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."

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.
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.
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 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.

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.

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 Newsclassifieds, 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.

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.

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.

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.

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."

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.

"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.

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 plaintiffs...in 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.)

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."

Rebuilding West Dallas, Lott says, has improved the spiritual lot of its residents. "Now they can see their way clearer to owning a home," she says, "whereas before 10 years ago they never thought it was possible." What about neighbors who don't want DHA's annexes in their back yards? Hard feelings, Lott admits, won't subside overnight. "Housing is where you live, it's very personal," she says. "We just hope for tolerance."


Ann Lott offers one method at her disposal for soothing citizen anger: public assistance. They can "come to the table," she says. "They can benefit from some of the resources" at Roseland Homes, including day-care facilities and other programs. Or they could sign up for public housing. "They are probably eligible," she says.

It's true that many struggling families in predominantly Hispanic Fitzhugh-Capitol, at least those who are legal residents, are probably eligible for public housing, although, it appears most are at least marginally better off than the average project dweller. Yet eligible doesn't mean willing.

The controversy has unsettled the area's political landscape and unearthed resistance, even antipathy, among Latinos and Asians to public assistance programs. "A lot of Hispanics are brought up that you pull your own weight," says Elsa Tovar, a single mother of four who lives in the area and challenged Ehrhardt in last year's Democratic primary for state representative. "The sad part is these families have worked hard for their homes. It's really going to hurt their property."

Tovar is typical of her working-class neighbors who passionately oppose DHA's entrance into Fitzhugh-Capitol. Her monthly take-home is about $1,500, and she recounts a recent $322 gas bill and child-care costs that set her back dramatically. "I'm barely making ends meet," she admits. "However, I know I can do it."

Peter Pich, an Asian community leader and teacher at Kennedy Elementary, reports similar dismay among the community's Cambodian, Laotian and Vietnamese populations, who note that public housing construction goes forth in their neighborhood even as schools remain crowded and roads suffer disrepair. "We feel like we've been pushed over many times," he says.

Meanwhile, Ramos' newfound political activism may be a harbinger of the future when strife among minority groups, even those low on the economic scale, leads to disenchantment: Like working-class whites, they turn conservative. A former Democrat, Ramos and another resident shocked neighbors last fall by erecting large "Re-elect Pete Sessions" posters on their lawns, a first for Capitol Avenue.

Ramos and other neighbors are certain Sessions' intervention won them a hearing in Judge Buchmeyer's court. As a result, Sessions has earned the trust of many in the community. Last September, Ramos hosted a well-attended "town hall" meeting with Sessions and other GOP candidates in his home. "If a man comes into our neighborhood," Ramos says, "and says, yes, you were not treated fairly, he deserves our support."

Indeed, a bad aftertaste lingers in Fitzhugh-Capitol that may remain long after DHA renovates Roseland Homes. "It hurts when an official calls you a racist," Ramos says. "They don't know us."

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