can’t show that it is complying with federal fair housing requirements, HUD could suspend the $11 million it gives to the city each year,” McGiverin said.


City officials issued a statement Thursday, saying that they are committed to “providing and supporting fair housing to all citizens of Austin.” It said elected officials and city staff are focused on providing fair and affordable housing, and “we certainly believe we comply with all federal and local laws.” The statement did not address any of the specific complaints.


McGiverin pointed out that studies have shown the city’s “high opportunity” areas are west of I-35. “HUD requires cities around the country to make affordable housing available in high opportunity areas, so low-income residents have a better fighting chance of improving their circumstances,” he said. “But the City of Austin has never made an honest effort to create more than token amounts of affordable housing west of I-35. It could have but it didn’t.”


The complaint points out that the city established Interstate 35 as a racial dividing line in the 1920s and even after that policy ended in the 1960s, the City of Austin’s policies have enforced de facto segregation on the city’s low-income and minority residents.


McGiverin said the majority of Austin’s opportunities are still west of I-35.


“Virtually every indicator of opportunity – education, economic, transportation, health, and neighborhood quality is much higher in wealthier, West Austin neighborhoods,” he said. “Low income families in low opportunity areas have few of the resources they need to rise out of poverty.”


The complaint laid out a list of 12 steps it believes the city should undertake in order to remedy housing discrimination.


McGiverin said most of them involve the city following current laws and regulations already on the books. But he also said that there are three main things Austin could do immediately to prevent gentrification and create affordability.


First, he said the city could add “source of income” to the anti-discrimination housing ordinance.


“Prohibiting source of income discrimination would stop landlords from rejecting tenants merely because a portion of their rent will be paid with a Section 8 government voucher,” he said. “Amending the ordinance would not cost the city anything, and it would increase opportunities for affordable housing for low-income minorities and families in high-opportunity areas of the city.”


In addition, he said the city should adopt a zoning ordinance for land being developed or redeveloped in Homestead Preservation Districts, as allowed for under state law. The ordinance should require developers to include 15 percent affordable housing in all new multifamily developments or complexes being redeveloped.


“Austin should get rid of its ‘fee-in-lieu” clause in its Density Bonus program,” he said. Developers in all areas of the city should provide a percentage of units dedicated to affordable housing. The fees allow the developers to skate, and there is nothing that requires the city to put those fees toward affordable housing.”


He also said the city should create Homestead Preservation Districts in which property taxes in low-income neighborhoods are indexed so they do not price owners out of their homes.


“The best example is East Riverside,” said McGiverin. “When the city targeted East Riverside as a zone for economic development, but made no provision to preserve affordable housing, it almost guaranteed the current residents would be displaced. The city might as well have evicted them itself, because its policies made the outcome inevitable.”

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