In response to a Title VI Civil Rights Complaint, the Federal Highway Administration has reached a landmark agreement with the Texas state highway agency that will be worth tens of millions of dollars in mitigation and relocation funding for the residents of a Corpus Christi, Texas, neighborhood created by Jim Crow segregation. The agreement addresses the discriminatory and disparate impacts on Hillcrest neighborhood residents of a new highway planned to run through a neighborhood already hemmed in by a ship channel, refineries, and an interstate highway. The highway will connect to a proposed new $1 billion Harbor Bridge.
“This agreement in Corpus Christi is a milestone,” said Dr. Robert Bullard, Dean of the School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University and known as the Father of Environmental Justice, “For too long African American communities have shouldered a disproportionate burden of discriminatory environmental and transportation decision-making, including the siting of highways and bridges that divide rather than connect Black residents to economic opportunity. The Hillcrest neighborhood case is a poster child for transportation racism. In response to the Civil Rights complaint, we now have agencies directly addressing and redressing this racism. This is historic.”
The Washington Coles and then the Hillcrest neighborhood of Corpus Christi’s Northside were the only neighborhoods in which Corpus Christi’s African American residents were allowed to live under Jim Crow segregation. Over the decades, the ship channel and associated industrial plans overwhelmed the once-segregated but stable Northside neighborhoods. As planned, the “Red Route” for the new highway would cut Hillcrest off on the east, further segregating it from the rest of Corpus Christi, including its schools, hospitals, grocery stores, and most businesses, and adding increased pollutants like benzene to the already compromised air and soil of the neighborhood. There are approximately 450 households in Hillcrest, with about half occupied by homeowners and half by renters.
On March 5, 2015, Hillcrest neighborhood residents asked the Office of Civil Rights of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to investigate civil rights violations by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) in its push to build the highway through their neighborhood. The route chosen by TxDOT promised disastrous consequences for residents of Washington Coles and Hillcrest.
The complaint stated that the Red Route violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act because it would cause disproportionate harms based on race. While the City of Corpus Christi is approximately 4.3% African American, the affected Washington Coles and Hillcrest neighborhoods are 38% and 31% African American, respectively. If FHWA found that TxDOT’s actions caused disproportionate harm based on race, it could withhold federal funds for the project.
As a result of that complaint and the resulting investigation, FHWA and TxDOT ratified a voluntary resolution agreement on December 17 that responds to many issues raised by residents. TxDOT, the City of Corpus Christi, the Port Authority, and the Corpus Christi Housing Authority signed a subsidiary agreement to support and implement the larger agreement.
Specifically, the agreements (see attached sheet for greater detail) include enhanced mitigation and options for Hillcrest residents, including:
- A voluntary relocation program for homeowners and renters to relocate to a comparable home in a healthy environment assisted by a relocation counselor under the Uniform Act (URA);
- For homeowners, the agreement will cover moving costs, title and closing costs, the appraised value of the original home plus the difference between the appraised value of the original home and that of the comparable home;
- Eligible renters will receive moving costs and the difference in rental costs for 42 months if they move to a higher-rent home.
- Financial assistance for neighborhood churches, small businesses, and owners of rental properties that choose to relocate to comparable properties under the Uniform Act (URA);
- A neighborhood City Liaison will be located in the neighborhood for four years to provide information on agreement options and connect residents to City services such as weatherization and home improvement programs;
- Improved parks, including improvements to H.J. Williams Park in Hillcrest and a new historic park in Washington Coles, with input from a community advisory board; and
- Mitigation of construction impacts, such as noise, dust, air pollutants, and traffic.
“This would not have happened,” said Rosie Porter, a longtime Hillcrest resident and named complainant, “if the people of Hillcrest had not stood up for our civil rights. After years of segregation, isolation, and discrimination, we said you cannot go forward with a plan for a highway that would make our situation even worse. These agreements enable us to move forward and create a livable and healthy future for ourselves and future generations. We appreciate the legal representation provided by Texas RioGrande Legal Aid and the UT Law Environmental Clinic. If it were not for the Civil Rights complaint filed on our behalf, we would not be standing here today.” TRLA and UT were assisted by the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
“We cannot change the past,” said Lamont Taylor, Hillcrest resident and co-leader of the Citizens Alliance for Fairness and Progress, a Northside neighborhoods group that joined the civil rights complaint, “but we better learn from it to create a more just future. This is a big step towards fairness and progress for the residents of our neighborhood. Some of us will choose to move closer to family elsewhere, some of us will stay in the neighborhood which will receive improvements, and others may choose to move in proximity to each other in another part of town. Regardless of what each family decides is best for itself, we will maintain our community through continuing our connections to each other and continue advocating for all residents of Hillcrest and Washington Coles.”
“We will continue to work with the residents of Hillcrest to monitor the implementation of these agreements and make sure they are carried out fairly,” said Erin Gaines, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid Attorney and Equal Justice Works Fellow sponsored by the Ottinger Family Foundation. “We also expect FHWA and HUD to be overseeing the implementation for compliance with Civil Rights and Fair Housing requirements. While we celebrate this historic agreement in Corpus Christi today, we also hope it serves as a reminder to the federal and state highway agencies to incorporate meaningful community participation and avoid adverse impacts to low-income, minority communities early in the process of future transportation planning.”
The civil rights complaint in this case is just one of many currently pending before federal agencies, some for decades. “We hope this agreement will serve as a model to spur other federal agencies to address backlogs of Title VI civil rights complaints to give communities the protections they are entitled to under the Civil Rights Act,” said Kelly Haragan, Clinical Professor at the University of Texas School of Law.