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Difference Maker

John Henneberger helps the poor solve problems from housing to voting rights

Henneberger, a behind-the-scenes force for social change, relishes improving lives through better housing and race relations, as well as economic opportunities.

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    Housing advocate John Henneberger has been honored with a MacArthur Fellowship, which includes a $625,000 stipend.
    Courtesy of John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
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Bringing people together to make change is what John Henneberger has been doing for most of his life, beginning in 1975 with his role as a housing advocate while studying as an undergraduate at the University of Texas at Austin.

He was working in Clarksville, a neighborhood in west Austin that had been founded by freed slaves.

Though surrounded by affluent, predominantly white neighborhoods, Clarksville at that time lacked adequate streets, sidewalks, sewers, and most other basic infrastructure. Mr. Henneberger teamed up with community residents and leaders who had come together through the Community Action program, part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.

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The zeal of Johnson’s vision of a Great Society had already waned considerably since its heyday in the 1960s. But much enthusiasm still remained in Clarksville, particularly the notion that the poor ought to have a role in solving the problems of poverty.

“It was a different time and different relationship between community and government,” Henneberger recalls. “There was much less a sense of hopelessness and alienation toward taking action to solve problems.

“Instead of just being angry, people were engaged and hopeful about finding a way to work with government to solve the problems of poverty and inequality. That’s been my approach and my philosophy ever since.”

Decades later, his ability to be a behind-the-scenes force for social change has won him acclaim. Last September, Henneberger was named a recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, also known as the “genius grant,” which includes a stipend of $625,000. Henneberger says he will use most of the money to support grass-roots leaders who are working to improve housing and living conditions in several local communities.

Solving problems and improving lives is something essential to the human spirit, Henneberger says. And not just through better housing, but through better race relations and economic opportunities, as well as less inequality, discrimination, and injustice of all kinds.

“In my experience, many people living in low-income communities want and need to grapple with community problems,” he says. “This belies the common misperception that people of low incomes don’t care about their communities.

“Their effectiveness in solving these problems is very powerful when they do not just stand up as an angry individual, but organize with their neighbors and bring people together to act on these problems.”

After graduating from college in 1976, Henneberger was commissioned by Austin to look into the causes of the extreme level of racial segregation that existed in the city at that time by surveying inner-city residents and looking at issues of housing, real estate, and lending practices.

His final report was controversial – the city manager excised whole sections of it – and also ahead of its time. Fair housing became an increasingly important priority in state and federal government in the years that followed. Today the US Department of Housing and Urban Development requires a similar study to be conducted before a city can receive HUD funds.   

Henneberger and Karen Paup, his longtime collaborator, spent the next 15 years working in low-income neighborhoods, primarily in East Austin, tackling problems including redlining, affordable housing, gentrification, voting rights, and urban renewal. They also worked with neighborhood leaders to set up five community development corporations (CDCs) in impoverished neighborhoods.

One of their most successful undertakings was the defeat of a proposal to construct a new expressway that would have destroyed Clarksville.

In 1988, Henneberger, Ms. Paup, and other community advocates founded the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service (TxLIHIS). By then, community residents had assumed responsibility for managing the CDCs, so Henneberger and Paup turned to building support from government and the public for community-led initiatives.

Henneberger insists that his role is not to act as a leader but as a “concierge” of grass-roots change. Like a concierge, TxLIHIS supplies information, counseling, research, and direction to community groups, helping them solve problems that the groups themselves identify.

TxLIHIS’s most notable success came in 2010 when it filed a civil rights complaint with HUD against Texas Gov. Rick Perry over the allocation of federal funds in the aftermath of hurricanes Dolly and Ike, which hit the state’s Gulf Coast in 2008.

Governor Perry had shifted much of the HUD money away from housing needs inhard-hit areas of Houston and Galveston. Avoiding a showdown in court, TxLIHIS negotiated a conciliation agreement whereby Perry moved more than $1 billion in federal funds back into home repair and rebuilding on the Gulf Coast.

Tom Hatch, an architect in Austin, has worked with Henneberger for decades and serves on his board of directors. He admires Henneberger’s passion and commitment to serving the poor. Henneberger’s genial, even-tempered demeanor, Mr. Hatch says, has benefited him in dealing with a wide range of people with different goals and interests. “He works both sides of the aisle so effectively, and almost always calmly and respectfully,” Hatch observes.

Lisa Davis, a program officer for the Ford Foundation, agrees. She has known Henneberger for 20 years, and TxLIHIS has received Ford Foundation grants for the past four years.

“The thing that is brilliant about John is that he can work effectively with people across all different sectors,” she says. “He speaks their language. He understands their interests. He comes up with creative solutions that serve a number of different interests, but he is always loyal to the low-income groups that are the people he considers to be his base.”

In an effort to improve the quality of and speed of getting people into post-disaster housing, in 2008 TxLIHIS and the Texas Society of Architects organized the largest residential design competition in Texas history. The goal: Create a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house that could be built in six weeks and cost $65,000 or less. The aim was to capture money the Federal Emergency Management Agency was planning to spend on much-maligned temporary trailers to house disaster victims and instead invest those funds in permanent housing.

Eighty-six teams submitted designs, and three winners were selected by a panel of judges that included people who had lost their homes in hurricane Rita. Three houses, based on each of the three winning designs, were constructed in Port Arthur, Texas. The designs then were reworked, based on lessons learned in Port Arthur.

Today 20 redesigned houses are being built as a demonstration project in Brownsville and other locations in south Texas.

Another major Henneberger project involves working to improve housing conditions in the colonias, hundreds of remote and highly impoverished settlements on unincorporated, flood-prone land in the Rio Grande Valley along the Mexican border. Residents of the colonias are primarily farm, service industry, and construction workers. Many are immigrants.

“John has really been an agent of change for colonia residents,” says Juanita Valdez-Cox, executive director of La Unión del Pueblo Entero, a nonprofit group that offers social services and community organizing in Hidalgo County. “The best thing is, John not only works with colonia residents, but also helps them learn how to do for themselves. We’ve learned a lot from John.”

The struggle to overcome the legacy of poverty in America “is a slow, incremental process,” Henneberger concludes.

“But you don’t give up. You engage.”

• To learn more about Henneberger and the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, visit www.texashousing.org.

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