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Mayor Rawlings and Merten Tell Me the Whole HUD Thing Was Just HUD's Big Goof. Wow.

Very interesting press conference Friday in the Flag Room at Dallas City Hall ... wait ... wait. Oh, no. Did I just tell you there was an interesting press conference in the Flag Room at City Hall? Tell me I did not just say that. No, what I meant to say was that there was a typically turgid Kabuki theatre non-event Friday in the Flag Room at City Hall, but something interesting happened afterward anyway by accident.

At the end of a news conference on something about Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter and something about houses for the poor and something about rolling up our sleeves, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings and I had a brief chit-chat. He said he had visited recently with U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan and two undersecretaries, and, based on that visit, Rawlings said he thought the HUD complaint accusing Dallas of racial segregation might go away soon.

Whoa! In our business we call that burying the lede.

Ever since HUD published findings last December of a four-year investigation accusing Dallas of segregation, I, for one, have been sort of pumping that story as the biggest news about Dallas since 1963. I was looking at coverage by reporters who cover fair housing nationally. They seemed to think the accusation by HUD against Dallas heralded a major change from the agency's previously lackluster profile on enforcement of the Fair Housing Act.

But maybe that was journalistic wishful thinking on the part of guys like me who want a story about City Hall getting a hotfoot. Friday after the thing about Jimmy Carter, the mayor and his spokesman, Sam Merten, told me that the HUD accusation may soon vanish, that HUD had its facts all wrong, and HUD didn't even realize it had approved most of the stuff it was complaining about.

Wow. Get me a crow and a fork, man. If they're right, I'm wrong.

The HUD complaint was based on a finding that Dallas had been deliberately chunking most of its subsidized low-income housing into already segregated high-crime areas while deliberately keeping it out of downtown, which was undergoing a major revitalization campaign, most of it financed with HUD money and loan guarantees.

After the press conference on the Jimmy Carter-whatever, the mayor told me HUD didn't even get the facts right on concentration of low-income housing, the core of its case against Dallas:

"They didn't realize how much affordable housing we have throughout all of Dallas," he said. "That was a fact that they didn't know."

That's terrible. It's the central fact. And HUD didn't know it, after a four-year investigation? Talk about a bunch of Inspector Clouseaus. I asked Rawlings if the HUD thing is going to be resolved, now that they do know.

"I'm very very hopeful of that," he said.

Merten explained to me that HUD basically has been falling over its own feet. "You have the Fair Housing side and the financing side of HUD," he said. "One hand didn't know what the other was doing."

He said the fact that the financial side of HUD had approved all of Dallas' housing deals over the years gave the agency a kind of complicity in whatever has happened here.

"So one of the arguments that the city put forth was, 'Hey, you approved this.' The financing arm has approved this every step of the way. It seems disingenuous then for the Fair Housing arm to come in and say, 'Hey, you're doing this wrong.'"

Yeah, I know about that argument. Westchester County in New York made the same argument when HUD accused them of the same thing. They didn't get anywhere with it, because HUD countered successfully with the new-sheriff-in-town argument: Westchester got away with racial segregation under Bush and Clinton, but there's a new sheriff in town and the law's the law.

I heard Rawlings and Merten telling me this is different because in the Dallas case the HUD investigation itself that produced the charges was fundamentally flawed. I said to Merten: "Then this is HUD's mistake. They didn't know what was going on. They didn't know what their own staff was doing. The four-year investigation just came to the wrong conclusion."

He said, "I think that's accurate, yeah. I wouldn't say that they would go that far. But new things have been brought to light, new information has been brought to their attention that they were completely unaware of."

The jury's still out, of course, and nothing is settled yet. In the meantime I'm looking up a recipe for crow breast a la meuniere just to be ready.

But, man. Big-ass federal agency, takes four years to investigate, bases its entire argument on a pattern of concentration in affordable housing, and the doofuses didn't even count up the affordable housing? Is this a deal where Inspector Clouseau doesn't get into the office before 11 a.m. and then heads straight to a four-martini lunch, or what?

So, ask me this: Schutze, why are you being such a good sport about this? You wrote all these stories saying this accusation was the biggest thing to hit Dallas since the assassination. Now maybe it just blows away. You're going to eat your buttered crow, and that's it?

Oh, no. That's never it. Don't forget. I'm not in this to get anybody in particular. I'm in it to get a good story. And if what Rawlings and Merten are telling me is true, then I'd eat 10 crows on that last deal to get to either one of the next two possibilities:

One. HUD, an agency larger than the national governments of most countries, is so divided and at war within itself that it can't even get its own story straight on a major allegation against a major American city. That would make HUD so dysfunctional that it would constitute a major threat and an active danger to local governments everywhere.

Two. Even better. Way better, in fact. The home boy's shot at a great national story: In this version, what Rawlings and Merten are telling me may be sort of true in terms of the outcome they anticipate, but a major element might be hidden from view in terms of how that outcome is to be achieved. In this version of the narrative, the charges themselves are accurate, but Dallas has succeeded in backing HUD down through back-channel political manipulation.

Why is that such a good story? Because if the charges are solid, that means laws have been broken. If HUD is involved in helping Dallas cover that up for reasons of political expediency, that makes HUD a co-conspirator. If HUD has handcuffed itself to a co-conspirator the likes of Dallas City Hall, then I'm in high cotton, because I can make that little boy spill his guts by looking at him.

Hey. Any way it goes, I dine. Helps not to be a fussy eater.


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