Houses Divided

A fight over public housing pits working-class East Dallas homeowners against their poorer neighbors in a battle tainted by claims of racism

Alex Ramos wants to stop the "shafting" of his community. The long-time resident of Old East Dallas' Fitzhugh-Capitol neighborhood, who grew up and now lives here with his wife and 6-year-old son, is incensed over 212 public housing units being built near his home by the Dallas Housing Authority (DHA). He fears the developments will lower property values, crowd narrow roads and pack already overcrowded schools in the mostly Hispanic neighborhood.

"Oh buddy, it's just because we're middle-class Mexicans," Ramos, 47, says with scorn, voicing the widespread conviction that authorities quietly selected his community for the projects after deeming its residents not savvy enough to fight them. Later, he adds "lower" to his "middle-class" descriptor. "Up until now," he says, "our neighborhood has always been improving from years past."

So one Saturday morning last fall, he held a yard sale at his home. His mission: raise cash to help pay a lawyer to fight the projects. To lure passers-by, Ramos nailed a placard on a telephone pole in front of his abode. Minutes later, a car carrying two city code enforcement officers pulled up to the curb. The sign, they informed him, was illegal and punishable with a $250 fine.

Attorney Edwin Olsen, left, and neighborhood leaders Elizabeth Castro, center, and Carl Smith, right, hope a last-ditch legal effort will block construction of additional public  housing projects in their area.
Mark Graham
Attorney Edwin Olsen, left, and neighborhood leaders Elizabeth Castro, center, and Carl Smith, right, hope a last-ditch legal effort will block construction of additional public housing projects in their area.

Ramos, a former Boy Scoutmaster and self-employed maker of Native American crafts, talked them out of the fine, which would have exceeded his takings by $140. The officers had spotted a clear infraction of city code. Yet word of the run-in left a residue of suspicion in the neighborhood. Their vigilance, Ramos says, shocked many in an area where such rules are rarely enforced. For instance, neighbors say many residents operate "permanent" yard sales but are never cited.

Indeed, the episode confirmed intense albeit unsubstantiated fears--yard sellers in other neighborhoods were also being fined during that time--that officials have blocked the neighborhood's attempts to affect DHA's plans. "DHA and the city, they work hand in hand," Ramos says.

Authorities express bewilderment at notions of conspiracy. But residents lambaste housing officials for not consulting them when their input could have made a difference. Such ire is the latest offshoot of a long-running Dallas drama. For more than a decade, DHA has struggled to comply with a federal court order mandating desegregation of Dallas' public housing. To meet part of its obligation, DHA is finally redeveloping Roseland Homes, a dilapidated public housing development in the traditionally African-American Roseland neighborhood just north of downtown and south of Fitzhugh-Capitol.

To satisfy the court, however, DHA must also make the project less dense. Hence, construction in nearby Fitzhugh-Capitol to disperse Roseland's crowded residents. DHA officials insist their $75 million project will help the neighborhood by investing in it. However, residents say, DHA forgot to tell them of the agency's plans. DHA printed notice of several public meetings in The Dallas Morning News classifieds, but the advertisements only warned generically of "Roseland revitalization."

Perturbed Fitzhugh-Capitolites argue they had no way of knowing their interests were at stake and never showed up. They tender the busy dividing Haskell Avenue artery and different representation in elected offices from City Hall to Congress as proof Roseland and Fitzhugh-Capitol are discrete. DHA officials, who plead ignorance of such distinctions, apologize for poor communication but say the project must proceed nonetheless. "Could we have done things differently? Absolutely," says Ann Lott, DHA's new president. "Hindsight always has 20-20 vision."

Meanwhile, the area's elected school, city, state and congressional officials have embraced residents' efforts to halt the projects in court. The neighborhood was "steamrolled" by an agency that believes court mandates "give them carte blanche to do whatever they choose to do," says Congressman Pete Sessions, a Republican. "I get the feeling a lot of this was done very secretly and railroaded through," says Kathleen Leos, a Dallas school trustee who lives near one construction site.

Yet the dispute involves more than development. It's the latest friction point in an increasingly diverse Dallas, where black-white divides fade behind mounting black-Hispanic conflict. Outraging residents, DHA lawyers and allies fended off Fitzhugh-Capitol's initial court challenge by portraying their opposition to a mostly black housing project as racist. At an August federal court hearing, Mike Daniel, attorney for the desegregation case plaintiffs, said the residents "want to enforce a regulation that keeps more people of color from coming in."

Incredulous, Fitzhugh-Capitol inhabitants point to the neighborhood's diverse mix of Hispanic, white, Asian and black inhabitants. Residents also believe their new neighbors on public assistance will live better than they do, since DHA's units will feature washer-dryer sets, central air conditioning and roofs that don't leak. "There's a lot of resentment," says Joe May, a Hispanic activist and Fitzhugh-Capitol homeowner. "You've got people living there all their life in poverty."

DHA has nearly completed some of the apartment units. Residents are fighting on a shoestring budget to block the rest. Attorney Edwin Olsen promises a fight all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary, challenging whether bureaucrats can define neighborhood boundaries to suit their interests. "If the neighborhood wants to preserve its character as a single-family neighborhood," he says, "it needs to draw a line in the sand here."

It may be too late to stop two 70-unit projects under construction in Fitzhugh-Capitol. Like Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory, they are "facts on the ground." But DHA still plans another 70-unit development in the area--and must build hundreds more units throughout Dallas to satisfy court orders.

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