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Texas showdown with the federal government leaves Corpus Christi neighborhood in limbo

A refinery at the end of a residential street in Corpus Christi's Hillcrest neighborhood on January 24, 2017. (Photo by Eddie Seal for The Texas Tribune)

by Alexa Ura | The Texas Tribune

The legacies of segregation and neglect have long weighed heavily on the residents of Hillcrest.

Originally established as a whites-only community, the north Corpus Christi neighborhood wasn’t opened to black residents until the 1940s. As Hispanics also moved into the area, so did industrial companies. By 2015, Hillcrest residents were practically surrounded by industrial sites, the ship channel and an interstate highway.

So when local and state officials proposed reconstructing the city’s 1950s-era Harbor Bridge in a way that would effectively isolate Hillcrest from the city's other residential communities, many residents saw it as a last straw. In 2015, they filed a federal civil rights complaint and won the opportunity to leave Hillcrest behind altogether through a government-subsidized voluntary relocation program.

But what was supposed to be a way out for some of the residents in this predominantly black and Hispanic, low-income community has instead left them in a housing limbo. The relocations, which could cost millions of dollars, have been on hold for months due to an impasse between the federal government and the Texas Department of Transportation over who exactly is entitled to which funds and how much they should get.

“You made a promise to us and it’s been over a year now, and nothing has happened,” said Rev. Adam Carrington, a chair of the Citizens Alliance for Fairness and Progress, a neighborhood advocacy group. “[Hillcrest] has been neglected, and the folks have been discriminated against for 30 years if not more ... It’s just another falsification.”

The latest setback involves a historic agreement forged in late 2015 between the federal government and TxDOT and the Port of Corpus Christi to settle the federal civil rights complaint filed by Hillcrest residents. For those Hillcrest property owners who wanted to move, state and local officials agreed to pay both fair-market value for their properties and other relocation costs.

More than a year later, construction of the bridge project has started, but Hillcrest residents are still waiting for the relocation funds they were promised. At issue is whether two groups — landlords who don't live in Hillcrest and undocumented immigrants who currently do — are entitled to relocation funds.

The Federal Highway Administration, which oversaw the agreement, insists that it requires state officials to extend benefits, including both fair-market values on properties and relocation assistance, to landlords and undocumented immigrants. But TxDOT has argued that goes beyond the terms outlined in the agreement and that the federal agency is trying to negotiate a new relocation agreement with additional requirements.

Amid the back and forth, the relocations were temporarily suspended, with TxDOT holding off on issuing relocation offers to the 151 landowners that had requested one so far. Hundreds more property owners could still apply for relocation assistance, according to TxDOT officials.

“After several months of discussions and guidance with Texas DOT on the matter of relocating certain residents of the Corpus Christi-area to accommodate a new bridge, the FHWA and TXDOT are at an impasse,” Federal Highway Administration spokesman Doug Hecox said in a statement. “We continue to try to work through the outstanding issues to make sure that landlords and tenants get the benefits outlined in the agreements.”

Hecox added that the federal government was “continuing to evaluate next steps,” including referring the dispute to the U.S. Department of Justice “to ensure Title VI of the Civil Rights Act is upheld.” Title VI prohibits discrimination based on race in programs and activities that receiving federal funding, and the federal agency has said it also applies to immigrants, regardless of their status.

Federal officials went further in a Jan. 18 letter to the state, warning they could withhold funding for the bridge project if state officials failed to comply with the agreement. The federal government has earmarked $685.7 million for the bridge project — about 64 percent of the total funding for the $1 billion project.

TxDOT deputy executive director Marc Williams said he anticipates the issue will be “resolved quickly,” but the department is standing firm in its decision to not increase the amount of relocation assistance paid to landlords.

“We feel that that goes beyond what’s in the [agreement],” Williams said in an interview. “We don’t believe that it’s warranted. The vast majority of landlords do not live within the Hillcrest neighborhood.”

Additionally, Williams said that TxDOT officials believe they cannot legally extend relocations benefits to undocumented immigrants beyond paying fair-market value for their properties.

Meanwhile, reconstruction of the bridge, which broke ground in August, is moving forward, and TxDOT officials don’t anticipate the construction schedule will be significantly impacted — something that’s become a pressure point for Hillcrest residents.

They’ve “put their lives on hold” and they are frustrated over the delayed relocations, said Carrington.

Residents, who are mostly low-income individuals, tell stories of delaying fixes to their dilapidated homes, including dealing with pest infestations, because they thought “they would be in a different place now,” Carrington said.

For now, lawyers with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, which is representing Hillcrest residents in the relocation process, are urging the state to move forward with relocations for the homeowners who have already applied for an offer — all of whom are living in the country legally.

Further complicating matters — and increasing the level of anxiety among residents — is the political shift in Washington, D.C. The relocation settlement was reached under the Obama administration, and residents worry the Trump administration might instead side with TxDOT on relocation benefits.

Residents “feel that we were kind of used and mistreated and TxDOT was simply waiting on the new administration to come into place,” Carrington said.

State transportation officials previously indicated that the Trump administration would likely review the issue. Williams on Monday said it would be more appropriate for the highway administration to comment on the new administration’s role in a possible resolution, but he acknowledged speculation about the effect a transition in leadership could have on a review of the deal.

“I will say that throughout the process there’s been a leadership involvement, and that leadership is currently being replaced right now,” Williams said.

As of Tuesday, federal officials did not anticipate any changes.

“The FHWA and [TxDOT] continue to work toward a productive resolution to this matter,” Hecox, the Federal Highway Administration spokesman, said. “Other than that, there have been no changes in status.”

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