"Blocked Out"

The Texas Tribune

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In Galveston, hundreds of low-income people displaced by Hurricane Ike in 2008 waited for the city to repair or rebuild its public housing after the storm. A decade later, the city had rebuilt less than half of it — a decision that one housing advocate calls a “form of apartheid.”

An hour away in Houston, Denise Taylor and her 13-year-old daughter arrived from a crime-ridden Chicago neighborhood seeking a new start in a better neighborhood. More than a year later, they were forced to live in virtually identical conditions because Texas law allows landlords to openly discriminate against people like them who need Section 8 government vouchers to pay their rent.

Powerful people, from state lawmakers and city officials to neighborhood activists, have made housing harder to find for the poorest Texans. And those powerful people are enabled by discriminatory state and local laws that have their roots in pre-civil rights segregation policies that were supposed to be eradicated in the 1950s and ‘60s. The result is worsening economic inequality and racial segregation in a state with an exploding population.

While other news outlets have written about housing affordability in Texas, few had explored the state law — one of only two in the nation — that validated a no-poor-people policy quietly used by property owners in “good” neighborhoods across Texas. Hurricane Ike made national news when it struck the Texas coast, but the Tribune was virtually alone in circling back a decade later to investigate how officials in Houston and Galveston misspent or failed to spend federal money intended to re-build affordable housing. And the Tribune was unique in its multi-platform approach that combined investigative reporting, interactive tools and public events to spark further discussion on this important issue.

Because housing is such a universal issue, the Tribune staff sought to make its reporting appeal to people of all income levels. First, our data visuals team used statewide data to create an interactive tool so our audience could explore affordability by ZIP code and compare it to other parts of Texas.

Second, our audience and events teams created a toolkit to help Texans organize local conversations about housing issues that resonate in their own communities, followed by a live public discussion in Dallas that featured numerous speakers involved in housing. That event was moderated by Tribune urban affairs reporter Brandon Formby and livestreamed on our site.

Finally, as the midterm elections approached, our team asked every Texas congressional candidate to answer a reader-submitted question about housing affordability as part of a 23-question candidate survey targeting young voters.

Public information requests were a key part of the project. For the Section 8 story, for example, the reporters filed open records requests with local housing authorities to get the name of every person with a housing choice voucher in the Houston area and where they lived. That information was then cross-referenced with Census data to get demographic information for the neighborhoods where voucher-holders lived.

Open records requests also yielded emails and other correspondence that shed light on neighborhood opposition to subsidized housing, including this comment featured in that same story: “Our government just can't get it through their thick skulls that bringing Section 8 housing to good neighborhoods does not inspire the people in the Section 8 housing to suddenly become ambitious. All it does is forfeit good neighborhoods and force people like me to move out further for a longer commute.”

Finally, reporters analyzed Texas campaign finance and lobbying records to understand which lawmakers were targeted most aggressively by landlords when they advocated for the anti-Section 8 law.

Our work on this subject was widely re-published by other Texas newspapers and TV as part of our free syndication arrangement. The interactive, “How to know if you’re spending too much on housing in Texas,” was one of the most thoroughly-read pieces of content in our history, with 83 percent of readers viewing every part of the interactive.

We’re proud of our work on this important issue, which has become an acute concern across the country as housing prices climb along with public awareness of inequality issues. Tribune reporters are following this issue closely in the Capitol and will be holding lawmakers accountable if and when legislation is filed to address what our investigation uncovered. 

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Submitted by Emily Ramshaw.