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

Last August, U.S. District Judge Jerry Buchmeyer removed a major obstacle for DHA, denying neighbors' allegations of fraud in a DHA grant application for Roseland's overhaul. Now, the conflict moves to a new level. Claiming their due process rights under the Constitution were violated, residents in early March filed for a restraining order in New Orleans' 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Despite a lack of funds, residents retain hope of late victory. That's because the conservative appeals court is where several of Judge Buchmeyer's previous public housing rulings have been overturned.

Another legal figure Fitzhugh-Capitol residents hope to vanquish on appeal is Daniel. He's the attorney who 16 years ago filed the original lawsuit to desegregate public housing in Dallas. Many consider Daniel a civil- and voting-rights hero for his work litigating the desegregation case as well as fighting to scrap at-large representation for single-member voting districts, including the lawsuit that led to Dallas's 14-1 city council system. His numerous lawsuits are credited with ending white oligarchic municipal rule in cities across Texas and enhancing the rights of minority Texans.

A lifelong resident of Fitzhugh-Capitol, self-employed craftsman Alex Ramos bitterly decries the Dallas Housing Authority's "shafting" of his neighborhood.
Mark Graham
A lifelong resident of Fitzhugh-Capitol, self-employed craftsman Alex Ramos bitterly decries the Dallas Housing Authority's "shafting" of his neighborhood.
Resentment breeds in Fitzhugh-Capitol as residents perceive their soon-to-be neighbors in public housing will have better digs than their own.
Mark Graham
Resentment breeds in Fitzhugh-Capitol as residents perceive their soon-to-be neighbors in public housing will have better digs than their own.

Lately, though, many Fitzhugh-Capitol residents who qualify for minority status--accused of being racist themselves--haven't been thrilled with his handling of the desegregation case. To be sure, Daniel says he doesn't know if Fitzhugh-Capitol's residents are racist. But he adds pointedly, "White-black racism is not the only kind of racism."

Last August, Elizabeth Castro, president of the Fitzhugh-Capitol Neighborhood Association, confronted Daniel in a hallway of Dallas' federal building. A TV reporter was interviewing Daniel after the last day of a court hearing called to investigate fraud charges made by Fitzhugh-Capitol residents against DHA officials. Suddenly, Castro interrupted the question-and-answer, ripping fiercely into Daniel for implying her neighborhood is racist. "Look at me!" she roared in an emotional harangue. "I am a Hispanic, I am a woman!" Daniel later calls the incident a "bizarre ambush."

Castro, 35, a receptionist at an Oak Lawn doctor's office, speaks English without a Hispanic accent. Yet she's exactly like many of her unassimilated immigrant neighbors, selling old clothes at weekend flea markets to supplement her income. She's certain her grounding in paycheck-to-paycheck existence gives her standing to question DHA, even if Roseland Homes' impoverished residents have faced a shameful history of segregation.

On a recent weekday evening in Castro's home, she and Carl Smith, the neighborhood association's vice president and an equally dedicated opponent of the project, launch into breathless explanations of their opposition to the construction. "It's going to destabilize an already destabilized neighborhood," Castro says. "We aren't saying we don't want any public housing. We are public housing."

Smith, 44, a claims adjuster-turned-owner of an Oak Lawn nightclub, grew up in Fitzhugh-Capitol and never left. The recent conflict, he says, has soured him on government to the point he denounces officials as "con artists." "Before this," Smith intones, "I thought they believed in law, believed in justice." He takes strong offense at the notion that he's a "privileged white boy." Smith says he isn't wealthy and didn't graduate from high school.

Small things that some outsiders overlook dismay Castro and Smith. They object to washer-dryer units and central air conditioning in DHA's future public housing units, especially since nearby homes lack such amenities. "That's why there's so many washaterias in the neighborhood," says Castro, who thinks better public housing will set a poor example to children about the value of work.

In an earlier letter to a Housing and Urban Development official, Smith expressed similar sentiments. Neighbors of the sites, Smith wrote, "will be insulted that they have to live in houses that are falling down because they are too poor to properly maintain them, while their DHA neighbors will be living in luxury apartment housing that they are paying for with their tax dollars." He continued: "Many have commented that they might as well quit working or work less and live in public housing since public housing has gone into the luxury apartment business."

Another detail that upsets Castro and Smith is free transportation that Roseland Homes residents received to attend court sessions and hearings. Smith gripes that while supporters got a free ride, he and other opponents drove or flew on their own dime. "At our public expense, they have lunch," says a ticked-off Smith. DHA officials defend the practice, saying they offer residents transportation to DHA and also provide residents transportation for sporting events and prospective students' college tours.

In contrast, Castro says that many Fitzhugh-Capitol residents could not attend, especially Mexican-American residents, because they couldn't afford to miss work--absences the two say allowed opposing lawyers to portray the situation as a more familiar black-white issue. "That's what our neighborhood is made up of," Smith says, "people who just work, work, work."


Former neighborhood association president Larry Finstrom has researched Fitzhugh-Capitol's history, where he moved 25 years ago for its proximity to downtown. Begun as a professional community of doctors and lawyers, it was built piecemeal in the 1920s on undeveloped land.

Finstrom, 54, a criminal defense attorney, remembers more prosperous times when the city responded faster to service calls. But starting in the 1950s, the area went slowly downhill, Finstrom says, when city planners rezoned the area to permit apartments, a move he surmises was an attempt to foster white flight to growing suburbs. That move backfired, he argues, because developers not enticed to build apartments also stopped building houses because of uncertainty over the zoning.

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