In unaffordable, inequitable Dallas, a housing policy — finally! — meant to right decades of wrongs

Staff Photographer

By this time next week, depending on how the Dallas City Council votes, this city should have a comprehensive housing policy, No. 4 on my list of Things That Will Never Happen. I was going to call this Dallas’ first-ever comprehensive housing policy, but that’s not at all accurate. Because the absence of a housing policy is a policy, too.

Lack of a policy is what helped get us into our affordable-housing crisis — the one that left us short some 20,000 housing units and rendered Dallas one of the least inclusive, most inequitable cities in the country, according to the roughly 493 poverty-in-Dallas PowerPoints I’ve read in recent months. As The Flatlanders put it in 1972, "Dallas is a rich man with a death wish in his eye/A steel and concrete soul with a warm-hearted love disguise."

Until now Dallas’ housing policy has been more along the lines of: Build whatever wherever, we really don’t care as long as it looks like a shoe box. Which is why most of our low-income housing has been shunted south of Interstate 30. And why single-family houses are being converted to rental homes at an alarming rate. And why more than half the homes in this city cost upwards of $300,000 and the dwindling middle-class has fled for the suburbs.

Until now Dallas’ housing policy has been a buddy-buddy system of giving — and I mean giving, not loaning, just flat-out handing out — millions in federal dollars to housing "developers" and then looking the other direction when they failed to deliver on time or on budget, if at all.

That’s how the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development investigators wound up wandering City Hall, looking for paperwork that doesn’t exist tied to 54 housing projects funded with $29.9 million in federal dollars that can’t be accounted for. And why Community Housing Development Organizations have been allowed to take so much and deliver so little for the southern Dallas residents they claim to care so much about.

Until now, Dallas City Hall has been just one big, ugly I.M. Pei-designed ATM.

That’s supposed to change come Wednesday, if the council approves a housing policy built on an annotated market value analysis rather than eyeball anecdotes, hard facts rather than gut feelings, real rules rather than handshake deals. The policy’s far from perfect or even entirely nailed down: Many votes will be needed in the future to change antiquated ordinances, for instance, and it doesn’t demand affordable housing from developers unless they’re taking public subsidies.

But what a time to be alive, when City Hall finally decides research, logic and competence are pathways to success.

I attended Wednesday’s City Council briefing expecting to find plenty of naysayers and poo-poo’ers who hate the policy, which, among other things, would help low-rent landlords rehab their deteriorating housing stock, reward apartment owners willing to take housing vouchers, force low-income housing northward and stabilize weaker neighborhoods adjacent to stronger ones to kick-start redevelopment.

But instead I ran into Dallas ISD trustee Miguel Solis, who said he was "hopeful because it’s something in the absence of nothing." And Dallas Area Habitat for Humanity’s executive vice president of neighborhood investment Cyndy Lutz, who said cutting off the federal-dollar spigot will cause pain for some nonprofits, sure, "but overall for the city we think it’s a great thing."

For months the loudest critics have been southern Dallas council members who believe the policy is a new shade of the same old red line around southern Dallas, a death sentence for impoverished neighborhoods.

Dwaine Caraway, for one, was upset at the prospect of seeing those limited federal dollars re-directed away from the same-ol’ toward something better and brand-new. The council member, who has served Oak Cliff for nine years, was outraged that the new plan calls for investing the city’s limited resources in so-called Redevelopment Areas — among them the former Valley View Center, near the coming high-speed rail station, around Red Bird Mall. In other areas, including most of Caraway’s district, the city intends to use other tools, including property tax freezes and rental- and housing-rehab programs, to "preserve affordability or deconcentrate racially and ethnically concentrated areas of poverty."

From the market value analysis map of Dallas, where purples indicate healthy and oranges and yellows show desperate needs.

Caraway, realizing there would be no more city-funded multi-family construction in his district for the foreseeable future, was livid. He insisted that as a result of this new housing policy, his part of Oak Cliff was "only going to get raggedier, have more stray dogs, more teen pregnancies, more crime, more boarded houses, deplorable school conditions and living conditions."

Our competent city manager T.C. Broadnax, who, in giving Dallas a housing policy his predecessors couldn’t or wouldn’t, was clearly tired of the narrative being peddled at City Hall in recent weeks — that the policy was meant to pull money from the south and sink it north. He told Caraway that "you can stand on any corner anywhere" in the mayor pro tem’s district and see tax-credit projects and subsidized housing.

All Broadnax didn’t say was: And how’s that working out for you? He didn’t have to.

Said the city manager, "The idea that we’re going to forsake and not do any work in the southern district I think is a fallacy and is wrong and a mischaracterization of everything this policy stands for."

My hero.

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