Housing policy in Dallas isn’t just screwed up. It’s screwed up so deep into the ground that it’s going to take smart people with good intentions a very long time to get it unscrewed. Maybe that’s what’s going on at City Hall, but days like yesterday, it just looks like The Three Stooges.
Here is the bad backstory. Until 10 or 15 years ago, city government in Dallas was firmly under the thumb of the old Dallas elite, most of whom had their money invested in the northern suburbs. They looked on old neighborhoods anywhere south of the North Pole as ess-holes. (I call it that in case you're tired of seeing the word by now.)
One of the essiest things the old guard did was to green-light a lot of what were called “Band-Aid” low-income housing projects in old neighborhoods — cheap restorations of bad buildings. The thinking was that the city’s aging neighborhoods were all a pile of ess anyway, so government-subsidized low-income housing wasn’t going to make them any worse than they were already.
Where the projects somehow got done right, sometimes the old guard was right about the effect on the neighborhoods. I know because we got a lot of Band-Aid low-income housing in my neighborhood. Some actually made things better, not worse, but that was a reflection of what my neighborhood was like already.
In some cases, what we had before were really vicious crackhouse/whorehouse apartment buildings with raw sewage flowing into the alleys, owned by a consortium of brain surgeons and dentists in Hawaii who had no idea what they owned, managed on a daily basis by some one-eyed hillbilly hood with a baseball bat and an AR15 named Ed Earl Screwyou. Try discussing the finer points of property management with Ed Earl some day; you’ll see what I mean.
Some subsidized housing was decidedly better. In this world, people have to wait patiently on long lists and then fill out a big, highly invasive questionnaire to qualify to get into subsidized housing. But it’s still all about concentrations.
We have written a lot here at the Observer about concentrated poverty and the deleterious effect it has on both children and adults in their ability to rise up out of poverty. What we may not have talked about as much, because it sounds so much less noble, is the discouraging effect that concentrated poverty has on gentrification.
And, look, I know gentrification has a bad name. But what do you want? If you want income diversity in old, poor areas, which is what everybody now says is good, then you’re going to have to have some gentrification to get there. Right? If you don’t want major concentrations of poor people all in one place, then you’re going to have to persuade some non-poor people to move in. The bigger and more dense a concentration of poverty you have, the harder that nut will be to crack.
In my part of town, old East Dallas, we were lucky on that score. The old guard at City Hall was green-lighting subsidized housing all up and down Gaston Avenue and Live Oak Street, the two major thoroughfares forming the twin spines of the district. In the late '90s, two brothers, Craig and Braden Power, thought they saw a hungry market of young professionals who would pay healthy rents to live in that area, so the Power brothers began snapping up old, dilapidated 1960s apartment buildings faster than the subsidizers could get to them.
Other developers spied what the Power brothers were up to and crowded in behind them. The outcome is that we have both. We have the subsidies. But we have even more “market-rate” properties that were smartly restored and continue to be well maintained.
Here’s the thing, though, about the subsidized places. They tend to be locked in as low-income housing forever, or at least for periods of time that might as well be forever. Some programs, like the low-income housing tax credit program funded by the feds but administered by the state, even require that a subsidized property be deed-restricted for several decades. No matter who owns it, it can only be low-income housing.
Where I live, that turned out to be OK because we had enough private sector market-rate juice to keep the overall neighborhood diverse. We were sandwiched between downtown on one end and affluent Lakewood on the other, which gave us more plausibility. But places like Wynnewood North in Oak Cliff, 3.5 miles southwest of downtown on Interstate 35E, have had a tougher row to hoe.
Wynnewood North is a beautifully designed and plotted development of large, midcentury ranch-style homes on generous lots, always well maintained, often expensively restored. But until a very few years ago, Wynnewood North was a raft on a sea of surrounding poverty.
The most salient incursion of poverty there has long been a major low-income project on 48 acres just across South Zang Boulevard from Wynnewood North, previously called The Parks at Wynnewood. And watch out: This gets incredibly messed up.
The Parks at Wynnewood — a project that has been done and redone for a half-century as a Band-Aid and re-Band-Aid low-income housing project — is now finally and officially crapped out. The buildings can’t be patched together any more.
Because of the deed restrictions, the land can only be redeveloped as low income. A major investor is doing just that for half of it, redeveloping 24 acres and calling the new project HighPoint Senior Housing. By all accounts, the new project is a high-quality, top-end deal.
At the same time, according to Dallas City Council member Scott Griggs, there is serious interest from New York investors in a major overhaul of the nearby Wynnewood shopping center. But maybe not, if the other 24 acres of land at Parks of Wynnewood also goes to new low-income housing, because that’s just too much concentration.
Half is OK. All 48 acres is not, Griggs says. So Griggs has done a deal, which he says he has in writing from the state, to release the remaining 24 acres from the deed restrictions and allow that land to be redeveloped as market-rate housing.
So, great, right? No, not quite. The state won’t release the second 24 acres from the deed restrictions until it’s sure all of the first 24 will be redone as low income. And in order to finish redeveloping the first 24, the developer needs another shot of state-administered federal housing money.
Now what’s wrong? The City Council, with Griggs’ support, just got done telling the new city manager to come up with a policy by which no more subsidy money will be put into places that already have concentrated poverty. Let’s use the money to be more diverse, right?
And, by the way, the City Council isn’t doing that out of the liberalness of its heart. Dallas is in all kinds of boiling-hot water for using federal housing money in ways the feds say have increased racial segregation. Last I heard, we still had a full-time team of federal gumshoes in permanent residence at City Hall poring over the books with Sherlock Holmes magnifying glasses.
Yesterday at a public meeting, Raquel Favela, the city manager’s new chief of economic development and neighborhood services, was telling the council’s economic development committee why HighPoint should not get any more subsidy money. The project is square in the center of an area of concentrated poverty, exactly where the council just got done telling Favela not to put any more subsidized housing.
Griggs, meanwhile, is defending another subsidy for Highpoint, because … take a breath … because more subsidized housing at Highpoint will mean less subsidized housing at Highpoint. Yup. You heard that right.
If they do a little more subsidy and finish the last phase on the first 24 acres, then the state will release the other 24 acres from the deed restrictions. That way, that land will no longer be required to be subsidized housing until 2030. Get it?
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No, I don’t either. For one thing — and here is where we go really full-tilt Three Stooges, so hold on to your wig — nobody is supposed to say out loud that a deal is in hand to reduce the amount of subsidized housing on the full 48 acres. Griggs says it because he’s honest. He just doesn’t lie about things. But generally speaking, reducing subsidized housing must be taken as a wickedness. And I think it is. But I worry that I might be a little bit wicked.
For that part of the city to become truly diverse, Wynnewood North will have to be one of the main economic motors driving the change. But in order to make something like that happen — to bring in that New York money for the shopping center, for example — the city can’t be doing things to increase and lock in the concentration of poverty right there.
All of this is a legacy of a half-century of terrible leadership at City Hall by people who really did not believe in cities, people who were headed north anyway, who thought the city was ess and didn’t care what happened behind them.
The ess they left behind is all getting sorted out gradually, and I guess nothing worthwhile is ever easy. But this ess really is not easy.