John Henneberger has spent 45 years advocating for Texans’ right to have a safe, affordable place to live.
In 1974, while he was an undergraduate at the University of Texas at Austin, John Henneberger started volunteering with a community group in Clarksville, a former Freedman’s Town near downtown Austin. The neighborhood, which was then still predominantly black, lacked basic infrastructure like sewers and sidewalks, and a proposed crosstown expressway threatened to wipe it out entirely. Until he saw the conditions in Clarksville, Henneberger says, he had always assumed the government treated its citizens equally. He was appalled by the blatantly racist response from local government when community members tried to organize.
That sense of injustice has fueled his work ever since. In 1988, he and fellow organizer Karen Paup co-founded the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, known today as Texas Housers, to advocate for low-income Texans—and help communities advocate for themselves. The Observer spoke with Henneberger, a 2014 MacArthur “genius grant” fellow, about the future of fair housing in an increasingly unaffordable state.
Texas Observer: Under Secretary Ben Carson, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has been rolling back important civil rights protections of the Fair Housing Act—most recently, by suspending a rule intended to enforce the 1968 law’s mandate to integrate neighborhoods. What’s at stake? How might this affect Texans?
John Henneberger: The role that housing plays in our lives, positively and negatively, is hugely influenced by the location of the housing. It affects home value. It affects the quality of our lives in terms of environmental exposure, access to jobs, quality of schools for our children. What is glaring in Texas is that if you are a person of color, particularly if you’re African American, your likelihood of living in a high-poverty census tract and a racially segregated census tract is exponentially greater than if you’re white. There’s been a lot of research coming out in the last five years from social scientists about the impact of living in high-poverty, racially segregated areas on the life outcomes of children. And it is now an indisputable fact that it has hugely negative impacts. [Segregation] may be the most powerful force in maintaining poverty.
At the end of the Obama administration, Obama’s folks put in place a rule to enforce the integration mandate of the Fair Housing Act. One of the first actions of Secretary Carson was to come in and suspend the rule. It makes it extremely difficult to advocate for any pro-integration use of federal funds.
Did Obama’s rule actually have an impact in terms of desegregating cities?
It demonstrably has. If you look at the situation in Austin, now when [city council] discusses the location of subsidized housing, it consciously makes a decision that there be housing available in every district. You’re forced to think about it. You knew that if you didn’t at least go through the motions [of documenting segregation], you could get called out for that.
But it wasn’t like HUD had the integration police running around looking for stuff. HUD’s enforcement has always been completely passive. It’s relied upon complaints from individuals or organizations in order to enforce the Fair Housing Act. HUD routinely authorizes the most egregious misuse of funds in a manner that maintains segregation. Even when you would bring these things to HUD’s attention, it was few and far between that they would actually sustain a complaint. Over the course of 10 years, in a state where there is still hyper-residential racial segregation, having three findings in three cities is not exactly breaking down the walls of segregation. It’s occasionally that you can drill a little hole through the wall.
Texas Housers has filed several lawsuits alleging that the state’s allocation of disaster recovery funding prioritizes white, wealthy homeowners over low-income people, people of color, and renters. What needs to change?
There are two challenges with disaster recovery. One is getting the money set aside for the people who need it. The second is getting that set-aside money to the people who need it. Once the money is theoretically allocated for a particular use, how does it get to people? It’s frankly a second disaster. If you look at the rates of expenditure of funds, Harris County hasn’t fixed a single house yet; the City of Houston, last time I looked, had somewhere between 20 and 40 houses done. They’ve contracted to do thousands and thousands of units. It’s incredible to me that we can get $5 billion from HUD for disaster recovery and there’s so little governmental accountability for who gets the money and where it goes, what the per-unit costs are, what the civil rights implications are. If you can’t track the money, you’re blind.
The way the system works now, renters are almost completely excluded from long-term rebuilding assistance. The state gives money to landlords to rebuild apartments, but the apartments aren’t necessarily where the tenants need and want to live, and they aren’t necessarily affordable to the tenants. With disaster funds on the ownership side, the only way you get assistance is if your house floods. We totally unlink the requirement that the assistance for rental housing go to the people who were actually flooded, residents who lost all their stuff. That’s completely inequitable. It’s an illustration of the disastrous way that Texas mistreats tenants relative to property owners, all across the board in landlord-tenant issues.
An increasing number of Texans are renters—Austin is a majority renter city—and yet, as you say, state law overwhelmingly favors property owners. What protections do tenants need in Texas?
This next session of the Legislature needs to pass a tenants bill of rights. Texas is among the states with the worst landlord-tenant laws, weighted most heavily to advantage landlords. We have practices that are just so egregious, when I talk to my colleagues in other states, they just roll their eyes. We have nonjudicial lockouts. If the landlord says you violated some rule, they can just change the locks on your door without going to court. We don’t have repair and deduct, so if the landlord doesn’t make the repairs to your unit, you can’t fix it and then deduct it from the rent. The policies for security deposits provide virtually no protections from landlord abuses. There are massive problems of racial discrimination on the part of landlords in renting to tenants of color, women with children, LGBTQ people. We were the first state in the nation to actually prohibit local governments from enacting anti-discrimination statutes based on the source of the tenant’s income.
We’ve got so few tools under state law that we can use to combat gentrification or promote integration. It’s a constant fight just to tread water on the rights of tenants and affordable housing in the state. Racial and economic segregation are rampant. They are embedded in our system in a deep and profound way. And we’ve done nothing to get rid of them. Recently, the only thing the state government has done is prohibit local governments from doing anything.
You’ve been an advocate for affordable housing in Texas for more than 45 years. What continues to motivate you?
I work for a group of people who are trying to solve the most difficult problems of structural racism in one of the most racist places in the country. That’s what gives me hope. It isn’t things that the Legislature is doing; it isn’t things that the federal administration is doing. What gives me hope is that there are more people standing up. There are more people making better fact-based arguments. There are more people organizing at the local level to call out inequality and the role of government in inequality. The only way that this state is going to get better isn’t going to be, in my opinion, just by electing a certain political party to office. It’s going to be when people who are the direct subjects of the injustice get together and call it out and make people pay attention to it and make people confront it. That’s what makes change in this state.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Read more from the Observer:
Families of Sick Prisoners Plead for Compassionate Release as Coronavirus Spreads Behind Bars in Texas: Advocates for incarcerated people are urging Governor Abbott to release parole-eligible people who are elderly or have chronic illnesses.
Scientist Peter Hotez on Why Vaccine Development is ‘Critical to the Security of Our Nation’: Several years ago, Hotez and his colleagues developed a vaccine that may have prevented the new coronavirus—but they couldn’t get it funded.
In a Pandemic, Poor Defendants Could Pay With Their Lives: COVID-19 lays bare the fundamental inequalities that a cash bond system creates, and highlights the unsafe conditions our jails and prisons have designed.