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

Olsen's witnesses, which include Leos, Ehrhardt and several residents, insist their neighborhood is distinct. Smith recounts how at a DHA advisory board meeting, "We were told basically that...Judge Buchmeyer and the the Walker case had taken a pencil and drawn a one-mile radius around the Roseland Homes site and determined that that was the Roseland Homes neighborhood."

Daniel, attorney for the Walker plaintiffs, attacks Olsen's case and the notion that minorities of any hue can block a black housing project. Neighborhood efforts to block the development would have the "same effect as the old racists," Daniel later says, summarizing the neighborhood association's stance as, "'We're doing the same thing to people, but we're better people.'"

Olsen fails to sway Buchmeyer. "There was no fraud and no deception, no misrepresentations," he says, concluding DHA's public notice practices passed muster with federal regulations. (In October, HUD's inspector general reached similar conclusions, although Olsen still insists the law was broken.)

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.

Further, DHA didn't conflict with rules prohibiting new public housing in minority-filled areas, Buchmeyer says, because its project was granted on the basis of an exemption designed to encourage revitalization of abysmal housing projects. "People have a right to live in decent housing," Buchmeyer says. "They will have it under the revised rehabilitated Roseland Homes project."

After the hearing, Olsen faults himself for presenting a case hinging on tough-to-prove fraud charges. He says he had little choice, however, since legally "unsophisticated" neighbors developed that angle and hired him only two weeks before the hearing. "It's because they didn't have an attorney, and they were trying to work through the process; the whole case got put on this awkward posture," Olsen says.

Six months after the Buchmeyer hearing, Olsen is ready to appeal the case to the federal 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. A committed core of residents promise to raise $10,000 they owe Olsen (they previously paid him $15,000).

But oddly, he cannot appeal, because technically there's nothing to appeal. Buchmeyer hasn't formally entered judgment on the matter, even though on August 22 he deemed the case without merit in his concluding statement. An opinion will be tendered, Buchmeyer says, when attorneys submit revised "findings of fact," a legal term denoting agreed-upon facts on which his judgment will rest.

Yet he specified no deadline. Olsen, who meanwhile has sought a restraining order, doubts six months are needed to rewrite boilerplate findings. The situation is Kafkaesque, he says. "It's a conscious decision on their part to allow the construction to finish," Olsen argues, charging that the various parties--DHA, the Walker plaintiffs and others--are trying to delay the case's advancement to the 5th Circuit, which has frowned on Buchmeyer's past housing rulings.

Asked about the missing findings of fact, attorney Daniel declines comment. But Michelle Raglon, DHA's spokeswoman, blames a lack of time and says Olsen isn't the only lawyer with a case concerning her oft-sued agency. "There's only so much time in the day and so many court hearings," she says.

Sitting in her third-floor office in West Dallas, which has a panoramic view of Dallas to the south, newly appointed DHA President Ann Lott and DHA spokeswoman Raglon reflect on their agency's struggle to redevelop Roseland Homes. Lott is conciliatory toward Fitzhugh-Capitol's citizenry, which she insists DHA didn't intend to slight. "We didn't expect the level of friction that we got," says Lott, who isn't related to DHA's Tim Lott.

Despite that olive branch, Lott sees an "us versus them" dynamic that's "rooted in fear." Lott pegs the fractiousness to her field's PR problem. "Over the last 50 years, society has come to view public housing as slums," says Lott, who denies a link between projects and lower property values. "So when we say we're going to build public housing in your neighborhood, what people hear is you're going to bring the slums to our neighborhood."

For years, DHA has sought to overcome that stigma. It has won accolades from both the Bush (senior) and Clinton administrations for good management. "We're not the same DHA" is its motto, a mantra reflecting more energetic African-American leadership of the agency since 1989 and new strategies that seek to build communities instead of warehousing the poor. But the taint remains. The agency, which serves about 48,000 people, still gets sued nearly every time it tries to build something, Lott says.

A few days earlier, I took a tour of DHA sites, including recently renovated West Dallas developments, part of the city once considered blighted beyond repair. We visit The Lakewest, a series of DHA projects that look as clean and well-terraced as private townhome complexes in North Dallas.

Some of DHA's older, grim-looking projects from the '50s still stand nearby in dreary rows, waiting turns to be razed and rebuilt. Nearby, single-family homes are nearly constructed. A new YMCA complex with an exercise room, day-care facilities and a police department storefront sits next to DHA's modern headquarters. A few blocks away, a busy strip mall renovated by DHA counts an Autozone, a KFC/Taco Bell and a Carnival supermarket.

Roseland Homes' rehab is meant to mimic West Dallas' revival. "West Dallas looked a lot like the old Roseland Homes," Ann Lott says. "There was an attitude of complacency and indifference by the families that lived there. People felt stuck. It was so very isolated that they never had an opportunity to integrate with what we can now call mainstream society."

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