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

The contentious hearing came a few weeks after Carl Smith learned about DHA's projects. In early January 2000, he saw a sign posted at a vacant lot at the intersection of Carroll and Lafayette streets (the other DHA site is two blocks north at the intersection of Monarch and Kirby streets). Incensed, he immediately began inquiring whether a neighborhood association existed.

Days later, he and his neighbors receive their first official notice of the project: certified mail informing them of a public hearing scheduled for February 20 at the Roseland Community Center. Since the area is at least four-fifths renter occupied, many people don't receive notices, but word circulates nonetheless. Later, Smith distributes hundreds of fliers in English and Spanish to inform residents of the meeting.

Hundreds show up at the Roseland meeting, so many that DHA sets up a speaker system outside for the overflow. DHA president Lori Moon (who has since stepped down from the agency) begins the meeting by summarizing the long-running Walker case's mandate that DHA improve public housing. To fund much needed renovations at Roseland Homes, Moon says DHA applied in September 1998 for a $35 million HUD grant set aside for rebuilding decrepit housing projects.

DHA President Ann Lott and Vice President Tim Lott (no relation) tour an unfinished unit that's part of their agency's  initiative to overhaul public housing in Dallas.
Mark Graham
DHA President Ann Lott and Vice President Tim Lott (no relation) tour an unfinished unit that's part of their agency's initiative to overhaul public housing in Dallas.

"What we are planning for Roseland Homes," Moon says, "will be the complete demolition of the site as it exists," with the exception of the community center and two buildings to be preserved for historical significance. The difference, she says, is the new Roseland Homes will have only 486 units rather than 611. An additional 212 units, Moon says, will be dispersed in the "surrounding community," i.e., Fitzhugh-Capitol.

Next up is Tim Lott, DHA's vice president of development and planning. Showing maps of the proposed projects, Lott proudly points out central courtyards, parking and landscaping. He expresses pride in the projects' architectural quality and townhouse style, although these features gall Fitzhugh-Capitol residents, upset over the idea that public housing dwellers may live better than them.

"We are very much in the vein of the Cole Street/McKinney Avenue developments that are being built [near Roseland Homes] ... and across the Central Expressway," Lott says.

When officials allow public comment, the session turns sharply negative. "You've already bought the property. Is that the final step?" queries Connie Rodriguez, a 23-year resident. "We don't have any say-so or anything?" Another resident, Antonio Barajas, asks: "Is there any other part of Dallas...where you have taken a specific dense area and consolidated it into the neighborhoods? Are we an experiment here?" After that man finishes, members of the audience angrily yell, "Answer, answer."

Some unusual voices support the project. J.D. McCaslin, a University Park developer who built an upscale apartment complex next to Roseland Homes, says he's "very encouraged" by the overhaul. Evidently, the projects don't affect high rents at his property. But most participants strike an emotional note against the plan. Wayne Prokay, a Design District antiques dealer, says he won't buy another house in the area. "Would you empty your IRA to have public housing?" he asks. "That's basically what you are asking us to do."

Smith also speaks at the hearing. "Are you going to upgrade our homes the way you are going to upgrade the projects?" he demands. Later, he says the meeting only heightened his frustration because neighbors made no impact. "I went to the meeting with the assumption that it was not a done deal," Smith later says. "But after the meeting, it was pretty clear that the plan was set."

On March 14, 2000, Smith submitted an open-records request for records involving the project. Around the same time, he and other neighbors briefly served on a DHA advisory panel assembled by Judge Buchmeyer. But they quit when DHA officials, citing a previous Buchmeyer order, refused to alter the current development. (Neighbors suggested either converting the project to single-family home construction or allowing elderly residents to live there.)

In early April, Smith received a mass of documents answering his request. According to DHA's records, several small classified advertisements ran in the Morning News long before the February gathering, announcing public meetings beginning on June 14, 1998 to discuss the "revitalization of the Roseland Homes neighborhood." Official minutes from the meeting mention, nebulously, "housing off-site in the Roseland Homes neighborhood."

Residents and elected officials deem those notices inadequate since Fitzhugh-Capitol folk don't consider themselves part of Roseland; thus, they wouldn't realize the ads pertained to them. That's key to the neighborhood's legal claim that its Constitutional due process rights have been abridged.

Lack of notice, Olsen charges, is symptomatic of a "collusive arrangement between public bureaucracy and plaintiffs looking out for their own interests," which undermined the neighbors' right to know about government actions that affect them. "That's the one issue that really gets my dander up," he says. "We need a fair chance to fight it out." But at the federal court hearing on August 18, 2000, Olsen took a different legal tack.

Buchmeyer called the hearing after Congressman Sessions requested he investigate Smith's claim that DHA committed fraud in its application for HUD redevelopment funds. During three days of testimony, Olsen argues DHA committed fraud by ignoring neighborhood distinctions and possible traffic and flooding woes. If the Roseland and Fitzhugh-Capitol neighborhoods are separate, he reasons, DHA is violating federal rules that forbid construction of public housing in predominantly minority and low-income areas.

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