Lost Houses

By my count, somebody may be shorting Judge Buchmeyer 110 low-income houses in West Dallas

This is how I think: I think that if a judge ordered me to pay a fine of $15 and I failed to do it, I would wind up on Death Row. That's how fatalistic I am and how afraid of judges I am.

So, in a way I almost admire the people doing the big new Greenleaf Village residential development in West Dallas. It's former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros, a private developer in the deal; it's the people on the board of the Dallas Housing Authority (DHA), most of whom were appointed by former Mayor Ron Kirk (whom Cisneros is now backing in his Senate bid); and it's our old friends, the Dallas City Council, who have pledged upwards of a million bucks to the deal. High rollers.

I could be wrong, but I think these high rollers may be playing fast and loose with U.S. District Judge Jerry Buchmeyer, who told them they had to build 210 low-income houses in order to get their hands on some 40 acres of land owned by the Dallas Housing Authority.

Judge Buchmeyer presides over the ancient and huge "Walker" case, in which the courts are trying to undo half a century of racism in Dallas public housing. I'm not going to tell you the whole history. But here's the skinny: The judge told the DHA it could sell off three parcels of land in West Dallas for development as a brand-new mixed low- and moderate-income single-family residential development.

In his order, he specified how many of the homes in the new development had to be low-income and how many did not.

Let's all count on our fingers. He approved the sale of three separate parcels of DHA land, one to Habitat for Humanity "for the development of 100 single-family homes for sale to low-income families"; a second parcel to a private developer "for the development of 100 market-rate single-family homes"; and a third to the private developer "for the development of 110 single-family homes for sale to low-income families."

By my reading of what the judge said, Habitat has to build 100 low-income houses, and the private developer has to build 110 low-income houses and 100 market-rate houses. I count that as 210 homes for low-income families and 100 "market-rate" houses, meaning the developer can run them up as big and as high in cost as the market will bear for that area.

But every time I read about this deal, and even when I call people up and ask them about it, I keep coming up with the wrong numbers. Just last month I saw a story in The Dallas Morning News, talking about what a great deal the whole Greenleaf Village development is going to be, in which the reporter said, "Habitat [for Humanity] plans to build 100 homes for low-income residents alongside 210 higher-end houses constructed by a private developer on land that was once part of the city's dilapidated public housing stock in West Dallas."

Umm, let me stretch my fingers out here again, limber them up a tad, and I'm going to try this math one more time: 100 low-income homes plus 210 "higher-end" homes equals what? I think it equals somebody slipped 110 low-income homes up his sleeve.

There are two things I need to say. First, when I called and talked to the private developer and to the Dallas Housing Authority and told them I was concerned about the judge's order, they both told me they intend to obey the order and that they will provide the required number of low-income houses.

Sort of.

I would never say "sort of" to a judge. But that's what they said to me when I asked. David Christian, president of KB Home, the private developer, told me that all of the 210 houses he plans to develop will be "market" houses. "But keep in mind," he said, "that the price points there that we're talking about are still in the low- to median-income range in Dallas."

Christian said he hoped as many as half of the houses he will deliver will come in at prices under $90,000, which will be within his definition, he said, of a low-income house.

Here's one nit I would pick, perhaps. There is already a working definition of a low-income house in Greenleaf Village, and that's the Habitat house, which will have a price tag of about $65,000. The city of Dallas is subsidizing these to the tune of about $8,000 each. The city is not subsidizing KB Home. So let's say you took the Habitat price of $65,000 as your benchmark for a low-income house, and you allowed KB Home to charge an additional eight grand, because it's not getting a subsidy from the city. You would still only get to a price of $73,000 for the KB Home low-income house, not $90,000.

And Christian told me that KB Home really isn't required by its deal with the housing authority to produce a fixed number of low-income homes anyway.

"I don't have any contractual limit," Christian said. "The market's going to tell me what that's going to be."

All right. If DHA didn't bind him to produce X number of low-income houses, then he ain't bound. But the court order sure makes it look as if DHA promised the judge that 210 of these houses would be genuine low-income.

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