Q&A with John Henneberger of Texas Low-Income Housing Information Service

Learn more about our work in the Rio Grande Valley. Learn more about bcHEROES.

John Henneberger. co-director of Texas Low-Income Housing Information Service.

John Henneberger. co-director of Texas Low-Income Housing Information Service.

As a partner on the RAPIDO disaster recovery housing pilot project, Texas Low-Income Housing Information Service (TxLiHS) has been key in pioneering the principles of environmental justice, fair housing and equitable access to economic resources for all Texans. TxLiHS co-director John Henneberger, a 2014 MacArthur Fellow, emphasized these social justice principles during his speech at this year's University of Texas School of Architecture commencement ceremony. [bc] had an in-depth conversation with Hennenberger about his speech, his desire to advance the principles of social justice, and the relationship that architects, planners and designers have with social justice principles. (This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.)

Read Henneberger's commencement speech here.

[bc]: In your speech, you reference the image of John Wayne playing Davy Crockett in "The Alamo."  You said, "Davy is explaining to his romantic interest why he is choosing to abandon her to stay and fight, and surely die with the defenders of the Alamo." Except for the dying part, when have you had to abandon something very important to you to do what's right?

[bc]'s Hugo Colón discusses stormwater drainage plans with a colonia community.

JH: I’m an impatient guy, and I come up with a lot of ideas for fixing things. I look at injustice, a disinvested neighborhood or an unmet housing need, and I see lots of possible solutions. My natural inclination is to rush off and push for a solution that seems immediately obvious to me. Sometimes it works, but oftentimes, in the end, it just misses the mark.

I wish someone had sat me down in 1975 when I was starting out and told me that I should never abandon this approach. I wish someone had told me then to always step back and make sure I really understood the underlying problem before proposing a solution. I need to be constantly reminded to stand behind good, honest community resident leaders who live with the problem, help them to see the full scope of the issue and not let my ego jump out in front of them.

This approach takes longer. It's more work. It's often frustrating. But digging deep into the real, underlying problems, aside those who are impacted by those problems, is the only way to uncover the real solution.

One thing I abandoned was running neighborhood community development corporations (CDCs). I ran CDCs for many years. I loved the work and the community residents I worked for. It was central to who I was. But, after a while, I came to feel that building another house in a low-income neighborhood was somehow not enough of an answer to the oppressive problems of race and class that were holding back the children of good people.

I had to step out of that housing production role to appreciate what building a house does and does not do to improve people’s lives. Don’t misinterpret this. I think CDCs are a vital part of the solution. But, it is hard when you are fighting for funding and dealing with architects and contractors all day to appreciate the serious problems of race and class that cannot be addressed solely by building a nice house in a distressed environment.

[bc]: You also mention that a design solution isn't enough to address problems of segregation and affordable housing. What is your philosophy about community building to get at those "underlying problems before you begin design.”

[bc]'s Elaine Morales discusses assembly of the CORE with construction workers during the RAPIDO project.

JH: First and foremost, we have to avoid building on a foundation of injustice. Jim Crow segregation created existing residential patterns. We must stop reenforcing those patterns and stop accepting racial and economic segregation.

It is not acceptable to confine more generations of children to concentrated poverty, environmental blight, failed schools and high crime. We have to accept responsibility for our roles as planners, architects, community development corporations, government officials and citizens by confronting the extent and depth of this problem of distressed neighborhoods and concentrated poverty.

When we participate in housing development that continues to stack poor families into these communities, no matter if it is a cool design, what level of LEED certification it earns, or what local political leader has championed it, we are as guilty of practicing discrimination as the folks in our positions were in the 1950s.

We will never transform distressed communities into good places to live simply by providing more and better subsidized housing there. It will take real commitment to comprehensively address public infrastructure, environmental hazards, public safety, employment opportunities and crime. It’s easy to throw up more affordable housing in distressed communities, but it is wrong for the people who live there.

Similarly, when we push poor families of color out of a historic neighborhood that is in the process of transitioning to a high opportunity, desirable place to live, we are engaged in an act of racial discrimination.

We have to stop acting like we are doing something good and noble when we build on apartheid and segregation. As leaders in affordable housing and community revitalization, we have to confront existing patterns and practices and demand justice. This is a social responsibility of design and planning that we have to accept.

[bc]: What is the role of partners in your work?

Juanita Valdez-Cox, a bcHERO. 

JH: We want to see problems solved. The people who have to lead in that are the people who live with the problem. So, we stand behind grassroots community leaders and provide them with information, help them discover options for solutions, and find other forms of help, like architects, planners and CDCs to implement the solutions.

The work we are involved with in the Lower Rio Grande Valley is a good example. Low-income colonia residents first come together through community organizing groups to frame the agenda for change. [bc] helps assess the causes of the problems identified by colonia residents and finds solutions in areas like drainage and home design. Local CDCs like the Community Development Corporation of Brownsville put the solutions on the ground. The role of my organization is to understand and assess the policies that have produced the problem and to help colonia residents get their hands on the levers of power to change those policies.

[bc]: You told us about several of the important influences in your life in your speech. Who else would you add to that list if you could?

JH: My heroes are people who solve problems for people who are poor and oppressed. The people who most influenced my life are a number of very wise and brave African-American and Hispanic neighborhood leaders who stand up to the power of the government, powerful wealthy interests and general public apathy to demand justice on behalf of their families and their neighbors. For the most part, these are women who are not well known outside the community where they live and work.

The neighborhood center director in the freedman’s community of Clarksville in Austin was my first mentor. Ora Lee Nobles, a neighborhood leader in East Austin who fought against urban renewal in the 1970s and 1980s, is another. Others include Sister Amalia Rios, who helped found an early Texas community development corporation, Juanita Valdez-Cox, and Lourdes Flores, who lead the fight for basic public services for immigrants and other poor Texas families living in colonias. I can name about a hundred folks like these who are unsung heroes.

[bc]: You've been very busy the past few years on the disaster recovery housing front. What else needs to happen there? Anything new on your horizon that you're focusing on?

JH: Local communities need to plan in advance of a disaster for how they will help people rebuild their homes, especially poor people, the elderly, people living with disabilities and working class folks. Local citizens need to look at their communities and ask themselves, “What kind of community to we want to be? Do we want to rebuild what we have, or do we want to rebuild an inclusive, safe, diverse community?"

Once we decide that, then city officials, neighborhood leaders, planners, builders and other stakeholders need to decide how to get there. That will mean planning before disaster strikes so we have time to think the process through and get it right. It also means cities working cooperatively with the State of Texas, HUD and FEMA to create a plan that everyone can support to implement a local vision. That is what the RAPIDO pilot program that [bc], the Community Development Corporation of Brownsville, Texas A&M and community groups in the Lower Rio Grande Valley have shown is possible.

We are also working on issues of neighborhood inequality with organized grassroots groups in the Valley, Houston, San Antonio, Austin and Dallas. It is really the same work we have been doing for the past forty years. But, we are always learning and thrilled and inspired by discovering new local grassroots community leaders who are committed to speaking up for what’s right.