Interview with John Henneberger, Texas Low Income Housing Information Service–Part 1

It’s not every year (or even every decade) that community developers and housers see themselves represented in the ranks of the coveted MacArthur Fellows (or “genius grant” recipients). That in and of itself would be sufficiently exciting, but when Shelterforce staff sat down to talk to John Henneberger of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, one of the 2014 MacArthur geniuses, we certainly found ourselves impressed and excited. Driven by a sense of justice since college, he has been on the frontlines of the fight for equality and equity since those years. Henneberger has extensive knowledge of the field, an ability to clearly relate many of our most basic concerns to each other, and a clear-eyed focus on end goals above interim measures. In this two part interview, he talks about expansive definitions of “fair housing,” exciting organizing work in Texas that the rest of the country should keep an eye on, the role of a state-level advocacy organization, and much more.

By Miriam Axel-Lute, Harold Simon, and Keli Tianga

Keli Tianga: How deep are your Texas roots?

John Henneberger: My grandfather and my father were both from here, but [my] father joined the military in World War II, and I was actually born in Alaska on an Air Force base and lived in 13 different places by the time I was 11 years old—Alabama, Missouri, Texas, New Mexico, California.

Keli Tianga: How and why did you get your volunteering, then professional, start in the community development and affordable housing fields?

John Henneberger: I actually started to become interested in the broader issues of justice and anti-poverty work in high school, because at that time, I was living in Dallas, and we were going through a pseudo-school desegregation process.

I became involved in [a] committee searching for answers about how to make racial integration work. Schools had to overcome the unfairness of the one-way busing solution that the Dallas Independent School District was enforcing on kids, extremely low-income African-American kids being bused into an upper-middle-class white high school.

I found working on that with the students who were being bused in and my colleagues from my neighborhood to be really interesting and engaging, and [that] got me interested in wanting to explore issues of racial justice. I came to the University of Texas in 1973, and [met] a young University of Chicago-educated historian in urban history who specialized in the relationship between the Irish community and the African-American community in Chicago. He became my mentor, and helped me arrange one of the more unusual courses of undergraduate study I’ve ever heard any student manage to get into.

I got a bunch of independent studies credit working in a neighborhood center in an African-American community here in Austin with the purpose of gathering oral history interviews. This Freedmen’s Town was an isolated, smaller African-American community located in the heart of the wealthiest part. At the time, in the mid- ’70s, it had no sewage [service], it had dirt streets, and it was a nine square block area surrounded by white mansions. It had a very rural atmosphere.

I began to ask questions about the [differences] between public services in that community versus the rest of the surrounding neighborhoods. I had always assumed that everybody would be treated equally by their government, at least that was my experience in watching the way life works on military installations, and I was really appalled by what I felt was blatant residual racism toward African-Americans by the local government.

I worked [as a] research assistant, in essence, to the elected board of residents from the neighborhood as we fought the state’s attempt to eliminate the community by building expressways through the neighborhood—literally two expressways—[and] to try to get the streets paved, to get sewage [service] brought into the neighborhood, to get drainage.

Keli Tianga: It sounds unusual for such a young person to be passionate and interested in issues of racial justice, especially in a state like Texas. Do you attribute that to your military background?

John Henneberger: I think that when I was going to school, a whole lot were concerned about issues of racial and social justice. I thought that what I was doing was important, but I didn’t consider it to be that unique. I saw other people in Texas engaged in this type of work.

I got a unique opportunity, because my mentor at the university created an academic environment that let me, as an undergraduate, actually learn in the community more than in the university. I could go back and forth between those two worlds, and I found that more than anything shaped my experience: that ability to not just immerse myself in the university, but to feel primarily grounded in a political struggle, then to come back to the university and get the historical and political context. It was almost a vocational education, in kind of a funny way.

Miriam Axel-Lute: How did that translate into moving into the affordable housing field professionally?

John Henneberger: Very organically. [The] first year that I think community development block grants hit the street, we were in Clarksville to get sewer, paved streets, and affordable housing. I remember going down to the city planning department and having a discussion with the deputy director of the planning department. I said, “What’s this money for?” He said, “Beats us. We haven’t got it figured out yet.” And so, we figured out that we were eligible, put in one of the first requests, got CDBG money to do the drainage, the streets, and then a follow-up grant to do, I think, some of the first housing built by a CDC in Texas.

Miriam Axel-Lute: How have you seen [the field] change and what has kept you in this same field for so long?

John Henneberger: I think my experience in this world of community development and housing has come full circle. I started off looking at it from the perspective of community, a neighborhood, looking beyond housing to include issues of public infrastructure, the political relationship between the community and the local government and the surrounding majority white community, and the like. I really looked at it very heavily from a lens of race, because that was obviously the central factor that caused Clarksville to be created and maintained as a separate and unequal neighborhood.

Clarksville’s community development corporation took up housing primarily as an anti-gentrification tool in the mid to late 1970s and into the ’80s, and we built a lot of houses. Austin grew explosively in that period, and because of its isolation and small size within a wealthier white community, [Clarksville] soon found itself under severe gentrification pressures. And we—the community organizations, the community action program, the neighbors—all came together and worked a very conscious anti-gentrification program where we fought developers with yard signs, with church events, early morning in front of the developers’ homes. We did all the standard organizing type of stuff.

Slowly, over the course of perhaps 20 years, Clarksville became smaller and smaller, and the African-American population became smaller and smaller. The area became wealthier, and people were mostly forced out except for a handful of homeowners and the folks who lived in the homes that were owned by the community development corporation in Clarksville. We ended up pursuing a very heavy housing agenda for a number of years.

Karen Paup, who joined us in the Clarksville community development corporation, helped us spin off five or six community development corporations here in Austin, and we were all about building housing, trying to get appropriate income targeting, making sure the poor weren’t excluded, to get the emphasis on zero to 30 percent of MFI (median family income), and using housing as an anti-gentrification tool.

For years that’s what we did, and then folks from the neighborhoods took over the operation of the CDCs, and it became less important for Karen and me to do that work, so, we decided to form the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service in ’88, with the idea that there needed to be an advocacy voice for community development and for housing affordable for the poor in Texas, particularly at the state level and in front of local governments. By this time, there were a lot of other CDCs springing up around the state, and we thought we ought to try to remind people in government just how important this work is and try to get them to focus resources on the CDCs.

But, along the way, I think we got distracted from the fundamental issue that’s here, which is this issue of racial justice that really underlies the problem that we’ve got.

We got called down to the lower Rio Grande valley, the border with Mexico, about 15 years, maybe longer than that, ago, to work in the colonias with the question of why we had these hugely impoverished rural ex-urban subdivisions, informally plotted, that people were living in with no water, no paved streets, no sewer, and horrible housing conditions. That woke us up again to the fact that there’s something bigger than just housing at play. We worked on issues of water and land tenure and flooding and housing in the colonias.

And then, after that, along comes a bunch of hurricanes. We got hit by Hurricane Rita, paused a year, and then got hit with Hurricane Dolly in the Rio Grande Valley, and Hurricane Ike in Galveston and Houston, and it devastated African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods. The need was—in terms of rebuilding—not just housing. Housing was critically important, but there were a lot of other issues about how to prevent flooding from recurring, and other things like that.

So, we negotiated a conciliation agreement with the state under a fair housing complaint early in the Obama administration, with HUD’s assistance and the active cooperation of some people within the state of Texas who felt the state was messing up. And from that, our emphasis has come full circle. We’re really focused on issues of gentrification, on issues of housing opportunity and fair housing, on issues of siting of public housing, as well all these other issues that we’ve historically been concerned with.

Keli Tianga: Have you seen any kind of improvement in the colonias? Is it getting worse? Are there more?

John Henneberger: Yes, yes, and yes. There has been progress made. We’ve got water to most of [the] colonias now. There are some really amazing housing initiatives, [but] they are a drop in the bucket in terms of the need. And the number of extremely poor families who need housing is huge. And [they] continue to grow, [though] not at the rate [they did] in the ’80s when we really had the huge growth spurt.

We’ve succeeded in getting the state to do some things. Contract for deed financing in the colonias was highly exploiting, and we got that beaten down pretty well, although there are interests that come back every legislative session into the Texas Capitol who try to undo the various consumer protections to protect people from abusive sales practices and the like.

The thing about being an advocate in Texas is that it’s a growth industry. You’ve got always more stuff than you can deal with. The demographics of this state, the legacy and ongoing racism that exists, the exploitation of the poor by—I guess I could generously call them entrepreneurial strategies—about land sales and development practices and the like makes it an interesting place for progressive advocacy.

Miriam Axel-Lute: I was very interested to hear you conclude that you’ve come around to focusing now a lot on fair housing and anti-gentrification work, because we see an ongoing, unfortunate tension between people who are focused on fair housing and the right to mobility, and people who are focused in a place-based neighborhood improvement mind frame, where there can feel like a tussle over resources or priorities, or sometimes language. Have you experienced that tension in your work, and how do you think about those two kinds of work relating to each other?

John Henneberger: Yes, you experience it. I think at the national level, people get a little more carried away with these fights than we do at the local level. I have friends who are pretty angry with me when I talk about fair housing, because at first blush, they see it as wanting to walk away from the whole community development, community revitalization effort. But, when you sit down and you talk to folks about it in the field, there’s a lot more agreement than there is disagreement, and I think that some of the national conversations are really just kind of pouring lighter fluid on what’s just a smoldering problem at the local level.

There’s not much dispute from people who work in community development that there are some neighborhoods that are really just not good places at this stage for folks to live in, and there’s also, I think, an acknowledgement that there’s not enough money, given the funding cutbacks that exist, to do everything. So, we’ve dealt for some time with trying to set priorities for spending. If we’ve got a limited amount of money, then maybe we need to take a look at prioritizing the improvement of existing housing conditions within those neighborhoods that are facing gentrification pressures, rather than just scattershot the money all over the place and see no results.

I’ve got friends in Houston, for instance, who work in community development there, and the neighborhoods where the CDCs are most active are all neighborhoods threatened with gentrification. So, good fair housing practice should be seeking to figure out a way to balance the gentrification pressures by creating affordable housing and stabilizing affordable housing within those areas that are sort of on the bleeding edge. And if they’re successful in doing that, then we might have a hope of creating a more stable racially and economically integrated community. CDCs have a major role to play in doing that type of thing.

Fair housing is not all about mobility. Fair housing is about creating integration. You practice fair housing in one of two ways: You create mobility programs, which I am a strong believer in and which we advocate very aggressively for. We’ve had quite a bit of success in the last two years in Texas in getting mobility programs set up. And the other way is you use this process of looking at areas that are under gentrification threat, and is there some way we can leverage neighborhood change into creating something more stable and a more permanently integrated situation.

So, it’s not either/or. It’s both. But, it’s got to be both in an intelligent way. We’re setting priorities, and we’ve got to be cognizant of fair housing goals when we set those priorities.

Harold Simon: So, if you say, we’ve got to set priorities and move some resources from one place to another, somebody’s programs are going to gain and somebody’s programs are going to lose. You can certainly do that, and you can do it fairly and collaboratively, but that’s hard. Who’s the priority setter?

John Henneberger: I think we’ve benefited in one sense, in a perverse sort of way, from having $3.1 billion of disaster recovery funds, 55 percent [of which] was set aside for housing. We had the largest infusion of funds the state has ever had to take on housing issues. Our conciliation agreement led us to say, if we’re going to spend 55 percent of that $3 billion on housing, then most of that’s going to lower income folks, then all of a sudden there’s a lot of housing being done, so we don’t have to have that fight at some level. But, that money’s now all programmed, and it’s trickling off.

I think what you’re talking about is how are we going to divide a limited amount of low income housing tax credits between revitalization of low-income neighborhoods and mobility programs. If I knew the answer to this, I’d tell you, but I don’t think I really do. I don’t think there’s open warfare here like the national groups seem to feel every time they get on a conference call. I stopped being on those calls where we have the endless debate, do we guild the ghetto or do we move people to opportunity? I don’t have time for that. To me it’s not a particularly useful conversation. We’ve got work to do to actually put this stuff into practice here at the local level.

Harold Simon: How do you organize and build collaboratives with organizations that don’t have the exact same short-term goals, but everyone has the same long-term goals?

John Henneberger: What I’ve done is I’ve gone back to remember again who I work for. We were never an association of CDCs, and we were never a civil rights law firm. We started out, and we want to remain, an organization that’s tied to trying to represent and work with low-income communities of color who are struggling for justice for their communities and their members as individuals. So, our efforts these days are focused at working with three community organizing groups, two in the Rio Grande Valley and one in Houston. The two in the Rio Grande Valley are the organization that used to be the United Farm Workers, that is now called LUPE, and a group called Arise, which is a group of colonia residents. And the group in Houston that we work with is called the Texas Organizing Project, which is a black and Hispanic group, a very large citywide organization that has chapters within low-income neighborhoods in Houston.

My staff and I spend basically most of our time sitting in meetings with these organizations on a weekly basis, talking about problems in the neighborhoods and how to solve them. And we’ve been using fair housing to frame their demands of local government officials for the type of improvements that they would like to see. And it’s complicated how this plays out.

For example, TOP, the Texas Organizing Project in Houston, their members are concerned with issues of pollution generated by chemical plants and hazardous uses within their neighborhoods. They’re concerned about lousy school performance. They’re concerned about flooding in the neighborhoods. They’re concerned about the gentrification of their neighborhoods. They’re concerned with the loss of African-American and Hispanic homeownership in inner city neighborhoods. And this is like déjà vu for me, because this is the same stuff that was going on in Clarksville back when I was working on that stuff in the ’70s. And so we’ve got a campaign with TOP that we call the Fair Housing and Neighborhood Rights Campaign and we’ve distilled their issues down to basically four simple demands. We’ve asked the city to pass a fair housing and neighborhood rights ordinance that grants citizens in Houston four things.

Number one is the right to choose where to live without being discriminated against, and that includes people in subsidized housing. So, we’re saying that the housing authority can’t continue to build new Section 8 developments in low-income minority neighborhoods, that they’ve got to create housing opportunities for people where people want to live, that the city needs to do an aggressive fair housing testing program and needs to fund it, and needs to set some goals and do testing to ensure that those goals are achieved.

The second issue is the right to stay, which gets to the gentrification question, which they’re hugely concerned about. They have worked, and we’ve assisted them, with the city to identify three cutting-edge neighborhoods in the inner city part of Houston which are subject to gentrification pressures, and the city’s making strategic investments initially by building 100 new owner-occupied houses in each neighborhood, and then by building some multi-family mixed-income developments in those neighborhoods, and then dealing with flooding and other things, and working on adopting the Homestead Preservation District, a tax abatement TIF.

The third is the right to equal treatment. This gets to the broader community development type of stuff, and there we’ve done an analysis comparing white neighborhoods and minority neighborhoods, about where the environmental hazards are, school performance, capital improvement commitment to the schools, teacher assignment patterns in terms of teacher experience, transportation resources, whether neighborhoods flood, whether they have adequate infrastructure, and the like. We’re doing an in-depth analysis of 14 different factors about how minority neighborhoods rank in terms of public infrastructure and investment in comparison to the white neighborhoods in the city.

The fourth one is the right to have a say. In southern states, and in Texas in particular, this is often the biggest problem. Generally bureaucracies and outsiders make the calls about patterns of public investment in the neighborhoods, and they’re not very consultative with the community.

So, this campaign—the right to choose, the right to stay, the right to equal treatment, the right to have a say—boils down to about 40 different initiatives that TOP wants to see the city undertake. And these folks are introducing this into a mayoral campaign. The current mayor is term limited. It’s a strong mayor form of government, like Chicago, so the mayor’s the whole nine yards. And our community organizing groups have 501©4s. They do canvassing. They do get out the votes. They are a critical balance of power in local elections.

I see those four issues very clearly as fair housing issues. Number one, the right to choose, is a mobility issue. Number two, the right to stay, is an anti-gentrification issue, [and] I also see [it] as a neighborhood integration issue, because to the extent that we can leverage gentrification into stable, ethnically, economically and racially integrated neighborhoods, then we’ve achieved the same goal.

The right to equal treatment is the flip side of mobility and opportunity. Fair housing is both about the denial of opportunity, whereby government actors restrict where people can live, but it’s also that low-income communities of color get all the bad stuff. They get all the environmental pollution. They get the city maintenance yard. They get the sewage treatment plant. They don’t get the flood control and other stuff like that.

That’s a fair housing issue, too. The real thing that’s missing in fair housing is not to somehow pacify CDCs and civil rights lawyers to decide how the pie’s divided. It’s to re-engage the community, the low-income communities of color, into understanding the promise of fair housing, the potential power of that tool, and that argument about why integration is an important goal that we should not give up on. We’ve got the statutory authority in the law, in Title 6 in the Fair Housing Act, in the AFFH [affirmatively furthering fair housing] rules and the like, in order to be able to win that type of stuff, either in court or administratively. Or perhaps, and increasingly importantly, morally.

If tomorrow the Fair Housing Act were struck down, God forbid, we’re still going to have to come to grips with this eventually. Even in a state like Texas, there is emerging a sense that extreme degrees of economic and especially racial segregation are just really not acceptable.

The community has to reclaim and use fair housing, and they will define fair housing practice more than others who are acting on behalf of the community.

Ford and we both thought that there were a couple of things that needed to happen in order to lay a firm groundwork for fair housing advocacy in the future, certainly in Texas. One is that the fair housing advocates begin to have a more respectful and engaged conversation with community leaders, grassroots community leaders, and that we work out a better relationship between those of us in the policy arena, policy development, policy advocacy arena, groups like mine, and groups that are doing real community organizing and building grassroots power for political change. That’s [what] we’ve been doing that in the Rio Grande Valley with the groups there, and in Houston with the Texas Organizing Project. This has been a fascinating process, because the standard model is groups like mine identify issues that they want to work on, and then we go run into the community, and community groups turn out a bunch of members, because we want to go pass this bill, or we want to oppose this change, and whatever. And that’s just not working for us very well anymore, because people are tired of being kind of herded around on issues that are not their immediate priority. So, with fair housing, we could have taken that model, but instead we’ve kind of stepped back and said, OK, let’s bring the opportunities to the group, but let’s cast this around fair housing as a tool to achieve the priorities of these grassroots community leaders, and build political power.

I thought, we’re going to lose focus on the civil rights aspects of this. But when we got into it and started to look at it in terms of these rights, it really became clear to me that there’s considerable overlap in our interests. We express these things differently, but the things that they’re interested in are classic problems of fair housing. I’m also impressed with how comprehensive their demands are. They touch on fair housing, they touch on Title 6 [Ed note: Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin in all HUD-assisted programs], and they touch on community participation and community power to make decisions about where the money goes. In my lifetime in being an advocate, I think those are all the main themes of our work, so it was a little surprising and I think very encouraging to think about having the community power behind this and to let them be able to use this area of advocacy to achieve these things that aren’t explicitly fair housing activities, but really are.

Harold Simon: How far along in this process are you?

John Henneberger: We’re in early stages. We’ve spent a lot of time presenting data and research about what TOP has identified as community problems in order to document the inequality and to help them discover the decisions that government has made, which has created the conditions they want to overcome.

We’ve done a lot of GIS work. We’ve done a lot of comparative mapping between white and minority neighborhoods. We’ve had a lot of meetings, and we’ve spent probably 250 hours with the senior leadership of the city’s housing department and the mayor’s office talking about these things. A lot of groundwork’s been done. We’re now at the stage where we’re beginning to put meat on the campaign bones. They publicly articulated the four steps [right to choose, right to stay, right to equal treatment, right to have a say, see interview part 1], and they’re in the process of creating actionable steps to achieve each of the four rights.

And one of the things that has become quickly apparent to me is that if you spend 30 years or so, like I have, in thinking about these things—there’s been a lot of time invested in understanding the complexity, and I have had to kind of pull back and go slower because there’s a lot of moving parts here. There’s a lot of history, and we’re talking about a whole range of community development and housing issues. Citizen leaders need time in order to understand how these things play out in their community. People understand the problems, but understanding the history of how things get there, the government regulations that create the things, that takes time.

I want to go, I want to get the list of demands out there, turn it into an ordinance, and get it on the City Council agenda. Our target is a mayoral election in November, and I’ve got a person full time in Houston working on this, and I’m in Houston at least one day every week working with the leaders on this stuff. But they’ve told me, basically, slow up, cowboy, we need a little time to think about this stuff and decide how we’re going to interact with it.

So, we’re moving on individual pieces of the campaign [before] we roll the whole thing out. In fact, as we speak, they’re talking on the draft for their neighborhood environmental impact ordinance for the city of Houston, which is a big deal [because] the word “environment” is not one that’s immediately embraced by that chemical- and oil-centric community.

They’re moving pieces of this thing, and at the same time trying to build the overall structure of a platform and campaign. So, I see this is probably a five-year effort in Houston.

Harold Simon: How long has this been going on?

John Henneberger: About a year.

Harold Simon: And who approached whom?

John Henneberger: I’d say that it kind of organically came about, because we [Texas Low Income Housing Information Service and Texas Apple Seed] got a bunch of powers under the conciliation agreement, and at the time, we weren’t consulting with TOP at all, we just had our heads down and were negotiating a legal agreement with the state. We ended up with some powers to make decisions about where money went. So the first thing we did after we got the conciliation agreement signed is we started a road tour, and talking to community groups like TOP and Lucha and LUPE and Arise and [the] NAACP and folks that we work with, and we said, we just won this conciliation agreement, and it gives us the power to make some decisions about how the disaster money plays out and where some of the stuff goes, and who gets targeted. And we want to involve you in those decisions.

TOP in Houston and the folks in the Rio Grande Valley really took advantage of that. Basically, in the Rio Grande Valley, they picked the target areas where all the housing went, and basically corralled the housing money for the colonias. And 100 percent of the target areas in the Rio Grande Valley for the 800 new single family homes and the additional multi-family units—it’s all aimed at colonias. There’s a mobility piece attached to it.

In TOP’s case, they had had a longstanding battle with the city housing department, which was completely unaccountable to the community—there’s been a huge falloff in African-American and Hispanic home ownership in the last 10 years in Houston—and it’s a city that had a fairly large base of minority home ownership. And the alarm bells are going off in the community over this loss, and the housing’s deteriorating, the population’s aging, and then slumlords come in and buy up the housing. And nobody can fix it up. You can’t resell it because the housing has deteriorated. They’re all single family units. And they were trying to get the city to do its rehab program in the area, and the city basically stopped spending any money on single family housing rehab, and went entirely to subsidizing multi-family housing. Unfortunately, they were building new multi-family housing in low-income neighborhoods of color, which wasn’t helping out the homeownership rate and wasn’t helping to stabilize the neighborhood, per se.

So, they jumped on the leverage we had with the conciliation agreement, had a six-hour negotiating session with the mayor, and got her to agree to move $60 million of money into single family homeownership targeted at those communities which were under the greatest gentrification pressure. They won that. We basically stood on the sidelines and said yes, we’re supporting what TOP does. We weren’t even in the meetings with the mayor. They negotiated those. But, they had us and our conciliation agreement backing them up.

Ford has been an enormous help, and not just money, but in connections and in forcing us to think more strategically and consciously about how we make change. We never sat down and created a formal theory of change for our organization before we had funding from the national foundations. They said, sit down with these community groups and spend the time and talk about how you work together, and come up with your theory of change on how you’re going to do this, and sell it to us, and we’ll provide money.

And they provided not just us with money, but they provided the community organizing groups money. So we have full-time organizers who work for the community organizing groups on this campaign. And we have additional field staff now. Josué Ramírez is our guy in the Rio Grande Valley, and Crishelle Palay is our Houston Director, and they’re full-time, working on these campaigns in these two parts of the state.

Then we’ve got backup. We’ve got a full-time data GIS guy who basically cranks stuff out for us, and goes to all the meetings with the community groups. They say, we’re real concerned about transportation stuff, so we put him to work mapping bus routes and the amount of time that it takes people in different neighborhoods to reach a bus, and ridership levels. And we equip them with information to really step up the quality of their advocacy around particular programmatic issues.

Karen [Paup] and I step back and try to look at this broader picture and have these conversations with the grassroots leaders about why the neighborhoods are a food desert. Let’s look at how incomes have changed in the neighborhood. Let’s look at buying power. We’ll bring in some people who make decisions on grocery stores and have talks with the community groups about marketing. We’ve got good relationships with the academic community in Texas. On our board is the head of planning for Texas A&M University and Liz Mueller from the University of Texas at Austin, who’s a planner at the Community Regional Planning School. We’ve got an experienced constitutional law professor from UT Law School who helps us a lot with thinking about the legal aspects of this type of work. So, we can bring those people into the meetings, as well, to support the community groups.

Harold Simon: What you’re describing is the way things ought to happen. Have you been keeping careful notes about the process?

John Henneberger: We’ve been taking notes, yes, along the way, and the folks who work in the Rio Grande Valley, in Houston, they have developed a curriculum now, literally hundreds of pages.

We have weekly meetings with all of these grassroots community leaders, and they attend every meeting. It’s amazing. The community leaders receive stipends off of our Ford grant. They’re not much, but they’re enough to pay for childcare and gas money to come to the meetings. And so, when we bring in the head of planning from Texas A&M University to talk about land use law in Houston, a city that has no zoning, and the impact of not having zoning, all that material is collected. The questions that people raise in her follow-up are all answered, and we’re collecting [them in] this binder. The curriculum that we’ve got is not cookie-cutter, because everybody’s questions are really different. But a lot of this stuff is basically very talented people trying to think about ways to answer community leaders’ questions about why things are the way they are and what possible change might look like.

In the Rio Grande Valley, they come to a community, meet every week and they talk about strategies and campaigns. They get one major background briefing each month on a particular topic that they prioritized. Our folks orchestrate the meeting help to make the leaders able to get all the material they need. And then, the outsider comes in, provides the lecture, and then the representantes—representatives of different colonias in the region—ask questions, and then the experts get back to them with answers to their questions [the] next week.

The next week, the representantes go back to their colonia, take the information that they got in this two-part process, and present their proposed solutions: here are the reasons the colonias flood, here are the political decisions that were made which have caused this to happen, and here’s a campaign strategy to address these problems. They hear from experts, become knowledgeable, and go back to the community, and they affirm their leadership at the grassroots level by presenting this same information to their neighbors.

From that, they do their actions. Three weeks ago they had 200 people turn out to a meeting, and three of the four top elected officials in the county there to talk about drainage and street lighting. They could turn out 200 people to that meeting, which just never happens in the Rio Grande Valley, because they’re going back—a dozen representantes are going back and each talking to a dozen neighbors of theirs, and they’re explaining the problem, and they’re saying here’s what we think we can do about it, and then they’re tied into a community organizing group, like LUPE and Arise, that’s focused on building political power and mobilizing grassroots action to take advantage of it. So it’s not just about 12 people making the decisions, it’s about 12 people going out and building the political power of community organizing groups to be able to take these issues on.

I’m more excited about this than anything we’ve ever done, because it’s putting the pieces together. You can’t, as an advocate, really have the political power to make change. And when you make change, it’s a one-off type of thing. But this is people building real political power. They may be focused on street lights or drainage now, but this type of political power translates into political power on immigration reform and the whole variety of other things, as well.

Miriam Axel-Lute: Are LUPE and Arise directly running the process you’re talking about?

John Henneberger: [Yes], it’s a joint project of LUPE and Arise and TOP. It’s a[n] equal project, in fact, the community organizing groups have the public lead on all this stuff. I like to think of us [TLIHC] as kind of the technical resource and the collaborator in strategic planning, but the community organizing groups own the campaign.

When they negotiated a deal with the mayor, we stayed out of the room, because our presence would simply be a distraction in the end. Any time we’re sitting in the room, the public officials look at the white guy and the expert who gets paid to do it, and they don’t listen to the citizens. So, our best outcome is that we’re invisible in the process except to the residents.

Miriam Axel-Lute: You said in the Houston project there were things that you had been advocating for that you wouldn’t have expected the citizens to recognize as their issue also, and then you found that it really was, but with slightly different language. I wondered if you could give us a specific example of that.

John Henneberger: Yes. So, I’m carrying the fair housing flag, so I’m particularly concerned about the Houston Housing Authority and where they’re siting their new multi-family projects, where they’re doing rehab and reinvestment and the like.

The neighborhood folks want to talk about the lack of infrastructure in the community, and there were other people in the community who were very publicly saying that these fair housing advocates are trying to take resources out of the low-income community. These weren’t our folks, but other community leaders who saw what we were doing and saying these guys are a real threat, and the housing authority was basically using folks to try to attack, because the housing authority came forward with a plan to build back 1,200 new apartments in what’s arguably the poorest neighborhood in Houston.

It’s a neighborhood that’s got severe, severe problems. Used to be an African-American FHA subdivision from the late ’50s, early ’60s, all homeowner. But the Houston Housing Authority proceeded to build public housing projects in the neighborhood and project-based Section 8 developments, and it went from 74 percent homeownership to, like, 24 percent. A huge problem.

I thought we’re going to have one of these fights, because we’re going to say the Houston Housing Authority can’t build any more Section 8 developments there, and indeed ought to take down one of their public housing projects and move it someplace else. I thought, how am I going to have this conversation, given that the housing authority’s orchestrated some high publicity opposition to fair housing, saying that it’s anti-self-determination of minority neighborhoods. Basically, the housing authority was trying to sell the notion that they were the revitalization catalyst in these highly impoverished neighborhoods, and they were going to revitalize by putting more Section 8 housing in the neighborhood.

So I just ducked the problem for a while and tried to avoid the discussion until, at one of the meetings, the resident leaders from this particular neighborhood said, we’re drowning in Section 8 housing in this neighborhood, and we need to do something about it. That’s exactly the point that we would have made. And instead of us getting out there, it came from the community, and it wasn’t just a NIMBY backlash type of thing. It was legitimate.

So we’ve had, I think, one of the most serious conversations that I’ve ever had about the balance of subsidized housing in low-income exclusively African-American neighborhoods, and what’s the appropriate role of the housing authority? We don’t need them to come in and build more—we need them to fix the crap they’ve got, and we need them to create some opportunities and some mobility programs.

Together, we’ve asked the housing authority to grant every resident of public housing in the neighborhood an opportunity to have a housing voucher, if they want one, to move into other areas. And we’ve basically blocked the housing authority from their proposal to build 1,200 units in these neighborhoods, and instead we’ve said they could build some units in an area that is gentrifying, which we think’s appropriate.

They tore down a public housing development in this area. Instead of rebuilding it onsite, they’re going to build it someplace else, and the land for that housing development is going to expand the campus of a high school in the neighborhood, which was cramped and needed more space. The community embraced a change by not buying the simplistic explanations about any investment is the answer, even if it’s more subsidized rental housing, and said maybe we ought to give a balance. And that, coming from me, would be a very controversial thing to do. Coming from a neighborhood association, it becomes much more reasonable and appropriate—in essence, they should be defending the neighborhood and not me.

Harold Simon: Have you been in a situation where the community wanted something that you didn’t think was the best idea, and how did that play out?

John Henneberger: Yes, we have conversations all the time where I kind of cringe about something. It seems to me a matter of getting all the information that people need to make good decisions into the room, and to have context. People may want to pull the trigger on solutions without really having all the information on things. I do it all the time. I inherently do it because I don’t live in the neighborhoods, and I’m not African-American, so I pronounce solutions all the time without enough information.

To me, the real answer is to have a group of community leaders with enough information to make fully informed decisions, and to have enough people in the room and have them accountable back to the neighborhood and engaged in the political process. You deal with racial prejudice and other issues even at the community level, but you work that out by having a group of people engaged, accountable, and who have to stand up in public and say things, and sometimes get taught new lessons. Democracy fixes this stuff if you do it right and you’re accountable. Where it really gets screwed up is when somebody has the total power to just do it their way, and they make bad, uninformed decisions that are totally unaccountable.

Miriam Axel-Lute: So, assuming that you win the proposal to the housing authority to offer vouchers to people who were in project-based Section 8, one of the fair housing fights that we hear a lot about is needing to make changes in policy to make the vouchers actually offer people a choice, because there are so many issues with fair market rents and landlords not accepting them and things like that, that they don’t actually enable people to have mobility. So, how will that play out in Houston if folks do get vouchers?

John Henneberger: It’s a problem. We need small area fair market rents, and we need the housing authority to go higher. They’ve gone to 110 percent. We need them to go to 120 percent, and we need them to substantially cut the amount of voucher rent that they’re going to give in the deeply impoverished neighborhoods, where basically slumlords prop up their operations raking in tons of money, and there’s no market forces that compel the upkeep of the unit.

Miriam Axel-Lute: Do you think that giving people vouchers will improve their situation?

John Henneberger: It will only work if we succeed. We asked for a fairly large set-aside of counseling and support money, and since we’ve got disaster recovery money, we can tap it. But we’re asking for an intensive support and counseling program, like the Inclusive Communities Project in Dallas, to support the residents. Barring that type of assistance, I think its impact would be very limited.

Miriam Axel-Lute: You mentioned your new governor. Are politicians on the local level as conservative as the national Texas politicians we hear about?

John Henneberger: No, they are not. 70 percent of the Texas population lives in the area between Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, and Houston. There’s kind of a triangle there. And all of those cities have Democratic mayors, and a majority of the city councils are Democrats. That’s not to say that that political party affiliation translate[s] into support for fair housing or for even housing programs in general. But their constituencies really want affordable housing. They want decent neighborhoods. They believe in combating inequality, things like that. So, the problem is that they’re very seldom pressed to actually deliver on those things, because in these cities, the programs have become the captive of bureaucracy and for-profit multi-family housing developers. And the complexity of the programs makes it very difficult for people to have any input into the programs, and even for elected officials to actually make changes.

We’ve gotten a fair amount of progress in Austin because there’s a number of people who are civically engaged in the housing community who stay on top of the issues, and they can balance out and propose progressive solutions. That’s one reason why, led by the disability community, we were able to get source of income protection enacted unanimously by the Austin City Council. But in Dallas, Houston, [and] San Antonio, there’s not as rich of an infrastructure of affordable housing advocate/community development progressives. Even in Austin, we’re limited by the fact that [it isn’t really] a group of people that have a deep political base, [like] low-income people of color and low-income people generally who are demanding these types of changes.

The political equation is better in the urban areas by far, and things are really possible. In Houston, for example, a black/brown coalition like TOP could be the difference in a mayoral election, and they are courted quite heavily for their political endorsement and support.

So, the potential’s there, but you’ve got to activate and use it, and that means that people have to have policy ideas. They have to be able to articulate those. They have to be workable. They have to be credible. And they have to have behind them a broader political base at the community level. And that’s what our community organizing groups bring in the Rio Grande Valley and in Houston.

Miriam Axel-Lute: Any lessons from Texas that the rest of the country could learn?

John Henneberger: Yes. I think everybody thinks that we’re sort of—which we are—ornery and reactionary and weird down here, and we kind of revel in that. But I really think Texas is in a lot of ways, and has been for a very long time, ground zero on pushing fair housing stuff. I say that with all deference to New Jersey, because with the tools that New Jersey has constitutionally to do things, I think it’s in a lot of ways, a much more favorable environment. I know it’s still difficult.

Miriam Axel-Lute: It’s been on the defensive for a while.

John Henneberger: Yes. But, if you think about what’s happened in Texas with regard to fair housing, the Young v. Kemp case in East Texas is the landmark public housing desegregation lawsuit that HUD did, the Walker case in Dallas, and Mike Daniel and Betsy Julian and legal services folks doing the Lord’s work back then. Those two cases engaged 35 counties in East Texas, the Dallas-Fort Worth whole metropolitan region on fair housing, the ICP [Inclusive Communities Project ] case that is challenging [the location preferences for housing] tax credits. They’ve got additional challenges going on about the duty to AFFH [affirmatively further fair housing] around tax credit type of developments. Those are big deals in the fair housing world. There’s Gautreaux, there’s Baltimore, and there’s Young and Walker, and now ICP. The fight’s being fought here.

In a place like Texas, these issues of fair housing are often in-your-face type of old legacy stuff. We get to fight it out in the open. We’re challenging the Houston Housing Authority. We’ve got agreements with the Beaumont Housing Authority, the Port Arthur Housing Authority, the Orange Housing Authority. We’re working with the Austin Housing Authority. We’re doing the Section 8 anti-discrimination stuff. We did a conciliation agreement with the governor over fair housing and got the governor to actually agree to the largest mobility program that the state ever undertook. And I always tell people it’s the largest homeowner mobility program in the United States under the disaster recovery program, which gives every resident who lives in a segregated minority neighborhood or an economically segregated neighborhood the right to have the state build them, or take the money and purchase, a house in a higher opportunity, less segregated neighborhood.

Every day there’s stuff being done on fair housing in Texas, and I think it’s a fascinating place to practice. There’s a lot of what seems to be low-hanging fruit in just blatant expressions of discrimination, but we’re energized. There’s a lot of people working on it, and it’s in the newspapers every day down here. The battle is being fought here, and it’s a great time to be doing this work, and thank God we got the Obama administration in place to back us up sometimes.

Miriam Axel-Lute: Let’s wrap up by talking about the MacArthur Grant a little bit. How did you find out about it, and what do you plan to do with it? Is it going to change your work at all?

John Henneberger: They just call you and say, are you John Henneberger, and then there’s a bunch of people on the speakerphone from MacArthur, and they say we’re awarding you this fellowship. And it’s one of those things where you have to sit down immediately.

The first reaction is, they got the wrong person, because, you look at the MacArthur list of folks, and they do really extraordinary stuff, MIT physicists and astronomers and people thinking about very profound and weighty type[s] of questions. I had a hard time getting my head around the fact that they wanted to give a fellowship to me, and then they sent me what they were going to post on their website about why, and I kind of came to accept it after they gave me the written explanation. They basically said it’s a series of small things. It’s like you bring people together and you form consensus on issues, and it’s a series of small things that somehow occasionally add up to something much bigger.

They cited the conciliation agreement and some of the work we’re doing with disaster recovery housing, which I’m really proud of. Trying to come up with an alternative to FEMA trailers and get people back into housing quickly. Stuff going on in the Rio Grande Valley. It’s an amazing alternative way to do disaster recovery for poor people. Sometimes it’s not the genius, sometimes it’s about the collaboration. And so, I’m kind of a recipient for all the folks.

What we’re going to do with the money is we’ll replace my salary at Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, and we’ve hired a new communications person and a researcher. I’m now paid for five years by the MacArthur Grant. My salary is not that much, but the rest of the money I’m donating back to the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service to fund the engagement of low-income people and low-income communities to solve housing and community development problems. The board is beginning to think about that, and one of the things we’re going to try to do is a challenge fund. If I give back about $350,000 of the money over the five-year period to the organization, we’re going to ask some of our donors to match it, and we’re going to try to build a million-dollar fund for engaged low-income community leaders to be able to do the type of things that people in Lucha and TOP are doing.

Miriam Axel-Lute: Great. That sounds really exciting, and we are looking forward to continuing to hear more about what all you are up to.

1 COMMENT

  1. This is a really interesting interview. Wasn’t familiar with John before this interview, but can tell you now that I will be following what he does with his work in the future. We need to fix the low income housing problem.

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