DOJ investigating if Houston reacted differently to illegal dumping claims in Black neighborhoods 

The city service hotline has reportedly had problems for a while, but Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner issued a scathing rebuke of the federal probe.

The city of Houston is the subject of a federal investigation into its response to citizens contacting 311 to report illegal dumping. 

According to The Houston Chronicle, the Department of Justice announced Friday it is probing whether Space City violated residents’ civil rights by responding differently to complaints of illegal dumping in locales where Blacks and Latinos comprise the population’s majority.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner speaks during a news conference at January’s 90th Winter Meeting of the United States Conference of Mayors in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The scrutiny began with a complaint from Lone Star Legal Aid filed on behalf of Houston residents in the city’s Trinity Gardens and Houston Gardens neighborhoods. 

“It brings attention to the fact that these little Black and brown communities are fighting a fight that seemed lost,” said Huey German-Wilson, a Houston neighborhood watch president. “And the Department of Justice is saying, ‘No, it’s not lost.’”

According to the complaint, Lone Star Legal Aid is asserting that 311 calls for city services are responded to more slowly when coming from Black and brown neighborhoods than whiter, more affluent ones. 

They also note that in some cases marginalized communities even experience retaliation for calling the hotline. In one incident, after the filing of a complaint, every house on the block of the complainant was cited by the city of Houston for ordinance violations except the caller’s home. The alleged tickets included minor infractions, such as a trash can being outside of a gate. 

The city service hotline has reportedly had problems for a while, but Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner issued a scathing rebuke of the federal investigation in a statement, calling it “absurd, baseless and without merit.” He also labeled it “a slap in the face to the City and the many people who diligently work to address illegal dumping daily and prevent environmental injustice.”

Yet, the DOJ and other environmental justice advocates note that environmental injustice largely exists in marginalized communities. Other issues in the city include poor waste cleanup, the corpses of animals being hurriedly dumped overnight and the expansion of landfills. 

“In America, your ZIP code is often a key determinant in your cancer risk, your risk of pulmonary or respiratory ailments, even your expected life span,” said Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim. “It’s true that any of us could be exposed to environmental contamination, feel the worsening effects of climate change, or fall victim to environmental crime, but it’s also true that communities of color, low-income communities and tribal communities bear these hardships disproportionately.”

According to the Chronicle, federal investigators will probe Houston’s municipal neighborhoods department, solid waste management and police departments, plus the system of its 311 city services hotline. Also up for examination are city records and municipal policies, and area residents will be interviewed. 

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