Two community leaders are calling on a Fresno Housing Authority commissioner to resign after she expressed opposition to a Clovis housing project, saying the area might not be the “best place” for diversity.
Those critics have interpreted Commissioner Terra Brusseau’s remarks as being racist and offensive to the economically disadvantaged. Brusseau said her words have been twisted and misconstrued, and that she doesn’t plan on resigning.
The comments were made at a March 26 meeting discussing a proposed 60-unit housing project on 4.175 acres of land at Willow and Alluvial avenues designated for low- to middle-income families.
During the back-and-forth between commissioners, Brusseau talked about Garfield Elementary School in that neighborhood and the project’s potential impacts as an example of why she’s opposed. She cited public transportation and the schools the children of the families would attend as some of the issues with the project that require discussion.
“As I even just look today at Garfield Elementary School, which is what this, um, feeds into, it is a majority white school, that, um, I think there are more, better areas for diversity and our residents to feel like they are in the right place,” she said.
During the 2017-18 academic year, white students accounted for 53.4 percent of Garfield’s total enrollment, according to the most recent numbers from Ed-Data, which compiles comprehensive K-12 education data in California. Hispanics (28.2 percent) represented the largest ethnic group of students. African American students represented 2.4 percent of Garfield’s enrollment.
Brusseau’s statement has raised the eyebrows of people like Fresno City Councilwoman Esmeralda Soria, who had been a critic of Brusseau’s appointment. Soria, who didn’t attend the March meeting, said she initially heard chatter in the community about the comments that were made during the meeting.
“These comments take me back to 1955, when Plessy v. Ferguson was overturned and our country was debating how we would integrate students after generations of legal racial segregation,” Soria said.
“I am of a strong belief that families should have the right to attend any school or live in any neighborhood regardless of socioeconomic status or color of their skin. Such remarks are offensive and contrary to the values of our city,” she added.
Pastor Paul Binion of Westside Church of God, who said he heard about Brusseau’s comments secondhand, was also troubled.
Binion recalled his early childhood in Alabama and the racial attitudes present in those days.
“It was a bigoted, racial, hateful, hate-filled environment we had to grow up in, and we had to live with it every single day. Racism was overt. It was institutional,” he said.
“The things I heard stated by this board member took me back to that time. I’m a man who is about 70 years old, and two generations later, we’re still dealing with the same attitude and mindset in our supposedly enlightened time.”
Brusseau said neither Soria nor Binion were present at the meeting, and she encouraged them to listen to the meeting’s audio.
During the March 26 meeting, Brusseau said she believed the only reason why the project was ongoing was simply because the housing authority has the entitlements to move forward. An entitlement is a legal process used to obtain land use approvals from the city, according to Housing Authority spokeswoman Brandi Johnson.
“I would love (for housing authority projects) to be in Clovis in a more thoughtful place; to me, that makes more sense for our residents,” Brusseau said. “I don’t think that it’s the right place for us to be.”
Brusseau on Monday told The Bee she had no issue with low- to middle income families having an opportunity to reside in Clovis. Brusseau said she has been “falsely targeted,” and said she was “truly offended.”
“I raised concerns about this project, and rather than those concerns being addressed, instead, my words are being flipped in order to distract from the real issue here, which is: Are we putting the best project forward?” she said.
“I raised some concerns about how well thought-out the project was, and now my remarks are being turned to implicate that I meant something that I never intended.”
On Tuesday, Brusseau sent a statement to The Bee that included an apology.
“I sincerely apologize if my remarks at the Board meeting offended anyone. That was not my intent,” the statement reads. “My overriding concern has been and will continue to be for the residents I am tasked to represent.”
When projects come for approval, Brusseau said, residents have to be “at the top of everyone’s mind.” She said her concerns stemmed from the lack of community engagement, and the absence of communication with the school district and business owners about the project.
When asked if she believed low income people couldn’t thrive in affluent areas, she said she “absolutely” believed they can, but the community needs to be engaged in the process.
“I don’t believe the project right now is putting in place an environment that would allow our families to thrive,” she said. “There are currently other areas, areas within Clovis Unified, that currently have access to resources, given their breakdown of their students. I don’t want to be reactive, I want to be proactive, and I want to see the engagement with the school district happening now so that the resources are in place, and it sets our kids up for success.”
Discussion on the dais
During the meeting, many on the 14 commissioners didn’t challenge Brusseau.
Preston Prince, the executive director and CEO of the housing authority, said from the dais during the meeting that mobility studies support Brusseau’s concerns. People who move out of public housing and into what’s called “areas of opportunity,” such as Clovis, sometimes don’t feel welcome or connected and end up returning to their previous neighborhoods.
Now, the housing authority uses “navigators,” or mobility counseling to help with those issues and make the moves successful. “This is about choice,” he said.
On Tuesday, he told The Bee that he wasn’t supporting the concerns addressed by Brusseau, but was rather explaining that mobility has been a conversation and has been studied. In the 1990s, research did show that families felt alienated after moving to areas of opportunity, he said.
But recent research has now shown that families that move to zip codes of opportunity with high-performing schools do “achieve a high level of success.”
“The research has evolved and gotten better and that’s what I trying to say at the time of the board meeting,” he said.
Providing such opportunities, Prince said, is part of the agency’s mission and vision.
Board Chair Adrian Jones, who is black, seemed to support Brusseau’s concerns. “To sit here as your chair, as an African American woman, I would lie to say that I didn’t also feel some of the concerns that she has raised,” she said.
“I have a son, I fear (for) our black and brown young men over there at the mall with their hoodies on minding their own business.”
However, during an interview with The Bee on Tuesday, Jones distanced herself from Brusseau’s comments, and said the remarks “were not aligned” with the housing authority’s vision and mission.
“Though it may have sounded that I supported her comments, that is not the case,” she said. “I found the specific statements problematic, and I do not support that specific position... I believe that it is necessary for the housing authority’s position to be clear.”
Jones said she was unsure if the agency or the board can apologize for one commissioner’s comments, but she personally took a stance to that effect.
“I personally apologize for any negative or racist tone that was received or made,” she said.
Commissioner Mary Castro on the day of the meeting expressed a different sentiment.
“I don’t want to shy away from projects that have been avoided because of the ‘not in my backyard,’ ” Castro said.
“We are giving opportunities to people to choose to go into those areas as residents. They are being drawn to that reason for whatever reason. ... If we shy away from looking at projects that are in predominantly white areas or predominant areas that have not been welcoming to housing authority projects, we’re not going to change anything.”
Lack of diversity a problem, Soria says
Brusseau was appointed to the housing authority about a year ago. She replaced former commissioner Verna Santos.
At the time, Soria expressed concern about the appointment and called on Mayor Lee Brand to consider diversity in his appointments.
“One of the things that’s important to me, as I mentioned to the administration, is that our boards are reflective of the community we serve,” Soria said. “I’m sad to see (Verna) wasn’t reconsidered.”
Brusseau is the owner of Central Valley Group, a political and nonprofit consulting firm. She worked on Brand’s mayoral campaign as well as the No on P (proposed parks tax) campaign in 2018. Her clients also include former Congressman David Valadao, District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp and Fresno County Supervisors Nathan Magsig and Buddy Mendes.
Now, Soria and Binion want Brand to reconsider Brusseau’s appointment and remove her.
“Mr. Mayor, is that the way you feel?” Binion asked. “Is that your position, Mr. Mayor, that she represents you? That being the case, how can you be our mayor and feel and think that way?”
Brand’s office was asked about the issue on Monday, and responded with a statement sent via his spokesman. In his statement, Brand defends Brusseau:
“I have spoken with (Brusseau) about her remarks and am satisfied that she fully understands the situation and, more importantly, that she sincerely has the best interests of the entire community at heart. She has my support and I appreciate her service on the Housing Authority Board.”
Late on Tuesday afternoon, Brand’s office sent another statement to The Bee saying Brusseau had “clearly made some statements that she regrets and she has apologized.”
“While her comments don’t reflect my personal sentiments, I’m satisfied that (Brusseau) will learn from this experience and will continue to be a productive representative for the City on the Housing Authority board,” Brand said.
Jones said no internal discussions about a resignation have taken place, but that decision would have to come from Brand’s office.
“That is my understanding,” she said. “We all individually answer to that office.”
Prince, the Housing Authority executive director, said the board may or may not choose to issue a public apology over Brusseau’s comments, but that was beyond his scope.
The board has taken multiple actions in regard with the Clovis project and are moving “full-speed ahead,” he said.
“Staff are really excited about it,” he said.
Johnson, with the housing authority, said the agency anticipates “hearing about several pending funding applications for this project in the coming months.”
In the meantime, Brusseau said she will remain on the housing authority. “I have no intention of resigning, and I will continue to fight for our residents,” she said.