HOUSTON — The last time Kimberly Gibson made a cake for her son was on his first birthday. But she knows 18 is a milestone, especially for a young man on his way out of the projects, destined to play college football.
So on a September afternoon, Gibson dumped two boxes of Betty Crocker vanilla cake mix into a bowl, added eggs, water and oil, and stirred the lumpy batter in her cramped galley kitchen.
Baking hadn’t been an option for birthdays past, when she was exhausted by the daily tasks required to simply keep her son out of trouble and alive in a neighborhood ridden with violence. In this part of Third Ward, where Black men are referred to as an “endangered species,” each untimely death is memorialized on the orange brick wall of the corner store. The “ghetto angels,” as they are collectively known.
The most prominent of those is now George Floyd, the former Cuney Homes kid who has become the embodiment of police brutality and systemic racial inequality in America.
For Gibson, Floyd’s death has been more personal, an unsettling reminder that the future for her son Daniel Hunt remains precarious. His goal of making it out of Houston’s oldest public housing project on a football scholarship echoes Floyd’s journey nearly three decades ago. She knew Floyd as a “gentle giant,” and his face, now emblazoned on neighborhood murals, serves as a solemn warning of the obstacles ahead for Daniel.
“Sports was supposed to have saved him,” Gibson said of Floyd. “I told my son: ‘That is you. That is you all day, every day.'”
Daniel had been accepted to a historically Black Christian college a three-hour drive away in Tyler, Tex., on the prospect of an athletic scholarship. But the novel coronavirus halted those plans. With college turning to virtual classes until at least January and the football season canceled, so, too, was his chance to escape a neighborhood that, by design, remains segregated from opportunity.
Decades of government-sanctioned housing discrimination reverberate through this city. In one of the nation’s most diverse metropolises, much of the housing occupied by low-income Black families is segregated into the shape of a backward “C” around the city center, pierced by wealthier, Whiter neighborhoods to the west that form the shape of an arrow.
The pattern, formed by Jim Crow-era policies dictating where African Americans could live, is cemented today by state law allowing landlords to discriminate against Section 8 voucher holders, weak enforcement of federal civil rights laws promoting integration and White residents’ objections to the construction of affordable housing in affluent communities.
In Houston, one of the nation’s most diverse metropolises, decades of government-sanctioned housing discrimination have resulted in today’s racially segregated neighborhoods.
Cuney Homes, Houston’s oldest public housing project, is located in Third Ward, a historically Black neighborhood. Most of the city’s public housing is also located in Black or Hispanic communities.
Houston neighborhoods are also segregated by income. Top-rated schools, low-crime rates, and job opportunities are also largely located within Whiter, wealthier neighborhoods.
Texas law allows landlords to discriminate against Section 8 voucher holders. Less than 1 percent of Black voucher recipients live within the more affluent, arrow-shaped western portion of the city.
The Fountain View apartments would have been the Houston Housing Authority’s first Low-Income Housing Tax Credit development to allow the poorest families a chance to live within these more affluent neighborhoods. But the project was blocked after predominantly White residents objected, prompting a federal civil rights investigation.
Children growing up in segregated, low-income neighborhoods like the one surrounding Cuney Homes are exposed to more crime and heavier policing, researchers have found. They are also more likely to attend struggling schools, resulting in lower college attendance and future earnings.
This was the reality Floyd faced when he left Cuney Homes for college in 1993 on an athletic scholarship. He neither graduated nor was drafted into professional sports, landing back in Third Ward four years later, a towering figure well-liked by residents and well-known to police.
It is against these same hurdles that Gibson has raised her son to adulthood.
As soon as he took his two birthday cakes out of the oven to cool, Daniel headed toward the door. Friends were on their way to pick him up for a haircut. Gibson hid her disappointment and pulled him in for a hug, squeezing him tight as he tried to dodge the kiss she planted on his cheek. He playfully knuckled her head. She asked how much money he needed.
“Twenty,” he said.
“Why so much? You going to cut it all off?” Gibson was not a fan of her son’s mini-fro or the streak of bleach on the side. She had always kept his hair shorn short.
“Because I’m a grown man now and pay grown man prices,” Daniel said, smiling.
“You know a grown man pays his own way. A grown man pays the mortgage. A grown man does his own laundry and work,” Gibson retorted, only partly in jest.
Minutes later, a Cadillac SUV pulled up. Daniel jumped in as his mother followed behind with a $20 bill. She peered into the passenger window and opened the back doors, checking to see who was inside. She made a mental note to ask him about two faces she did not recognize.
Since moving into Cuney Homes nine years ago, Gibson has kept a vigilant eye on her youngest child, awaiting his safe return every time he left for school, football practice or the corner store.
She knows it is time to relinquish control, but her anxiety has only grown since Floyd’s death. Her son’s life, she fears, could end the same way, calling out for his mama as he takes his final breaths. So she remains on the lookout, in what she fears will be a futile effort to shield her 6-foot-1, 190-pound child from neighborhood troubles as he yearns to break free.
“Instead of worrying about his future, I worry about him daily. It’s almost like we’re in survival mode,” said the 50-year-old single mother of four. “I have a Black child I have to take care of now more so than ever.”
Whenever Daniel walks to the bus stop, she picks up the binoculars she keeps by the front window and tracks his lanky frame as he passes Texas Southern University, Jack Yates High School, the remodeled wood-framed homes that were flipped after foreclosure and the fast-food joints in the distance, until she can see him no more.
Beyond ‘the walls’
Cuney Homes opened in 1940 to house African American porters, maids, chauffeurs and other low-wage workers, some of whom were forced to move from Houston’s oldest Black community because city leaders wanted to raze their dwellings in the name of “slum clearance” and develop public housing for Whites in the more desirable tracts bordering downtown.
The 553-unit housing project named for Norris Wright Cuney, a Black politician born to an enslaved mother and a White planter, lies along Alabama Street, once the line separating Black neighborhoods from White ones in Third Ward. Black domestics and drivers could cross the divide to work for White, predominantly Jewish families, but had to return to their side of town by sundown.
Whites began moving out of the area after Texas State University for Negroes, now called Texas Southern University, was constructed across the street from Cuney Homes in 1947. The state legislature created the historically Black college to avoid integrating the University of Texas.
At the time, there was little stigma attached to public housing as young Black families and new arrivals seeking jobs in Houston temporarily settled in the well-maintained complex while saving to buy their own houses. Attitudes began to shift in the 1970s, when integration made it possible for middle-class Black families to move to the suburbs, and this part of Third Ward lost many of its businesses and services. Pockets of poverty developed as neighborhood economics changed.
By the time George Floyd arrived in Houston from North Carolina as a preschooler in 1977 with his mother and siblings, the state legislature had designated Texas Southern a “special purpose” university for “urban programming.” Among the university’s goals: to create a national model for addressing generational poverty, using neighboring Cuney Homes as a laboratory.
Researchers were enlisted to help reduce crime rates and police violence, raise student achievement and improve health standards, said Anthony W. Hall Jr., the former Texas state representative who wrote the 1973 bill. For two years, the state gave the university extra money to increase faculty salaries and attract expert talent, he said. TSU’s special designation remains on the books, but it’s no longer supported by additional state funding.
“This was supposed to be a grand experiment showing the nation how poverty can be transformed, how you can take people from public housing to a law degree, to being a principal, to being a pharmacist,” said Rodney Ellis, a longtime state senator who is now a Harris County commissioner. “How do you get a George Floyd to think beyond the walls of that housing project?”
Nearly 50 years after Texas Southern adopted its urban mission, not much has changed for impoverished Black Houstonians who remain isolated from opportunity.
For generations, federal and local housing policies have perpetuated racial economic inequality. Highway projects carving up Third Ward displaced Black homeowners. Discrimination in mortgage lending through redlining — a government-condoned practice of refusing home loans in minority neighborhoods marked “hazardous” with red ink — allowed White families to accumulate wealth in homes that appreciated in value while Black families were denied.
Discrimination by lenders and landlords persists today, even after the 1968 Fair Housing Act made such practices illegal. Federal data and other research reveal that banks deny Black and Hispanic borrowers conventional mortgage loans or charge them higher fees and interest rates than White borrowers with similar credit profiles. And Black low-income renters face more difficulty than White low-income renters accessing housing in affluent neighborhoods with high-performing schools and other resources, according to civil rights complaints.
While there have been attempts in Houston to address the disparities caused by deeply entrenched racism, including housing vouchers and federal directives to desegregate neighborhoods, success remains elusive — like a mother’s efforts to protect her Black son from his surroundings while looking for a way out.
No other choice
Gibson was 32 and a mother of three when she gave birth to 8-pound baby Daniel in 2002. They were living in an apartment near Houston’s medical center in a diverse, working-class neighborhood just north of where she had grown up. She was getting by, working minimum-wage jobs at a boutique hotel and its restaurant while taking classes at a community college in hopes of getting into nursing school.
Life shifted during the Great Recession, when Gibson was laid off. Rent had already risen from $650 to $1,000 a month after a new stadium was built for the Texans, Houston’s pro football team. She could no longer afford to live in the gentrifying neighborhood and was evicted after falling behind on payments. Gibson sent her three teenage children to live with relatives. But Daniel was her baby, and she was his only parent. She and Daniel slept in her 1997 Honda Civic in a Walmart parking lot, then moved into a homeless shelter for two years. She continued going to school and picked up side jobs catering, bartending and babysitting.
Daniel was 8 years old when he and his mother moved into Cuney Homes, where Gibson’s grandmother has lived since selling the aging house in which Gibson was raised to an “I buy ugly homes” outfit in 1995.
Sirens and police helicopters circling overhead kept Gibson awake at night for the first few months. She had never heard gunshots before moving here. Driven by the guilt of having to raise her youngest son in an environment she deemed too dangerous, Gibson shelved her college and career goals to keep a close watch on him and his schooling, doing everything to ensure that he graduated. She never made it into nursing school, picking up occasional secretarial work through a temp agency instead.
“I stopped living 18 years ago,” Gibson said. “I don’t go out. I don’t date. I don’t have a life because I’m so busy with Daniel.”
Aside from school and sports, the shy boy with a stutter spent his childhood in their two-bedroom apartment, drawing superheroes and playing with Hot Wheels. He was allowed to play with friends around the front porch, but Gibson made sure he never strayed far from the concrete steps without her.
“I told him, ‘Daniel, you know what goes on in the hood. You don’t want to get caught up in the system. Once you get caught up in the system, it will ruin your dreams,’” she said.
She pushed him into athletics to keep him out of trouble, for a shot at college and a way out of “The Bricks,” as residents refer to Cuney Homes. She enrolled him in four sports — football, baseball, basketball, and track and field — including a youth league in the wealthy suburban enclave of Sugar Land, where she took him for football practice and games five days a week “so he could be with different kids instead of the kids here raising themselves.”
When Daniel reached sixth grade, she chose an all-boys charter school more than an hour away by two buses, on the south side of town. He remained there through high school, even though the neighboring public school, Jack Yates High, which Floyd had attended, had a renowned athletic program.
“Academics are tops for me,” Gibson said. “It’s not so much making it to the NFL; it’s getting out of the hood and getting educated.”
A couple years ago, Gibson was on the porch watching her son play basketball when she heard gunshots and saw a man limping toward her. She recognized the victim as the uncle of one of Daniel’s friends. She ran toward him and tied his shirt tight around his leg to stem the bleeding until an ambulance arrived. Then she and a neighbor scrubbed the blood from the concrete with bleach and hot water.
Luckily, Daniel had fled to safety. Mother and son have long had a plan for when shootings erupt at the basketball court. Because guns are more likely to be fired from a car for a quick getaway, Gibson always instructed Daniel to run away from the parking lot to her grandmother’s apartment.
Months later, Daniel was grabbing a Gatorade at the corner store when once again, the pop, pop, pop of gunshots rang out. By the time he stepped outside, a young man in a wheelchair had been hit, another unintended victim. After that, Daniel no longer wanted to go to the store, instead writing his mother a list of things to buy — pineapple juice, gummy bears, nacho cheese Doritos.
Those felled by gun violence are memorialized on the back wall of the corner store, their names etched in marker on brick after brick. “Endangered Species,” someone painted alongside white doves and cherubs. “Black Man You’re a Beast. Hood Cry Out.” A new mural honoring “Big Floyd” covers an adjoining wall. Across the street, where neighbors used to gather in a dirt lot and gossip in the shade of a pecan tree, a fence has been erected in response to the recent rise in shootings.
“He can’t stay here. He cannot,” Gibson said. “But we have no other choice.”
Because the apartment buildings all look the same, they are easy to confuse, she said. People used to knock on her door at all hours of the night, asking for a drug dealer who does not live there. “You don’t know if they’re trying to break into your house or actually looking for that person,” she said. “Even the police get confused.”
She lives in fear that police will mistake her son for another tall, slender, young Black man. After all, police had handcuffed Daniel last summer when a teenage neighbor accused him of spraying mace in his face. Gibson, who had just arrived home from the grocery store, said she showed the officers her cellphone to prove that her son had been talking to her at the time of the alleged incident.
“I tried to keep my cool. I wanted to say, ‘Hey, don’t put those handcuffs on him.’ I don’t want him to experience that at 16 years old for something he didn’t do,” Gibson said. “Here, you cannot go against the police because the next thing you know, housing will try to evict you.”
Daniel kept his composure, as his mother taught him, and the police let him go after questioning the accuser in more detail. They never apologized or acknowledged their mistake in any way. The incident, Gibson said, left her even more paranoid about her son’s safety.
Despite the dangers, or because of them, longtime residents say they’ve tried to maintain a strong sense of community, watching out for one another and helping to raise each other’s children and grandchildren.
“But if they got a Section 8 voucher, they moved out,” said Veronica A. DeBoest, the 67-year-old resident council president who has lived in Cuney Homes for 30 years. “You have to go on the waitlist, and it’s way longer than the list to get in here.”
Gibson said she’s tried at least four times to apply for a coveted Section 8 housing voucher, federal rent subsidies for privately owned apartments and houses. The program, established in 1974, is supposed to give recipients a choice of where to live and break up the concentration of poverty. But she’s never even managed to make it onto the waiting list.
In 2016, the last time the Houston Housing Authority opened the waiting list, nearly 69,000 families applied for 30,000 slots, drawn by computerized lottery. Once on the list, it can take another five to 10 years to land a voucher because of low turnover; 25,571 households are still waiting today.
While some view Section 8 vouchers as the golden ticket in low-income housing, recipients are often relegated to the same impoverished, segregated communities they may be trying to flee.
In Houston, less than 1 percent of Black voucher recipients live within the arrow-shaped western portion of the city closest to top-rated schools and strong job prospects, according to a Washington Post analysis of Houston Housing Authority data.
Landlords are not required to accept Section 8 vouchers. The Texas legislature passed a law in 2015 prohibiting cities from adopting ordinances that would have barred landlords from discriminating against renters based on source of income.
Gibson said she would like a voucher so she could move back to the neighborhood where she was raised. Other Cuney residents say they would try to stay in gentrifying Third Ward, but rents outside public housing are becoming unaffordable, even with government subsidies.
The percentage of White residents in Third Ward has more than doubled since 2000, now accounting for 17 percent of the population, according to city planning data. So, too, has the area’s median household income, growing from $14,500 a year in 2000 to $34,000 in 2017 as new townhouses sprang up.
“When I first moved here, if you were White, you were only here to buy drugs,” Gibson said. Now, she waves to smiling White neighbors jogging, biking and walking their dogs in the blocks surrounding Cuney Homes, where many Black residents do not feel the same sense of ease.
Daniel said he recognizes that every mother wants their sons to “get out of the ghetto,” but over time, he has grown attached to Cuney Homes, where neighbors bring each other food and share their laptop computers with him. It is, simply, home.
“I want to leave but … I don’t,” Daniel said. “I’m grown up and can handle myself now.”
Inside the arrow
The Houston Housing Authority thought it had come up with a remedy for the legacy of racial segregation when it proposed building affordable housing in a prosperous, predominantly White community in the shadow of the glittering Galleria shopping district.
The Fountain View apartments would have been the agency’s first subsidized housing development to give the poorest families, including Cuney Homes residents, a shot at living within “the arrow.”
“It was a chance at a better life, a chance we were never given,” said Travis Cains, a bail bondsman who grew up with Floyd in Cuney Homes and considered Floyd a little brother.
But hundreds of residents, most of whom were White, packed a school gymnasium on a stormy night in 2016 to voice their objections before the housing authority board. Neighbor after neighbor cited their fears of lower property values, increased crime and traffic, and school overcrowding.
“If I hand you a group of 40 grapes and I tell you that two of them are poison, how many of those grapes are you going to eat?” said a man with wavy, white hair, according to a video recording of the meeting. “So affordable housing, great. It’s wonderful to have compassion. But I think if we look around our country, much of the compassion has led to problems.”
When the head of the housing authority pointed to economic research showing that a child from a low-income family who grows up in a more affluent neighborhood can increase their lifetime earnings by more than $300,000, groans from the audience drowned him out.
The project was ultimately blocked by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, a Black Democrat, who cited costs — not community opposition — despite the federal government’s allocation of tens of millions of dollars for construction. The Fountain View failure prompted the Obama administration to launch a fair housing investigation and declare that the city had violated civil rights law in perpetuating segregation.
“Facts demonstrate that the Mayor’s decision was based in part on racially motivated local opposition,” the Department of Housing and Urban Development wrote in January 2017 during the final days of the Obama presidency. “The City has an established pattern of failing to site or support affordable housing projects in predominantly white neighborhoods.”
HUD initially ordered Houston to reverse course or face federal sanctions. But the agency, which has rolled back fair-housing rules and investigations under President Trump, softened its stance in 2018, withdrawing its earlier findings of discrimination and merely suggesting that the city build affordable housing in “high opportunity” areas like the Galleria instead of mandating it.
Turner, in a statement to The Post, said he has asked the housing authority to look for alternative locations for affordable housing that still have “access to good public services, quality schools, and businesses.” The agency said it has recently acquired or built four such developments within “the arrow” in which half the units are set at varying levels of affordability.
While many Cuney residents say they would have welcomed the opportunity to move to Fountain View, others like Gibson say the decision is not so simple. Being a Black person in a White world comes with its own dangers, she said, so she has little choice but to make do with the circumstances she knows.
“I’ve been discriminated against at every age for being a Black girl — from police yelling at me to ‘Get out of the street, nigger!’ when I was riding my bike, to the White managers in my jobs not letting me move up,” Gibson said. “If those people don’t want us there, why go there?”
A life on hold
“Daniel! Daniel!” Gibson yelled from the living room, where she’s been sleeping in an inverted dome chair while recovering from covid-19. “Did you forget what you were supposed to do?”
It was the morning of his 18th birthday, four weeks into his freshman year at Texas College, where he’s been taking virtual classes.
Daniel, still groggy, walked downstairs and sat next to his mother to review his class schedule. Gibson worries that her son is not the strongest student, so she tries to teach him organization and keep him on task. She pulled out a paper calendar and had Daniel write the starting time of each class in the boxes.
“Did you set up Zoom on your phone? Put down COSC, for computer science,” she prompted. He yawned.
A separate dry-erase calendar hanging on his bedroom wall plots his daily activities and responsibilities. Gibson organizes her son’s schoolwork in a color-coded binder with dividers for each subject, tracking his academics as closely as she tracks his movements and friends. She types up all his handwritten assignments for him because she cannot stand to see him pecking the keyboard with one finger.
With his freshman year and football season suspended because of the pandemic, Daniel grasps at what he can these days to stay connected to the future he envisions for himself. That means working out in the mornings, then logging onto virtual classes from his bedroom adorned with trophies and medals from his days as a high school wide receiver.
In his football class, his coach talks to the team about leadership and current events, interspersing discussions about systemic racism with goal-setting. Disembodied voices echo from Daniel’s cracked cellphone because he’s too embarrassed by his appearance to turn on the video feed.
This was not how he envisioned the start of his freedom. Already his high school years ended without fanfare because of the coronavirus. No graduation or celebration with friends; not even a picture in a cap and gown.
“For my whole life, I’ve seen football as my way out. This is my talent,” Daniel said. “Now, everything is on hold.”
He enrolled at Texas College because the private school was the cheapest one he got into with a football program. Tuition, including room and board, is $18,000 a year. He’s received $6,300 in Pell grants, which he was counting on supplementing with a football scholarship and a campus job. But no football season means no football money. And without being on campus, he’s not eligible for a work-study job this term.
Loans are not an option, Gibson said, because she still owes more than $5,000 plus interest in student loan debt from her four years in community college — with no degree.
Before the pandemic, Gibson had been volunteering in Houston public schools, chaperoning field trips, loading students onto school buses, photocopying handouts for teachers, while looking for work she could do from home. Her options were limited, she said, because employers did not understand why it was important for her to be home by 4 p.m. to meet her son after school.
Gibson contracted the coronavirus in early June but never went to the hospital — “Who’s going to watch Daniel?” Months later, she still wakes up sweaty with a fever many nights, even though she’s cranked her air conditioning down to 65 degrees and sleeps upright with frozen bottles of water lining the back and sides of her chair. Some days she is so fatigued she does not get up. And when she does, she gets winded, like a weight is pressing against her chest, her lungs on fire.
Even then, she spends at least three hours a day job-hunting and scouring for scholarships. She recently missed two interviews for customer service call center jobs because the Internet was down. She’s applied for dozens of scholarships in Daniel’s name.
Her sacrifices were validated recently when the school district called and asked her to pick up a large white envelope. When Daniel arrived home, he pulled out a sepia-toned document bearing his name, “Daniel Renoard Hunt.” He held the textured paper between his fingers, admiring it for several minutes as a smile crept up the side of his mouth.
“This is my diploma!” Gibson exclaimed. “We earned this together.”
The day after he turned 18, his first full day as a man, Daniel wanted rainbow sprinkles and vanilla frosting for the birthday cakes his mother had made but never decorated because he’d gone out with friends. At Walmart, Daniel scanned the aisles for snacks, his voice rising an octave as he argued with Gibson over the energy drinks, chips and candy he placed in the shopping cart.
“I told you about dropping stuff in my cart without a price,” Gibson scolded as she fished the packages out.
When they reached the cashier, Gibson reminded her son that she’s only a three-hour Greyhound bus ride away if he ever needed her to come up to Tyler once he moves to campus in January. He grimaced.
“His birthday was yesterday,” Gibson explained to the cashier. “He thinks he’s grown.”
The cashier, a woman in her 50s, turned to Daniel. “How much you turn?”
His voice deepened. “Eighteen.”
“Oh yeah, that’s that age,” she replied knowingly.
Gibson could not resist interjecting: “A grown man cleans his room….”
“What’s your major?” the cashier asked.
She and Gibson chuckled incredulously.
“Don’t you have a backup?” she said.
He hesitated. “Baseball?”
“What happens if you break your leg?”
Daniel did not respond.
Gibson turned to thank the woman for reinforcing the points she regularly makes about his future — but that Daniel dismisses.
“Pray for us,” she implored.
Then mother and son headed home to decorate his birthday cakes, a quiet moment that she knew held more significance for her than for Daniel.
But Gibson did not eat any of the sheet cake, with the vanilla frosting and rainbow-colored star sprinkles. The coronavirus had robbed her sense of taste. So she sent Daniel on his way, to share their creation with his friends — without her.
She wanted him to enjoy being 18. She wanted her son to be free.
Adrian Blanco contributed to this report.