City Hall

Let the Right One in: City Considers Using Zoning to Mix Rich and Not-Rich

Maybe it’s a busy day for you, but every once in a while if you get a minute you need to stop and think about what you want the city to be. If you don’t, somebody else will.

“This is social engineering,” Elizabeth Julian said to me recently. “The question is, either they engineer people in or they engineer people out.”
We were talking about affordable housing, but we could have been talking about anything. Somebody is always engineering something.

Julian, a Dallas lawyer, is CEO of the Inclusive Communities Project in Dallas, which works for the desegregation of housing in North Texas. For five years in the late 1990s, she was an assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. We were discussing a specific affordable housing proposal under consideration at Dallas City Hall. Her point was that the choice is not between social engineering and Mother Nature. Mother Nature is not at City Hall. Ever. The city either uses its might and resources to create income-diverse neighborhoods downtown, or it uses its might to create income-segregated neighborhoods.

Which do you want? It’s up to you. And me, of course. Don’t leave me out. We all work together to create the kind of city we want, even if by default. Leaving it up to the other guy is a choice, too, because, believe me, the other guy has an agenda.

My own ill-tutored but heartfelt predisposition is toward mix-and-match, lots of different types and kinds on the street rubbing elbows, because to me that feels like a city. It’s why people from Waco go to New York on vacation. Cities surprise.

Some people like stratification and separation. A guy once described the Abilene of the late 1960s to me as if he was talking about heaven itself, segregated not merely by race and ethnicity, not merely between Catholics and Protestants, but with separate neighborhoods for each Protestant denomination. I could tell as he spoke that for him a thoroughly segregated city was like a tidy kitchen shelf with all of the spices alphabetized.

It’s the opposite for me. Separation weirds me out. Doesn’t feel like the real world. Certainly doesn’t feel like a real city.

The proposal Julian and I were discussing, championed by City Council member Philip Kingston, leans way over to the other side of the table from compulsory fair housing law, which puts people under a legal gun. Rooted in a theory called “inclusionary upzoning,” this idea is based strictly on voluntary activity. It tries to create an environment in which a developer chooses to include affordable units in an otherwise high-priced project so he can make more money.

Huh? How do you make more money by charging less rent? Can’t make sense, right? But wrong, actually. It does make sense.

This idea deals with a point in the development process that everybody at City Hall knows about but most people away from City Hall do not. In a city like Dallas, all property is “zoned” by law. The zoning tells you what you can do with your land — single family residential, apartments, office towers, whatever. It tells you exactly how big your building can be, how high, how far it must be set back from the street, all the details.

Those details have a lot to do with what your property is worth. Let’s say you’re in a high-rent area like the borders of Klyde Warren Park downtown. You can make a ton of rent from every apartment you build on your land, but the zoning law says you can only build a certain number of apartments. The price you paid for your land was based on how many -— or how few — apartments the law said you could build on it.

So here is the secret to being a successful developer. You are able to buy the land at a relatively low price because the law restricted the number of apartments. But after you get the land at the low price, you go to your friend on the City Plan Commission or the City Council and say, “Change the law for me. Make it so I can build twice that many apartments.”

In one afternoon with one simple vote, City Hall can double your money. That’s called “upzoning.”

Kingston’s idea, which I have discussed with him at some length, is based on a practice already in place and already successful in Fairfax County, Virginia, Los Angeles, New York City and a handful of small jurisdictions in the state of Washington. In those places, when a developer comes in and asks for a valuable favor in the form of upzoning, local officials say, “OK, let’s make a deal. We voluntarily give you a certain amount of new zoning rights so you can make more money. You voluntarily agree to include a certain number of affordable units in your project.” They negotiate.

What’s the point? I go back to what Julian said at the top. Everybody is at the table with their pencils sharpened and their legal pads out, drawing a picture of the city. It looks like this, or it looks like that. It gets socially engineered this way or the other way, but it always gets socially engineered, because it’s social. If your vision of a cool city is one with real diversity, where all of the non-rich people have not been socially engineered out of downtown, then you have to get in there and engineer what you want. Or at least don’t let yourself get engineered off the table.

This idea came up at a recent meeting of the Dallas Plan Commission, tied to a specific project the Trammell Crow Co. is developing next to Klyde Warren Park. In that case, Trammell Crow is asking for a major bump upward in the zoning to allow more apartments than the law currently allows. The kind of “affordable” housing people were considering in the Trammell Crow project was in the range of $1,300 a month for a one-bedroom.

The proposal to impose the new concept on the Trammell Crow Co. was voted down 13-2 after Trammell Crow argued the idea was being sprung on them like an undisclosed offspring in the middle of the wedding ceremony. I would have called it a test of true love. By agreeing to negotiate some kind of affordable component, Trammell Crow could have set a noble example for future nuptials.

The thing was supposed to be hurried onto the City Council and killed for good, but a last minute maneuver by a neighborhood group delayed that action until August, after the council’s summer hiatus. That gives us time to think about it.

I spoke with Dallas City Council member Lee Kleinman, who was not at all hostile to the idea of trading zoning rights for affordable units, just not in the same building. He said he thought it was a better idea to pack as many high-priced units on the highly desirable land as possible, then negotiate for the developer to build affordable units somewhere else.

“You’re getting more money out where you can,” he said. He suggested he would even be willing to give a developer more zoning rights than he was asking for in exchange for more affordable units -— just not right there.

Kleinman’s argument makes a certain sense, but it produces a city where people are geographically separated by income. And the minute you start talking about creating affordable housing somewhere other than the building in question, you have given yourself a new set of problems to solve, stirring the political pot wherever that other locale may be instead of resolving all of it in one deal.

I asked Julian to tell me what the value is of putting the affordable units in the same building with the expensive ones.

“What is the value of not?” she asked me. “What is the value of segregating people on the basis of income? That’s the city making that decision. In this case, it sounds like what they want to do is social engineer people below a certain income level, working-class people who have jobs and live downtown, and keep them out of sight. That’s the implication of saying we don’t want them here or in our building.”

Why, she asked, would City Hall, which ostensibly champions and defends the interests of all its citizens, not use its weight to create inclusionary rather than exclusionary policies? Kleinman didn’t sound locked-down hostile to the new idea — still mulling it. He said he thought it got tossed at Trammell Crow a bit too much like a last-minute grenade. But he also told me to talk to the person he appointed to the Plan Commission, Jaynie Schultz, warning me she is “way more liberal than I am.”

She is. Schultz, who has an advanced degree in urban studies, told me she likes the idea of trading development rights for affordable housing and likes the idea of mixed housing in the same place, as at Klyde Warren. But she agrees with Kleinman that the whole thing got sprung on Trammell Crow a bit too brusquely, and she thinks it needs to be developed in a longer, more considered process.

“In my experience, anything that developers are forced to do is not nearly as successful as when they choose to do it,” she says. “I agree with the attraction of Klyde Warren as a place people to want to live, available to everybody. I think it should be. But we have to figure out how we bring everybody to the table to figure it out together.”

We have a long summer ahead to talk about it. In the end it’s up to you and me how it gets done. It’s our city. And who knows? Maybe by fall Trammell Crow will have softened to the child. 
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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