Texas law could stop affordable housing development in its tracks

There’s a new attack on poor people in the Lone Star State.

CREDIT: iStock
CREDIT: iStock

The future of fair housing under the Trump administration is still up in the air, but a new Texas bill paints a bleak picture of what could happen to low-income housing (LIH) development. If state representative and real estate broker Valoree Swanson (R) gets her way, affordable housing developers will have to jump through hoops to build low-income homes, potentially making housing opportunities for poor people few and far between.

Affordable housing typically becomes available when people agree to construct low-income units or make existing units less expensive, in exchange for tax credits from the government. But House Bill 1792, introduced in Texas this week, would drastically complicate the housing development process.

Under the proposed law, LIH developers would have to share their plans with “any neighborhood organization” — including private homeowners associations — located in a five-mile radius of the desired construction site 90 days before submitting an application to the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs. As a result, their opponents would have three months to dispute an affordable housing plan before it’s officially proposed to the government.

The bill would also force developers to collect and submit stigmatizing research during the application process. In addition to “conspicuously [identifying] the development as ‘low-income government-subsidized housing,’” they’d have to include “a description of the development and an independent study of the development’s anticipated effects on local schools, area crime rates, infrastructure, governmental expenditures, population density, area property values, and the revenue of local, state, and federal governmental entities.”

According to the Houston Chronicle’s Lydia DePillis, affordable housing has been a contentious issue in Swanson’s district for many years. The representative’s predecessor opposed LIH development as far back as 2011. But the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service (TLIHIS) considers HB 1792 one of the harshest opposition bills, nicknamed “Not In My Backyard” (NIMBY) bills, to date.

If it passes, HB 1792 could stop LIH development in its tracks, not by restricting construction but by making development look unappealing before plans can get off the ground. And poor people — particularly racial minorities — will have limited access to affordable homes throughout Texas.

Underlying HB 1792 are myths, commonly referenced by lawmakers, that LIH decreases local property values and lays the groundwork for crime. But research says otherwise: poor people don’t drive up neighborhood crime rates or drive down property values. At least one study suggests that low-income residents can actually increase local property values by bringing more diversity to a particular neighborhood.

When lawmakers argue against affordable housing, they’re really using coded language to keep black and brown people out of affluent, majority-white suburbs, housing experts say. The direct result is housing segregation that confines residents of color to urban areas with fewer economic opportunities and limited housing options. TLIHIS already interprets HB 1792 as a violation of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination against people in search of housing.

The legislation is limited to Texas, but it comes at a time when fair housing is in limbo nationwide.

The Obama administration prioritized housing desegregation by creating a rule to reaffirm the Fair Housing Act in 2015. But President Donald Trump has a personal history of racist housing discrimination, and his choice to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Ben Carson, has expressed his personal disdain for the 2015 rule. Long before he was tasked with leading the department in charge of affordable housing, Carson likened the rule to “failed socialism.”