Segregation. The word itself feels like a tough question on an American history exam. In the year 2013, how in the world could Dallas, the nation's ninth largest city, have put itself in a picture most Americans probably associate with police dogs snarling at children in black and white newsreels of the 1950s?
How did Dallas do it? Very carefully, according to a grim 29-page report summarizing a four-year investigation by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). One foot in front of the other.
The HUD investigative report released last week depicts the city of Dallas, beginning in 2000, as dividing itself officially into white and minority hemispheres, then conspiring to use federal money dedicated by law to desegregation for the opposite purpose — increasing segregation.
Dallas City Hall
In one instance, the city yanked the financing for a downtown redevelopment deal when the developers said they were going to obey federal law by providing the required number of low-income housing units. In other cases the city required downtown developers to sign deed restrictions by which they vowed never to meet the federal guidelines for low-income housing, even though they were using federal low-income housing money to finance their deals.
Where downtown tower developers did have to meet minimum low-income housing guidelines in order to get federal financing, HUD says the city of Dallas later let them out of those requirements, even after HUD warned Dallas not to do it. And where any of those requirements did somehow stick so that developers still had to offer a certain number of reduced-rent units, the city practically announced it was never going to check up on anybody to make sure they were meeting their requirements.
All of these efforts to keep affordable housing out of downtown had the effect of keeping racial minorities, the foreign-born and disabled people out of downtown, HUD says, because the overwhelming majority of people in Dallas who need cheap rent fall into those categories. And no matter how any of us may feel about that doctrine, everybody in city and local government in America should have known for the last 30 years that that's how federal law looks at it: Discriminate against the poor in an urban setting, and you are discriminating against minorities and the disabled.
The most transparent example of what the city was doing had to do with something called Housing and Economic Recovery Act (HERA) bonds. In 2009 the city granted $102 million in HERA bond financing to a project at 1600 Pacific Ave. After the developers told the city the bonds required a high percentage of low-income units, a requirement they intended to meet, the city took the bonds away from them. Then the city informed the state entity administering the bond fund that it was sending back all of its $150 million in HERA money for low-income housing.
That's the kind of pull-up-the-drawbridge stuff you expect to hear about in some place called Trophy Acres Estates, like, "We don't want federal highway money, because we don't want to widen the highway, because we don't want buses, because we don't want minorities." But the ninth largest city in the country?
The careful process at City Hall for keeping minorities out of a white majority downtown may seem rather abstract and technical — all about bonds and contracts and so on — but the process on the other side of the city's carefully drawn color line was anything but careful and had brutal personal consequences.
Beginning soon after 2000, black, Hispanic and white middle-class neighborhood leaders in southern Dallas and Oak Cliff, sensing correctly that their part of the city was suddenly the target of a disproportionate share of new government-subsidized housing, began to urge their elected officials to protect them from more of it. But a sloppy sluice of bribes took care of that problem. Suddenly the black wing of the City Council couldn't get enough subsidized housing into its part of town fast enough.
Three years ago black City Council member Don Hill, once mentioned for mayor, drew an 18-year federal sentence for taking housing bribes, his wife was sentenced to nine years, his appointee to the plan commission got 14 years and a host of other bit players in the southern Dallas housing bribery saga received lesser sentences.
The process by which more subsidized housing was pushed south while being kept out of downtown and out of northern white neighborhoods was a matter of well-known public record. In 2011 at the urging of some southern Dallas leaders, a mayoral task force produced a report showing exactly what had happened.
The city's own report showed that from 1990 to 1999, almost 10,000 low-income tax-credit housing units were created, of which exactly half went into the city's southern sector and half went north. But in the 2000 to 2010 span, another 10,000 were units were created, 80 percent of which went south and only 20 percent north.
At the time of that report, the unrelated federal investigation was already under way. Part of the evidence in the federal probe is a study by an expert witness, a national authority on segregation who looked at some of the same elements the 2011 city report looked at but then expanded his view. Professor Andrew Beveridge of Queens College, a part of City University of New York, provided HUD with statistical studies to show that segregation in Dallas had been trending downward — getting better — from 1980 to 2000. And if there is a morsel of comfort for Dallas to draw from any of this, it may be in this finding: Left to our own devices and to organic social trends, we were on our way to becoming a less divided city during that 20-year span.
Sadly, City Hall policies identified by HUD in its investigation amounted to a form of negative social engineering that halted and even reversed the previous trend. Using statistical concepts generally accepted in his field, Beveridge showed that segregation trends shifted and grew steadily worse from 2000 to 2010. That's the same period when neighborhood leaders in southern Dallas sensed an ominous change in the wind, when the city report showed a dramatic altering of the city's policies for locating low-income housing, and when Don Hill's personal trajectory changed from future mayor to federal inmate.
The HUD report is only the first salvo in a federal action of a type that has already achieved results elsewhere that were either dramatic or devastating, depending on one's view. In 2009, Westchester County, New York, with a population of about a million, signed a deal with HUD to get out of a similar complaint and paid HUD $62.5 million as restitution for federal money that HUD said Westchester had deliberately misspent. But since then Westchester has held new local elections. New officeholders who ran for office against the HUD settlement have dragged their feet on aspects of the settlement. Now HUD is in the process of cutting off all of Westchester's federal housing aid, a blow that would be devastating here.
The HUD action accusing Dallas of segregation, like its action against Westchester, is an administrative action, not a lawsuit. HUD is saying we took their money and misspent it and here's what we have to do to make them whole. Dallas can appeal the original finding up the chain at HUD. The Westchester case was a little different. They started out in court, where a federal judge whupped them worse than HUD would have.
The state of Texas may have had the Westchester debacle in its rear-view mirror when two nonprofits brought a similar complaint in the wake of hurricanes Ike and Dolly in 2008, accusing Texas of spending federal housing relief money in ways that increased segregation. Texas settled relatively quickly in 2010, agreeing to spend $1.7 billion on housing and other infrastructure to reduce segregation and improve conditions for the poor.
It's clear from comments on the Observer news blog last week that people here have very mixed feelings about the role of government in combating segregation. A number of commenters offered thoughtful remarks about the desire of people to live where they want to live and the natural tendency of people to clump by social and economic affinity.
It's easy to dismiss those arguments as echoes of the same things people said to justify Jim Crow back in the day. But this is not that day. We are not supposed to be in a black and white newsreel from the 1950s.
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America has changed for the better. A sentiment expressed by some commenters was that if people in this day and age are less racist than people used to be, then they ought to be able to make housing choices without being accused of racism.
The two most important points to recall in all of this are: 1) the evidence in the Beveridge report that Dallas was trending toward less segregation before City Hall intervened with new social engineering policies in 2000, and 2) those social engineering policies were deliberate, strategic and their effect well known.
We have a right as citizens to say we weren't headed in this direction when things were left to happen organically. But we have a stern obligation to identify the policies and the people responsible for turning that trend.
If you think about it, the one thing almost everybody in the city ought to be able to agree on right now is that nobody wants to be in this picture. We could probably stay up all night long and the next day, too, debating art criticism about the picture, whether the light is right and so on. But mainly, who wants to be in it? Why are we? And how fast can we get out of it?