Lawsuit by four Texas renters says State of Texas, HUD discriminate on race in Hurricane Harvey aid

Four South Texas renters filed a civil rights lawsuit last week in federal court alleging HUD and the State of Texas operate a housing assistance program that discriminates against tens of thousands of African-American and Hispanic Texas renters who are survivors of Hurricane Harvey.

The lawsuit was reported in the New York Times over the weekend.

The plaintiffs are represented by Texas RioGrand Legal Aid and the Dallas-based civil rights law firm of Daniel-Beshara. Principals in both firms have received Texas Houser Awards over the years for their work to support housing for the state’s poor.

The lawsuit’s claims are consistent with data Texas Housers uncovered more than one year ago which we brought to the attention of HUD and the State. The fact that no action has been taken to date to remedy the government’s systemic denial of benefits to Texas renters gave impetus to the lawsuit.

These actions by HUD and the State are part of a pattern of the systematic denial of Hurricane recovery assistance to renters in previous disasters. Our research has shown that renters are significantly more likely than homeowners to have very low incomes and thus are more dependent on public assistance to recover from disaster. Renters suffering from storm damages are also far more often African-American or Hispanic than are Harvey impacted homeowners.

Denial of federal recovery aid to people of color in such a widespread and systemic manner gives rise to the importance of this lawsuit alleging racial discrimination on the part of HUD and the State of Texas. The discrimination takes the form of both a disparate impact on minority households in the disaster impacted counties as well as presenting substantial circumstantial evidence that the State’s policy, and HUD’s approval of the State policy, of barring non-homeowners from direct recovery assistance are acts of intentional discrimination.

The lawsuit details four specific program benefits denied renters that are provided to homeowners:

  • Tenant-Based Rental Assistance.
  • Utility Assistance Program.
  • reimbursement program for replacing essential appliances and systems.
  • programs to encourage homeownership

The denial of these benefits to renters produces a disparate racial impact

The lawsuit also seeks the help of the courts to uncover further evidence of Intentional discrimination, the existence of which is suggested in the State’s policy, and HUD’s approval, of barring non-homeowners from direct recovery assistance. Among the circumstantial evidence cited in the lawsuit of the State’s and HUD’s intentional discrimination are:

  • substantive departures from Fair Housing requirements for disaster relief acknowledged by the State and approved by HUD
  • use of the FEMA Verified Loss (“FVL”) data was a departure from a substantive standard requiring objective evidence of unmet housing need.
  • exclusion of FEMA data for the actual damage suffered by rental units and uses a personal property standard to show unmet renter need.
  • State’s departure from the HUD requirement to omit housing needs likely to be met by insurance proceeds steers funding away from the disproportionately Black and Hispanic renter group.
  • the only program for renter assistance ignores substantial unmet housing needs for renter direct financial assistance, a need recognized by the standards for disaster recovery.
  • tenants are excluded from the Survivor Case Management services.

The lawsuit says that the policies of HUD and the State of Texas have a disparate racial impact on renters. The evidence is clear that there can be no dispute about that. The other question is whether what the State of Texas and HUD are doing is intentional racial discrimination. People say that if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. Well these policies are walking and quacking like racial discrimination. The legal process is the best way to get to the bottom of that.

Several of the claims in the lawsuit were reported by Texas Housers in the months immediately following Hurricane Harvey through voluminous comments on drafts of the State of Texas Action Plan for Hurricane Harvey Recovery that was submitted to and subsequently approved by HUD.

Texas Housers Amelia Adams and Charlie Duncan conducted this research.

At the time we found that the State of Texas in previous disasters (especially following Hurricanes Rita, Dolly and Ike) treated renters far differently than homeowners in disaster assistance. In fact, the State largely ignored the recovery needs of renters altogether. That was especially concerning because the renters affected were overwhelmingly very poor and largely African-American or Hispanic.

These survivors lost their homes and also their furniture, clothes, cars — often everything they owned. Because of their very low incomes there was no other rental housing in the area they could afford to move to. The criteria FEMA used to assist these renters in the short term left them without the assistance they needed to recover. It totally discounted their needs relative to the needs of homeowners. When it came time to set up the long-term disaster recovery programs, the State used claims to FEMA (which had systemically underserved renters) to determine the percentages of assistance it would make available to renters vs homeowners. Therefore, renters got treated differently in two ways; first in the restrictions on the type of assistance they could get and second in the paltry amount of recovery funds that were allocated by the State of Texas to assist them.

Compounding the harm to renters, when the State of Texas got around to setting up the way it would award long term recovery assistance it took a highly discriminatory approach. Instead of looking at what the renters needed to recover, it simply put out a call for private apartment developers and landlords to request millions of dollars to build apartments. There was no consideration as to whether the apartments would be actually rented to the survivors or if survivors would even be able to afford the rents the developers would charge. In other words, the federal funds went to apartment developers and not to hurricane survivors.

The percentage of poor renters was much greater than poor homeowners affected by the Hurricane. Because they are poor, the amount renters can afford to pay is very limited. The State of Texas proposed, and HUD approved that the apartments can charge rents that are double what many of the survivors can afford.

The lawsuit the four survivors filed last week seeks to remedy a recurring pattern of HUD and the State of Texas engaging in discriminatory treatment of disaster survivors. The government agencies administering disaster recovery know they are discriminating because we and other advocates have documented the data and have put them on notice for almost a decade. After Harvey these government agencies deliberately chose to, once again, set up a recovery that treats people differently because they rent, because they are poor and because they are people of color. A racist recovery is not a choice we have to keep making.

Read the lawsuit below.

Vanessa Wharton, Ruth Ortiz, Brenda Jones, and Sherry Butler, Plaintiffs, v. The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development and Texas General Land Office


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