Huey German-Wilson has spent six years trying to get rid of piles of tires, mattresses, and other debris that have marred the streets of her Houston neighborhood.
“It steals our dignity,” said German-Wilson, 58, an activist living in Houston’s Trinity / Houston Gardens neighborhood. “I’ve seen the (neighborhood’s) dignity slowly fade away with the increase of trash and the lack of city interest in our infrastructure and housing.”
She and others in her neighborhood have sent countless photos of the debris to the city’s 311 system but tired of not getting help, they filed a federal complaint in December accusing the city of prejudice and discrimination about its response to illegal dumping complaints in this majority Black and Latino area.
Now, the Department of Justice is investigating how city officials respond to those calls and whether their response discriminates against Black and Latino residents across Houston.
“Illegal dumpsites not only attract rodents, mosquito and other vermin that pose health risks, but they can also contaminate surface water and impact proper drainage, making areas more susceptible to flooding,” US Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “No one in the United States should be exposed to risk of illness and other serious harm because of ineffective solid waste management or inadequate enforcement programs.”
Since last month, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has said the city will cooperate with the DOJ but expects the investigation to determine that Houston “does not discriminate in its responses to neighborhood health and safety issues.
In an interview with CNN, Turner said he was surprised to learn about the DOJ investigation and that “nobody” asked him whether the complaints made by residents were true. He noted illegal dumping is a systemic problem across Houston and last year, the city increased the fines against illegal dumping to the maximum allowed under state law and hired private contractors to pick up heavy trash.
Turner described the allegations of discrimination by the city as “absurd, baseless, and without merit.”
“Now, if you wanna say illegal dumping is occurring, we are on the same page and if you wanna say is occurring more so in communities of color, we are all on the same page. But don’t dare say, don’t dare say that this administration is discriminating against communities of color,” Turner said.
But residents and its legal team say their neighborhoods have long been neglected and illegal dumping is only one of its consequences.
Tires, medical waste and dead animals
For years, illegal dumping has been a top priority for residents at Trinity / Houston Gardens, a neighborhood about 5 miles northeast of the city’s downtown, as piles of debris are often spotted on vacant lots, blocking sidewalks and parts of the road.
German-Wilson who is the president of Super Neighborhood 48, a nonprofit council made up of residents and stakeholders in the Trinity / Houston Gardens neighborhood, says residents volunteered to clean up for at least three years.
“It really wasn’t as impactful as you might have hoped because they could not pick up 200 tires, which is what we found in several locations, sofas, beds, chairs and a plethora of things that come out of people’s houses, businesses or out of their garages and that we find all piled up on the side of the road,” she said.
“We have medical waste in those piles, we have dead animals in it,” German-Wilson added.
In 2016, German-Wilson says she and others started driving around the area, taking photos of illegal dumping and sending them along with their locations to the 311 system by calling or using its mobile app. They also collected the information on spreadsheets and sent them via email to city officials, she said.
Despite about six years of efforts, German-Wilson says the response time to illegal dumping complaints has decreased as much as they hoped for and “people just continue to add to the pile.”
When the city released a new 311 app last year, residents said the platform did not have their prior reports to 311 and the platform was not user friendly. In December, Amy Dinn, managing attorney for the environmental justice team at Lone Star Legal Aid who represents German-Wilson and other residents, sent a federal complaint alleging violations of the Title VI Civil Rights Act to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“It kind of left us with no choice because if they (city officials) say report this way, and that reporting doesn’t work or results in any kind of indifference for the community. Then the system’s broken and we need action to address the problem,” Dinn said.
In the complaint, Dinn wrote that an analysis of data available online from 311 calls between 2013 and when the new city system was put in place last year, showed calls from Trinity / Houston Gardens are not handled as quickly as other neighborhoods.
For Dinn, the data shows it’s “an issue that was intentionally ignored, under resourced as far as trying to deal effectively with the problem or they basically allow the problem to persist in some communities and not others.”
Mayor Turner told CNN that city workers have picked up illegal dumping “in that area two weeks quicker than on average” in the last fiscal year and said the number of complaints have decreased.
“Those are things that DOJ didn’t know, but if they had come and talked to, we could have provided that information to them,” Turner said.
Illegal dumping complaint data sent to CNN by the Houston Mayor’s office shows that complaints from the “Trinity Gardens” neighborhood between June 2021 and July 2022 had an average resolution time of 33.7 days – lower than the average neighborhood wait of 78 days. The mayor’s office also stated that majority Black or Hispanic neighborhoods had average resolution times of 44.9 days, which is lower than the average of 58.3 days in non-majority Black and Hispanic neighborhoods.
CNN has not independently verified the data analyzed by the advocacy group or the data provided by the mayor’s office but has requested illegal dumping complaints data from the city.
In their complaint, residents said the city can’t rely solely on reporting through 311 and suggested the creation and enforcement of programs to combat the high concentration of trash and hazardous materials as well as federal directives that require the city to invest in infrastructure, green spaces and economic development projects for the neighborhood.
Clarke, the US assistant attorney general, has said the DOJ investigation was prompted by the complaint sent by Lone Star Legal Aid. The Justice Department has requested city documents and data from the 311 system, and a team will be interviewing residents, officials, community liaisons and other stakeholders.
While German-Wilson is applauding federal authorities for launching an investigation, she knows her work is far from over.
“I want this to be a place where our kids want to live,” she said. “Both sets of my grandparents and a set of my great grandparents lived on this street. I’m not giving up on this street and therefore, I have to work on everything else that’s around it.”
Maybe one day in the future, she says, there will be more pictures of her four grandchildren in her cellphone than those documenting the garbage in her neighborhood.
“It’s in my phone. It’s in all my emails. Everywhere we go, we’re dealing with it.”
CNN’s Sara Sidner, Meridith Edwards and Priya Krishnakumar contributed to this report.