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

In the early '80s, Finstrom helped start the neighborhood association and worked in two campaigns to eliminate the "multifamily" zoning that permits apartments. However, both efforts fell short. This left the door open to public housing and authorities eager to meet court dictates of the long-running "Walker" desegregation case.

The case began in 1985, when seven African-American women sued HUD, DHA and the city of Dallas in federal court on grounds the city engineered a segregated public housing system from the 1930s to the '80s (HUD recently settled its part of the suit). The suit resulted in the 1987 "Walker" consent degree, named after Debra Walker, the first plaintiff named in the lawsuit.

The consent degree required the reduction of density and renovation of existing housing. However, the Walker case is most notorious for Judge Buchmeyer's later demand that DHA fulfill its desegregation mandate by building public housing in traditionally white areas of town.

Peter Pich, an Asian community leader and elementary school teacher, laments that public housing is built while other community needs go unmet.
Mark Graham
Peter Pich, an Asian community leader and elementary school teacher, laments that public housing is built while other community needs go unmet.
School board member Kathleen Leos denies that racism fuels neighborhood opposition to the projects.
Mark Graham
School board member Kathleen Leos denies that racism fuels neighborhood opposition to the projects.

DHA managed to build 75 units in Far North Dallas by 1998, but a homeowners' suit to halt construction of an additional 474 units in their area met with success when the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans overturned Judge Buchmeyer's race-conscious ruling. Since then, neighbors have embraced DHA's sole 75-unit complex in North Dallas, and fears about crime increases haven't materialized.

Roseland Homes, a dilapidated and grim-looking barracks-style complex, is the most visible component of Dallas' once segregated-by-law system. Due north of downtown near Central Expressway, the 611-unit development was built in 1942 as the first public housing for blacks west of the Mississippi.

Ever since, Roseland and Fitzhugh-Capitol have remained psychologically and geographically separate, according to Harryette Ehrhardt, a Democrat who represents the neighborhood in the state Legislature. Haskell Avenue, she says, was a dividing line between Fitzhugh-Capitol and Roseland because of history, its major thoroughfare status and the character of the two neighborhoods. Yet in court, Ehrhardt acknowledged one major force shaped that character: "Roseland was segregated by edict, by policy, by the city of Dallas."

Currently, Fitzhugh-Capitol's boundaries include Central Expressway to the west, Haskell Avenue to the south, Henderson Avenue to the north and Live Oak Street to the east. These boundaries are in flux. In the '80s, the neighborhood association pegged northern and eastern boundaries at closer-in Fitzhugh and Ross avenues. Residents widened the boundaries when they organized to fight DHA projects early last year; inhabitants just outside of the traditional boundaries wanted in.

Critics of the creeping lines note Haskell Avenue's boundary hasn't budged. But Fitzhugh dwellers counter they received no interest from people south of Haskell.

On its west side, the neighborhood is made up mostly of single-family homes, except for some new luxury apartments near Haskell that appear to be multiplying and creeping north. Capitol Avenue runs north to south through the neighborhood's center. An ethnic market and restaurant district intersects Capitol's north end, while Haskell Avenue's commercial district, home of the Cityplace shopping center as well as the multiscreen Loews Theatres complex, frames Capitol's south end.

Although Capitol itself is a tidy if not prosperous street, some other residential lanes are in obvious disrepair. Old sofas sit in muddy yards of houses, while junk piles full of everything from old bikes to large branches sit on curbs for weeks. Sidewalks are broken up and graffiti mars traffic signs. At several locations in the area, laborers wait for trucks to pick them up and take them to day jobs.

While single-family homes dominate in Fitzhugh-Capitol, low-rent apartment buildings built 20 to 30 years ago are clustered near Ross Avenue and DHA's construction sites. DHA officials point to them as evidence their project fits the neighborhood's character and question whether neighbors would protest private developments. But opponents say that's the point--they don't want more.

Otherwise punctuated by asphalt and used-car dealerships, Ross Avenue is home of the neighborhood's three elementary schools. Gayla Capers, dean of Cesar Chavez Learning Center, has criticized DHA for building in an area where schools are full and playground space is lacking. Chavez is at capacity with 900 students, she says, but DHA never contacted the school. "You would think they'd start by talking," she says.

The usual overcrowding panacea, portable classrooms, isn't possible at Chavez because the school lacks space, Capers says. School boundaries will have to be redrawn, which means some children will end up crossing busy Haskell Avenue to attend Roseland's J.W. Ray Elementary. Capers, who is black, says she resents charges of racism: At an Austin hearing where opponents asked the state to delay Roseland's tax credits, Capers recalls glares from Roseland residents. "It was the first time I felt I was not African-American," she says glumly.

At a community forum in February 2000 where hundreds of Fitzhugh-Capitol residents showed up to voice anger at DHA's projects, one Roseland resident mocked their concerns by questioning whether their property values were worth safeguarding.

Pointing out that he saw garbage in front yards, Charlie Mae Ransom cracks: "I don't know anything that could decrease them." Several Roseland residents and supporters speak passionately in favor of the expansion. "You are angry because once in my life I might be having central air and heat?" asks Flora Daniels, a resident council president. "There were 611 units clustered on top of this ground, and I think we deserve to smell some fresh air, too."

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