Editorial from Executive Director Robert L. Reyna:
Outside Meddling Stops Concord Project
In September 2008, Hurricane Ike swept through South East Texas, inflicting millions of dollars worth of damage to the region. Concord Homes, a 100 unit public housing property owned by the Beaumont Housing Authority, was impacted greatly by this storm, suffering water damage and loss of roofing and siding.
In September 2012, four years after the storm, the South East Texas Regional Planning Commission earmarked $12.5 million dollars in Hurricane Ike Disaster Recovery funding for the repair, rehabilitation or reconstruction of public housing in Beaumont. After much study and analysis, BHA determined the most efficient use of these funds would be to completely demolish Concord Homes and rebuild the units on the same footprint. BHA submitted this plan for approval in March 2013.
In July 2013, the State of Texas General Land Office denied BHA’s application because BHA’s plan did not appear to “Affirmatively Further Fair Housing”. Their decision was based on strong opposition from two Austin based housing advocacy groups, the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service and Texas Appleseed. These advocates have demanded that replacement housing be built in neighborhoods of “higher opportunity”, preferably in the West End of Beaumont.
Fair Housing staff with the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development and the advocates feel that the Concord neighborhood is dilapidated, distressed, racially impacted, has a higher concentration of low income families and does not provide opportunities for upward mobility of families living in the area. As such, families living at Concord Homes should be moved to other parts of town in order for them to access those higher opportunities and to live in better housing.
In September 2013, a joint meeting took place between the opponents of our plan and over a dozen local stakeholders, including elected officials, local ministers and residents from Concord Homes. The local representatives at this meeting were heavily in support of the plan to reconstruct Concord Homes on the same footprint, believing the plan will improve the viability and vitality of the neighborhood. Despite this overwhelming demonstration of support for the BHA plan, the advocates still oppose the plan and have threatened to sue HUD if funding is released for the project.
Supporters of the BHA plan see this as a continuation of the revitalization of the North End, which began in 2006 with an infusion of $54 million dollars in HOPE VI Revitalization funding. The City of Beaumont has invested millions in state and federal dollars to upgrade the infrastructure in the neighborhood, and City Council established an empowerment zone to promote and attract new businesses and growth. In addition, Beaumont ISD used their bond initiative to upgrade the neighborhood schools, including the new construction of Mae-Jones Clark Elementary, located just blocks from Concord Homes.
BHA has made it very clear that we have a responsibility to manage taxpayer dollars very carefully. Reconstructing Concord Homes on the existing property with the Disaster Recovery funding would be achieved without any additional debt or taxpayer investment. The advocates plan to build elsewhere just does not make good business sense, and it would force us to not only abandon a property that has stood for more than 50 years, but take on 30 years worth of debt.
On July 19th, 2013 HUD published proposed revisions to the regulations regarding “Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing”.
Part of the publication stated “The proposed rule does not mandate specific outcomes for the planning process”. Instead, recognizing the importance of local decision-making, it establishes basic parameters and helps guide local officials on how to best fulfill their obligation to affirmatively further fair housing.
In fact, the proposed rule emphasizes that there are diverse approaches that can be taken. Strategies and actions may include enhancing neighborhood assets (for example, through targeted investment in neighborhood revitalization or stabilization) or promoting greater mobility and access to communities offering vital assets such as quality schools, employment, and transportation consistent with fair housing goals.
While this rule is still in the proposed stages, it is expected to become a final rule next month. Fair housing officials should consider the spirit of this rule and realize that local officials and stakeholders know what works for our own community better than outsiders from Austin and Washington D.C.
The history of fair housing violations in our part of the state are well known and historically documented. The importance of guarding against ever permitting that type of discrimination occur again is paramount. HUD Fair Housing staff and the advocates are to be commended for their efforts in monitoring and identifying true discrimination whenever and wherever it actually occurs.
But by the same token, they should not be so blinded by historical events as to deny progress both in fair housing and racial equality when it is clearly demonstrated. It is unconscionable to completely disregard the opinions of prominent minority community leaders, city officials, elected officials, and especially residents of an affected neighborhood when they all speak with one voice in support of a much needed and desired affordable housing project.
It takes courage to forge such relationships for the benefit of all regardless of the color of their skin, their level of education or the size of their wallet. This community recognizes that a rising tide can raise all ships. The community collaboration and cooperation in improving the overall neighborhood, the streets, drainage, lighting, schools, housing and economic development opportunities in the North End should speak volumes about how this neighborhood and its citizens are committed to uplifting everyone living in it.
One of the participants in the September meeting said that moving minorities into non-impacted neighborhoods does not magically guarantee that those families will succeed. Instead of forcing families to live in areas where they do not wish to live, increased efforts should be made to improve the quality of life and increase higher opportunities in neighborhoods where minorities feel comfortable and freely choose to live. That is what BHA, in partnership with the City of Beaumont, has been trying to do and is doing it very well in the North End.
BHA has submitted an appeal to HUD to reconsider the denial of our application. We are hopeful that a decision will be made in our favor, and we can continue our progress in the North End.