It’s been almost a decade since Hurricane Dolly hit south Texas, but the storm’s effects are still being felt in Port Isabel, a small beachside town in Cameron County. The 2008 storm left the city’s Neptune Apartments uninhabitable, and due to the slow administration of recovery dollars it wasn’t until 2014 that the county’s housing authority was awarded the money needed to rebuild the sixteen units of public housing. By the end of 2015, however, building still hadn’t begun and the funds were revoked. Last month with the help of Texas Appleseed, a public interest justice center, the county’s housing authority filed suit against the city of Port Isabel, alleging discrimination under the Fair Housing Act and other civil rights laws.
Like the rest of Cameron County Housing Authority properties, most residents of the Neptune Apartments were Hispanic. The suit claims that the city of Port Isabel bowed to criticism from white residents and violated a key portion of the Civil Rights Act that expressly forbids discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin in any project that receives federal money. At community engagement meetings on the Neptune’s rebuilding, white residents traded Hispanic stereotypes as they voiced concerns that the return of “those people” would bring excess noise, unattended children, and the increased possibility of crime and drugs into the neighborhood. The suit goes on to allege that the city of Port Isabel purposefully engaged in tactics like refusing to issue permits or alter zoning that prevented the rebuilding of the Neptune Apartments and led to the loss of federal funds. A similar strategy was used by local politicians in Galveston after Hurricane Ike to delay the building of mixed-income developments by seven years.
As federal money pours in for Harvey recovery efforts, the legal battle against Port Isabel offers three critical lessons for Houston and other affected municipalities.
Funds earmarked for recovery must be disbursed quickly and efficiently. The eight-year lag between the destruction of the Neptune Apartments and the disbursal of rebuilding funds demonstrates the plodding overall pace of recovery efforts. Harvey survivors and their representatives cannot accept the slow-paced recovery anticipated by Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush.
Renters need to be prioritized. While shoring up infrastructure and providing assistance to homeowners is important, more Americans are renting now than ever before and their rights deserve to be protected throughout the recovery process.
Cities need to get out of the way. Frequently, elected city officials hide behind the voices of their louder, more monied constituents rather than doing right by all residents. This extends to public housing, the development of which draws repeated ire around the country despite an undeniable need for affordable homes in high opportunity areas.
Image Credit: Jacinta Quesada – FEMA.