Huey German-Wilson and her Trinity Gardens and Houston Gardens neighbors kept finding tires, medical waste and other trash in their streets. So they took charge. They sought to log each instance with the city’s 311 system, hoping the complaints would inspire the city to clean up the debris.
Their efforts beginning six years ago went nowhere, German-Wilson said. The Super Neighborhood president watched as the illegally dumped items piled up so much they blocked people from driving down the streets. Residents told her they stopped calling 311 because they didn’t think the city would do anything.
But on Friday, people in the Gardens learned they may get help: The Justice Department announced it is investigating whether the city violated residents’ civil rights by responding differently to illegal dumping complaints in areas where the majority of the population is Black and Latino. The investigation developed out of a complaint Lone Star Legal Aid filed on behalf of Gardens residents.
“It brings attention to the fact that these little Black and brown communities are fighting a fight that seemed lost,” German-Wilson said. “And the Department of Justice is saying, ‘No, it’s not lost.’”
Lone Star Legal Aid, a nonprofit law firm in Houston, in December accused Houston of intentionally discriminating against some residents. The city responded more slowly to 311 requests for service in the northeast Houston neighborhood than in whiter, more affluent places, the document said.
Some 311 requests even prompted concerns about retaliation from city workers. In one instance after a complaint was filed, the city cited every house on the block except the caller’s for city ordinance violations, Lone Star’s complaint said. The infractions included having a trash can outside a gate.
A recent Houston Chronicle review of six months of 311 data found widespread problems across the city, with some areas submitting repeated complaints. Construction debris littered neighborhood sidewalks or filled drainage ditches. Residents also reported that animal corpses had been dumped hurriedly overnight.
Mayor Sylvester Turner in a scathing statement Friday defended the city’s service to communities of color. Black and Latino areas were disproportionately suffering from illegal dumping, he agreed. Houston has spent millions of dollars on bulk waste collection and doubled the fine for illegal dumping to $4,000, the maximum allowed under state law.
Turner suggested that the federal law enforcement efforts would be more worthwhile elsewhere, though he said his office would cooperate.
“This investigation is absurd, baseless, and without merit,” Turner said, adding that it is “a slap in the face to the City and the many people who diligently work to address illegal dumping daily and prevent environmental injustice.”
The failure to treat residents equally threatens the health and safety of Black and Latino people and devalues their property, said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, who oversees civil rights investigations in Washington, D.C. The case also exemplifies broader environmental justice concerns the agency is working to combat. Justice officials confirmed the Houston case is one of two such investigations its department is carrying out.
“Illegal dumping is a longstanding environmental justice issue,” Clarke said, “and like many other environmental justice issues it often disproportionately burdens Black and Latino communities.”
Dumping has been a problem in Houston for a long time. Every candidate for City Council District B, which is where the bulk of the activity in this story is, has talked about doing things to combat it. The city has done some things, as Mayor Turner says, also including more camera surveillance to try to catch the dumpers. That doesn’t mean that they city’s response to complaints from residents has been just and equitable. I’d like to think that it has, and I hope this investigation shows that it mostly has been, but whatever else it finds I’m certain there will be many ways where it can and should improve. If in the end there’s a consent decree to address the problems, like there was with the sewer system, that’s fine. Let’s fix what’s broken and make things better for the people who need that. The Trib has more.