In acknowledging these issues, we may better appreciate the work of ATC’s fair housing department. At a time of unprecedented population growth and wealth disparity in Austin, the principles for which the Fair Housing Act stands, now, more than ever, need a vigilant defense. The times demand it. National events of late reinforce, among staff, the fact that their work is not just locally significant but that it stands in sharp contrast to a cynical national message that seems to minimize the historic disadvantages of marginalized communities everywhere. “I come to work everyday feeling strongly that my work has a new sense of urgency. The clients we’re serving need to know that we show up everyday ready to hear their stories and defend their rights. Right now, it just feels like our mission is urgent,” explains Lucy Salinas, ATC Fair Housing Specialist.
A reminder of the urgency of ATC’s work may be read in recently contemplated amendments to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) mission statement. In March of this year, HUD considered stripping language affirming the spirit of the Fair Housing Act.
In a March 8 letter to Secretary Carson, several hundred civil rights organizations protested the proposed changes in the strongest terms possible. The original mission statement, affirming “inclusive and sustainable communities free from discrimination,” survives as of this writing.
However, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services did, in fact, make revisions to their mission statement stripping language acknowledging “America’s promise as a nation of immigrants…” Language matters, and the message to historically underrepresented people living in this nation seems clear.
In such a climate, ATC’s fair housing program stands as a bulwark against the implied threat “from above” that their work is, at best, peripheral to the mission of our federal government. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the need in our nation for fierce advocates of fairness and equality is a historical necessity in keeping alive the American promise that we all deserve equal treatment. Fair Housing Director Nekesha Phoenix spoke to the heart of the matter: “The value of the work that our fair housing staff does everyday is hard to overstate. We are living in difficult times, both locally and nationally. The struggle for fair and equitable housing in Austin is certainly not new. We’ve been talking about these issues for decades. However, this moment in our history is, in some ways, unique. I cannot recall a time when the work of fair housing advocates everywhere was so actively challenged by the rhetoric of leaders in the highest levels of our government. We must not be silent in the face of these assaults against our basic human rights. People need hope and strong assurances that their rights, which so many before us have struggled and died to preserve, will not be diminished. Case by case and issue by issue, we will continue to fight right along side Texans for safe, decent, and fair housing. This is the underlying value of our work at the Austin Tenants Council.” Director Phoenix started at ATC as a fair housing specialist and testing coordinator in 1997. She has served as program director since 2001.