Co-director of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service (TxLIHIS), he leads the Austin-based nonprofit as it pushes for solutions to affordable housing and community development problems across the state.
Affordable Housing Finance recently caught up with Henneberger following U.S. District Court Judge Sidney Fitzwater's ruling that the state unintentionally discriminated in its allocation of low-income housing tax credits.
How did you get interested in affordable housing?
I came into housing because I was interested in civil rights. I was involved in school desegregation efforts as a high school student in 1971 and again as a college student in 1975. As an undergraduate studying urban history at the University of Texas at Austin, I was assigned to conduct oral history interviews in an historic African-American community in Austin called Clarksville. When I showed up, I asked the Community Action-funded neighborhood center director, a fourth-generation community resident, for help. She looked at me and said, “We are tired of being studied, why don't you do something useful?” She asked me to help the neighborhood with research for a displacement battle against the highway department and help figure out how to apply for Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds to get sewers and paved streets since there were none in the community (despite the fact the neighborhood was surrounded by affluent white neighborhoods that had full city services). That was the first year CDBG funds were available, and no one, not even the city, knew what to do with CDBG. The neighborhood eventually stopped the highway and got the public services. Over five years as a volunteer I absorbed the anger the community felt toward the unjust way in which the government treated this exemplary African-American community. The community went on to establish one of the first community development corporations (CDCs) in Texas to address housing needs, and I was honored to be a part of that.
What issue is keeping you up at night right now?
Anger and excitement mostly keep me awake. The same struggles the Clarksville neighborhood confronted in the 1970s are being played out all across Texas today. It's not just the inequitable distribution of public resources at the community level, although that is widespread. There is also deep rooted and insidious housing discrimination fueled by bigotry and prejudice in Texas. But thanks to the Obama administration and the work of community leaders and advocates, there are opportunities to confront these evils in ways I have never seen before in the almost 40 years I've been concerned about these issues. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Justice Department are, for the first time, willing to take civil rights problems seriously.
How has TxLIHIS changed over the years?
We are better and more effective than we used to be. We work everyday with a network of grassroots community leaders all across Texas. We are learning how to work more effectively with low-income community groups by helping them get resources and information to take action. We are learning how to stand back while local low-income leaders define the agenda and do the advocacy in their communities. We have figured out that our role is to support local low-income community leaders to be the problem solvers.
Overall, how is the role of housing advocates and watchdogs changing?
It is not that different. The tactics of Jacob Riis, Catherine Bauer, Cushing Dolbeare, and Dr. King are what works. They held out the injustice of poverty and discrimination to force the public to see; they built and mobilized coalitions of people, especially the poor, to confront injustice; they came up with policy solutions and demanded government live up to its promises. One great change for the good is that it is getting easier for people to work across class and race lines for change.
Share with us an interesting statistic or fact about affordable housing in Texas.
Of the 193,000 low-income housing tax credit apartments built in Texas, 78 percent are in census tracts where more than half of all residents are minorities. This is because Texas awards more points for NIMBY opposition to development in the scoring than any other competitive factor. I hope the Inclusive Communities Project (ICP) lawsuit and the state's waking up to the massive fair housing violation this represents will change this.
What are your thoughts on the recent court decision in the ICP v. Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs case?
Amen Judge Fitzwater.
What makes you mad?
I'm an advocate. Don't get me started.
Are there any policy changes or programs that give you hope this year?
The impending publication of a federal rule for assessing the activities of governmental units to “affirmatively further fair housing.”
What do you think is the biggest threat to affordable housing production?
Government funding cuts and NIMBY.
If there's one change that you could make to a housing policy or program, what would it be and why?
The past few years we have been spending a lot of time on disaster rebuilding in low-income communities. Hurricanes Rita, Dolly, and Ike hit Texas in succession, and the rebuilding is ridiculously slow. Along with the National Low Income Housing Coalition, we have made some policy recommendations that would apply the lessons of Katrina and the Texas hurricanes. Congress needs to act before the next disaster.
Where would we find you when you are not working?
At the cannon range firing my US Model 1841 6-pounder field gun.
Besides the usual work papers, what's on your desk or in your office?
A model of the Alamo that I built.
Last book you read?
“Reckless Endangerment: How Outsized Ambition, Greed, and Corruption Led to Economic Armageddon.”The book is, of course, about Fannie Mae and its role in the crisis. The book's cover is falling off, and the binding is torn from my throwing it repeatedly against the wall. The idea of blaming the congressional affordable housing goals for what Fannie Mae did is completely wrong. Fannie's crime was that it hopped on board the Alt-A and subprime train to not get left behind and cash in. The congressional affordable housing goals told HUD to make Fannie lead the market by providing safe financing tools to homeownership for low-income and minority homebuyers. The book, by embracing a simplistic and wrong explanation of the cause to the crisis, has done great harm that will continue to set back minority homeownership for generations.
What's next for John Henneberger?
I'm very excited about a project of a community group we work with in Houston, the Texas Organizing Project. This grassroots-led community organization with over 5,000 mostly African-American and Latino members is moving forward with an agreement with Houston Mayor Annise Parker to focus the largest amount of federal, state, and local funds for community development I have seen. Together they are planning to engage world-class planning expertise under a partnership of HUD, Enterprise, and the Local Initiatives Support Corp., with informed and smart grassroots community engagement and leadership to create four stable, ethnically, and racially integrated communities. The walls separating fair housing and community development are going to crumble with this project. Imagine that in Texas. Somewhere Dr. King is smiling.