Anatomy of a public-housing takeover
Uncle Sam seized control of the Beaumont, Texas, housing authority last week, aiming to speed integration.
Eva Westbrook has spent 23 years in the lovely-sounding but plain-looking Magnolia Gardens housing project in Beaumont.Skip to next paragraph
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For the past decade, Miss Westbrook has been on the waiting list for a low-income housing voucher that would let her leave the projects and rent a home of her own. But every time she's checked on her status at the Beaumont Housing Authority, the staff has told her she had to start all over again at the bottom of the waiting list. Her name wasn't even on the computer.
"I went back to the office to complain, and they said they couldn't do nothing," says Westbrook, an African-American mother of five. She breaks into tears. "I'm sorry. I've been waiting so long for a home that maybe I could rent to own."
It's stories like this, along with what federal officials say is evidence of discrimination, that prompted the US Housing and Urban Development agency to take control of the local housing authority in Beaumont last week.
It's a step reserved for the worst cases, yet it's a step the Clinton administration has been more willing to take than any previous administration in history. While local officials decry the move as an unwarranted abuse of federal power, civil rights advocates and low-income housing tenants praise the move with three words: "It's about time."
The Department of Housing and Urban Development "only does this in the most extreme cases, but this is a more activist HUD, and they've been doing more of it since the mid-1990s," says Susan Popkin of the Urban Institute, author of a book about the federal takeover of the Chicago Housing Authority. "Now, housing authorities are being held more accountable than in the past."
Even Beaumont's detractors note that the city of refineries on the east Texas coast does not easily fit the stereotype of a racist town - unlike all-white Vidor, 10 miles away, which once specifically forbade blacks from residing in its public housing. After all, Beaumont is 30 percent black. The BHA staff is about 60 percent black. The residents of BHA housing are more than 90 percent black.
Under scrutiny since 1985
But whether poor service is the result of racial malice or mismanagement, HUD argues that the effects fall disproportionately on the minority residents who make up the bulk of BHA tenants. Given that, the federal agency argues it was required by law to take over the BHA.
The roots of the federal takeover in Beaumont go back to a 1985 federal court ruling, which said that most public housing authorities in 36 east Texas counties had failed to racially integrate their low-income public housing.
The US Civil Rights Act of 1964 bars discrimination in federal programs that offer financial assistance. Beaumont, with 40 percent of its budget coming from HUD, thus had an obligation not only to desegregate its housing projects, but also to locate any new units in nonminority neighborhoods. HUD argues that Beaumont was not moving fast enough to build or to find those homes.