(Photo by Henry Han)
I’d spoken at dozens of community public meetings before, but nothing had prepared me for the eye opening and virulent experience that I would face that rainy Tuesday afternoon. As I signed the speaker’s list and squeezed into the standing room only cafeteria at Briargrove Elementary School, I began talking myself out of talking. I’d come to speak on behalf of thousands of families in desperate need of the 233 units that were being proposed in Houston’s upscale Galleria neighborhood. As the president of Houston Housing Authority made his presentation about the mixed income development, an angry crowd of more than 500 people, mostly anglos, loudly interrupted, shouting remarks that were not at all reflective of this oft-touted “post racial” era.
“How will our seniors feel safe?”
“This sounds like the plan they had for bussing years ago!”
“Those people don’t belong here”
After witnessing the verbal assault on the HHA president, I convinced myself that it would be best if my comments were submitted via email. Then my name was called.
Perplexed eyes locked in on me, an African-American woman, as I walked to the podium. I nervously shared that families in search for decent housing, near great jobs, transportation and high performing schools had a right to choose where they lived and not be relegated to other neighborhoods simply because they possessed a housing choice voucher or earned a working class wage. I reminded the angry crowd that “those people” they were villainizing help provide the lifestyle to which the meeting attendees had become accustomed. It seemed that “those people” were good enough to serve, but not to live in, that community. The incessant booing and nasty remarks that punctuated my talk surprisingly fueled a fire inside of me that I didn’t know existed. I ended my comments charging the audience to face their fears and to live the inclusive lifestyle that many of them claim to embrace. As my colleague escorted me to my car afterwards, as it was apparent I was not in a “safe zone,” it dawned on me that I’d just stared NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) in its face.
Almost 50 years after the passage of the Fair Housing Act, this discriminatory practice continues to play a major role in the perpetuation of segregation. The benefits of desegregation have not reached major metropolitan cities, like Houston, in the United States. Instead, many city governments too quickly acquiesce to pervasive NIMBY arguments. But such failures to confront and correct the history of racial exclusion carry a high social cost.
Sadly, NIMBY is the typical response to proposed affordable housing development in well-resourced communities. Neighborhoods that offer close proximity to high-performing schools, access to transit, employment centers and quality food choices typically lack affordable places to live — by design. The tenants of subsidized housing are overwhelmingly African-American and Hispanic. Almost always, neighborhoods with organized opposition to affordable development are mostly white.
The Houston Housing Authority’s (HHA) proposal to build a mixed-income development (including some workforce and public housing) near Houston’s upscale Galleria proved the truth of this assertion. The NIMBY backlash was immediate and ferocious, as members of the community made it clear that they did not want the development in their backyard. Many said they were concerned about school overcrowding and increased traffic. Others made comments about the potential residents of the development, making comments including: “They’re going to steal the tires off of our Suburbans. They’re going to bring down our property value!”
This is well-recognized coded language that perpetuates the legacy of racial exclusion. And unfortunately, it provides government with a scapegoat to continue housing policies that lead to segregation. Local governments have historically failed to stand up to NIMBY to promote housing justice for all of its residents.
Especially in Texas, a NIMBY reaction to a housing proposal is usually enough to stop elected officials from supporting a development. After the backlash in Houston, Houston’s Democratic mayor and City Council blocked funding for the project. Although the project required no funding from the city, Texas rules require a resolution of support or no objection. The city did neither, which lead to a federal investigation by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The investigation found Houston in violation of the Civil Rights Act by catering to racially charged NIMBYism. Most recently, Houston’s Mayor Sylvester Turner sent a letter to HUD requesting the Title VI finding be rescinded and stated firmly that the resistance to the project’s approval was related primarily to expensive development costs. Ironically, a similarly proposed project, with similar costs, in a neighborhood with a poverty rate of 35 percent (compared to 6.1 percent in the Galleria neighborhood) was approved by the City Council and is currently under construction.
When government responds to bias from a wealthy white constituency by forsaking low-income black and brown constituents, no one is well served. The wedge between communities is driven deeper, and separateness and place-based racial discrimination grows worse.
NIMBYs often suggest that affordable housing developments should be built in communities that are historically black and brown, so that residents can be near their social networks. The reality is that most of these areas already have a high concentration of subsidized housing. Because they often lack nearby job opportunities, well-resourced schools, convenient transportation, quality infrastructure and other amenities, these areas may suffer increased crime rates, dropout rates and high poverty.
Cities across the nation will be better served when policymakers admit that while they, personally, may not have created a system of segregated housing, it is their responsibility to build diverse, thriving cities. This means making sure every community pays its fair share. We must move past our discomfort and recognize the role race played and still plays in shaping housing policy. We must call out the pretexts that allow for ongoing racial discrimination and segregation. Government officials must stop hiding behind the veil of NIMBY. For the sake of our economy, our safety, our education — and everything that makes our society fair and equitable — we must hold lawmakers accountable for their role in building the diverse communities that we claim to hold dear.