Cuney Homes: George Floyd grew up in Houston's oldest public housing that carries racial trauma in its bones
Cuney Homes is a public housing complex in the Third Ward area of Houston, Texas. It’s a low-income housing that would not stand apart from others of its kind to anyone who does not know its history. But the city’s oldest public housing complex has racial trauma deep in its bones.
Cuney Homes, also known as “the Bricks”, opened in 1940, reportedly to house African-American porters, maids, chauffeurs and other low-wage workers. The 553-unit housing project was named after Norris Wright Cuney, a Black politician born to an enslaved mother and a White planter.
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With a median income of $15,538, families trying hard to make ends meet is a regular occurrence at Cuney Homes. The implementation of President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief plan may have come as a sort of respite for many residents here, but the neighborhood, which Washington Post reporter Toluse Olorunnipa called a “highly segregated slice of Houston’s diverse metropolis”, still faces several issues. Dilapidated housing, food insecurity, health-care disparities and high unemployment are some of them. And these problems have a deep relationship with race in America. Racially segregated low-income neighborhoods in the US — a stark remnant of 'Jim Crow' housing policies — are as ubiquitous as police violence.
Cuney Homes’ plight, sadly, was brought into the national spotlight because of a tragedy that sent shockwaves across the globe — the death of Geroge Floyd. Larcenia Floyd arrived in Houston in 1977, a single mother of three from North Carolina, to start a new life in Texas. Without much money, she settled in Cuney Homes.
In this predominantly Black and highly impoverished neighborhood, George Floyd and his brothers grew up “eating mayonnaise and banana sandwiches, washing their clothes in the kitchen sink, and sleeping hip-to-hip in a house whose population constantly stretched the capacity of its square footage.”
Floyd left Cuney Homes for a bit. He went to college. But it proved fruitless on both fronts — academic and sports — and he returned back to this neighborhood. Several studies have linked both race and poverty as reasons for non-performance in college. And for Floyd, both factors came into play. Coming back to this neighborhood did not help. Police arrested him in August 1997 for delivering less than a gram of cocaine. A judge sentenced him to six months in jail. This was the first of many. As with education, studies have also found “profound racial disparity in the misdemeanor arrest rate” for offenses like drug possession, theft and simple assault.
In 2007, Floyd was charged with aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon — Floyd had allegedly held a woman at gunpoint while others ransacked the place, looking for drugs and money. After a plea deal, Floyd spent four years at a privately-run prison, without access to vocational training or substance abuse treatment. When Floyd left, he was but a husk of his former cheerful self. His friends claimed he was depressed.
Floyd moved to Minneapolis in 2017 in an attempt to bring his life back on track. To a degree, he was able to do so, even if money still remained a problem. But what happened to him there is what could have happened to him at any point in his younger years in Cuney Homes. And the residents there are more than aware of this terrible truth. For Kimberly Gibson, Floyd’s death is an unsettling reminder of her son Daniel Hunt's uncertain future. “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'.”
Cuney Homes, as per census data, has long suffered from high rates of poverty, unemployment, and underinvestment. More than 60 percent of households live under the poverty line. The child poverty rate is above 75 percent, according to the most recent figures, which were collected before the coronavirus pandemic. Homeownership rates are a fraction of the citywide average, and a majority of residents and students require government assistance for food.
At the same time, it has also seen myriad attempts from the government to help its residents — all of which have not been able to change much for the people who call “The Bricks” their home. The pandemic worsened many of the disparities in the housing project. “The hits keep coming,” said Shell Reed. “I have neighbors that are barely able to make it due to the pandemic. It just set everybody back.”
Joe Biden’s economic plans, however, look like a beacon in the dark for this neighborhood, whose residents found the stimulus payments helped put out several immediate fires. But speaking to its larger scope, Sunia Zaterman, executive director of the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities, said, “If we don’t make a difference in individual lives, then we really haven’t done the job yet. The folks in the community that George Floyd grew up in — that is our test of whether our models, our resources, our impact has hit our target.”