City Hall

If Rob Astorino Goes to HUD, Does Dallas' Secret Housing Deal Go to Hell?

Rumors, maybe false, that Trump might appoint Rob Astorino, executive of Westchester County, New York, as his secretary of HUD have got me wondering what will happen in the Dallas/HUD imbroglio under a new administration, no matter who gets picked for HUD.

Astorino has earned a national reputation among conservatives for his full-throated opposition to HUD policies and even defiance of federal court orders, making him a kind of 21st century George Wallace. On the one hand, that could make him a friend of Dallas City Hall.

City Hall’s strenuous efforts over the last three years have been to wriggle out of any compulsion to achieve more racial desegregation with the HUD money it takes every year. A five-year federal investigation found in 2013 that Dallas had been breaking the law for 10 years in the way it spent desegregation money downtown.

But there’s another way to look at the relationship between Dallas and HUD. Literally the first thing Julian Castro did when he was sworn in as Obama’s new HUD secretary in 2014 was to consummate a handshake deal with Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, a fellow Democrat, effectively deep-sixing that five-year federal investigation.

Overruling his own career staff, this brand-new, then-40-year-old, first-time Washington official single-handedly gutted a proposed settlement with Dallas that would have required the city to take tough new measures, like outlawing discrimination against renters who pay with Section 8 vouchers. Under the Castro/Rawlings handshake, all Dallas had to do was promise to be nicer.

Since then, the relationship between HUD and the city has been shrouded in secrecy under what looks like a shared agreement here and in Washington to reveal as little as possible to the public.

After Castro and Rawlings reached their informal accord, Craig MacKenzie, one of the parties to a bundle of litigation and complaints against HUD over a failed downtown Dallas tower redo deal, launched a new federal lawsuit against the city directly attacking the Castro/Rawlings handshake as a politically inspired thwarting of federal law. That suit is alive if not exactly underway yet in the court of U.S. District Judge Sidney A. Fitzwater, who is still pondering preliminary motions.

The MacKenzie suit is part of a complicated family of administrative complaints and lawsuits alleging that the city sabotaged a deal MacKenzie and Curtis Lockey were doing downtown in 2008-2010. Lockey and MacKenzie claim the city killed their deal when it learned they intended to obey federal law and include affordable housing units in their project.

The new lawsuit goes directly to the legality or illegality of the arrangement Rawlings struck with Castro, for which Rawlings explicitly thanked Castro later. The question is: What was Rawlings thanking him for? Was he thanking Castro for letting Dallas break federal law and also duck the consequences? Can you do that? Is that what politicians do all the time? And if it is, isn’t that the kind of Beltway shenanigan that the Trump people are supposed to oppose?
There’s a big trick in the middle of this for the Trumpites, and it may be a reason why they will simply ignore this fight and go looking for a better scrap. The stated and statutory goal of the HUD programs at the center of the Lockey and MacKenzie fight is the achievement of greater racial desegregation in Dallas. And we can guess how much passion the Trump administration will bring to that particular quest.

But there’s another way to look at that one, too. HUD doles out billions of dollars nationally under the rubric of fair housing and social justice. That’s why liberals like me are supposed to enjoy paying our federal taxes: We know what good works the money goes to. Or think we do.

But if you peel that onion in Dallas – and presumably in every other city in the country – what you will find is a very expensive form of political steam control, with HUD granting waivers to every mayor and his uncle on the deseg requirements, sluicing out its money instead to cities like Dallas where it is used mainly as an off-the-books political slush fund for council members.

If you wanted an example of money that never needed to be spent and promises never kept, you couldn’t find a better poster child than HUD. And you might not be able to find a better instance to argue from than the Castro/Rawlings handshake deal.

HUD and the city are fighting hard to keep the details of that deal secret. I told you in August how HUD was treating me on a Freedom of Information Act demand that I made a year ago for documents and correspondence. Their legal department told them they had to give me what I had asked for but that they could redact it, meaning they could cross out certain things. So they sent me the documents with the entire contents of all of the documents totally blanked out. Otherwise known as the middle finger.

They were also required to allow me to visit their Fort Worth regional office and physically inspect certain documents. They agreed to let me visit and told me they would send me a date when it would be convenient for them. That was four months ago. Radio silence.

Does that make me mad? Do I carry a grudge? Oh, you know, I’ve been at this a pretty long time, and I really don’t take these things personally any more. Haven’t for a long time. It’s all chess. What’s more important than getting mad is trying to figure out what their long game is or maybe just what their next move might be.

To make myself a little less important here, I look also to what HUD is doing on other fronts. I am aware that the new MacKenzie lawsuit has been held up in Fitzwater’s court in large part over HUD’s extreme reluctance to comply with a discovery order.

That order, if Fitzwater were to grant it, would allow MacKenzie and Lockey to pose a series of questions under oath to Castro, Rawlings and other key officials about the deal they struck, with an eye toward proving that the deal was in fact a conspiracy to violate federal law.

When I look at that, I’m not surprised they don’t want some reporter sniffing through the same or similar documents piled on a conference-room table in Fort Worth. This really is a back-against-the-wall battle for HUD as an agency and for Castro and Rawlings personally.

Again on the other hand, don’t politicians do deals like this all the time? Someone like MacKenzie who feels he got the short end of the stick may want to criminalize that process, but isn’t that just sour grapes? Isn’t he misapprehending the way the world turns?

Maybe. But I also have sniffed some indications that there may be something much more than that in the core accusation in his suit, which is that laws were broken or circumvented. This may or may not have any relation to Lockey and MacKenzie — it’s hard to know – but there has been a curious trend recently: HUD has been coming back to the city with the same hard requirements the handshake deal was supposed to have obviated. And the city has been agreeing to them. And none of that has been for public consumption.

But it pops out here and there if you watch. The mayor got into it, you will recall, with the Khraish family, West Dallas landlords who rent houses to low-income families. Two meetings in the mayor’s office between the Khraishes and the mayor were secretly recorded and the recordings later made public.

A remark by the mayor almost at the end of the second recording has gone unnoticed, as far as I can tell, by anybody but me and a very few other people who closely watch the Lockey and MacKenzie matter.

In that off-hand remark, Rawlings tells the Khraishes that the city is no longer allowed by HUD to locate any new federally subsidized housing in minority neighborhoods and must instead put them all in white areas. Such a requirement was, indeed, to have been an element in the original settlement three years ago, but it was one of the requirements that were supposed to have gone bye-bye with the handshake.

Now it’s baaack. And why? Is somebody looking over a shoulder at the new lawsuit before Fitzwater? It alleges that making those requirements go away was a dismantling of federal law. Is someone trying put those pieces back together quietly and out of public view before the judge rules on discovery?

I started by pondering what a Rob Astorino would mean to all this as HUD secretary, and maybe I should have stopped right there, because I really have no idea. There’s too much of a crazy factor to the whole Trump business, or, as one person put it to me this week, too much of that feeling some of us have had since the election that we’re always on the verge of throwing up.

All I know for sure is that Astorino or anybody like him will be looking for trouble when they go to HUD, looking for a splash. And we’ve got a lot of trouble and a lot of splash right here in Dallas.
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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze