City Hall

Neither Destiny Nor "The Market" Can Be Blamed For West Dallas Displacement

There is a way of talking about bad things that happen in this city as if those things are irresistible workings of destiny. In truth it’s not destiny. It’s some guys doing some stuff.

Last week I got a 1,700-word letter from the mayor’s spokesperson, Scott Goldstein, taking me to task for what he said were reporting errors and unfair characterizations of the mayor in my reporting on the story of the threatened mass evictions of 300 poor renters in West Dallas.

At the heart of the letter – what I took for the heart – was Goldstein’s insistence that I had unfairly and untruthfully accused the mayor of conspiring to drive the renters out of their neighborhood.

I reported here a couple weeks ago that the mayor had said in a City Hall meeting that “rents” might be driven out of West Dallas. I said: “Maybe as a rich guy he’s just not very tuned in to what that would mean for poor renters.”

In his letter, Goldstein told me I had either misheard or deliberately misrepresented what the mayor really said. Goldstein said his hearing of the same audio was that the mayor said rents might be driven up, not out:

“In fact,” Goldstein said, “the mayor was making a rather generic statement about the impact that redevelopment in nearby areas of West Dallas might have on renters.”

I don’t know what “rather generic” means. We are talking about very poor people who are living where they are because it is all they can afford. I think the final effect of driving rents up is the same as driving the poorest renters out of their homes. These are small shabby houses that families would not occupy in the first place if they could afford higher rents.

In this particular case, the landlord in question, a company called HMK, Ltd., has come to the same conclusion I just did. The company’s principals say they looked at the cost and physical feasibility of bringing 305 small houses up to new higher standards recently set by the city council.

They weighed the higher rents required to recoup those new costs. They consulted their own 13-year experience and knowledge of the neighborhood and their estimate of the best rents they can command there. And they decided to shut down the business. Hence, more than 300 families are looking at eventual eviction unless something dramatic happens to reverse the narrative.

When Goldstein tells me the mayor was making “a rather generic statement” about the impact of nearby development, he and the mayor both are talking about an area called Trinity Groves, a made-up developer name for an area at the foot of the new Calatrava-designed fake suspension bridge over the Trinity River.

Just a few short years ago, the area at the foot of the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge on the west bank of the river across from downtown was maybe the most benighted, historically neglected place in the city, an area of small houses built after World War II and occupied mainly by Hispanic working-class families, clustered around an obsolete grit-caked industrial district of the same vintage in which most of the old Quonset-hut factories were padlocked and silent.

The name, Trinity Groves, superimposed on the area by the developers who rushed in after the new bridge was completed four years ago, started out as sort of a joke, in other words. Where’s the grove?

Now it’s beginning to look like destiny. An enormously successful dining and entertainment development of the same name, sort of a shopping mall where every store is a restaurant, was the first wedge of gentrification, now about to be followed by a vast mixed-use apartment and retail development right across Singleton Boulevard.

Gentrification pushes farther westward along Singleton every day. Fresh plywood flies up over the windows and doors of little houses. Bulldozers snout and growl. And, yes, the westward march down Singleton of higher land values and higher rents can look like destiny.

But it’s not. It’s some guys doing some stuff.

In fact the new development at the foot of the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge is only taking place because it is lavishly subsidized by City Hall. That whole area is included in something called the Sports Arena Tax Increment Finance District or “TIF.”

The name, “Sports Arena,” came about because the TIF was created as two unrelated areas, one on the other side of the river around the basketball arena, joined by an unlikely umbilical of unoccupied soil spanning the river. No matter. It’s only about the money.

A TIF gives property tax money back to a developer. Some people say it’s not a subsidy, because the developer only gets back the new higher tax dollars he has to pay because of the new higher property value that he is creating with his own development.
I think that’s all crazy talk, and it’s a subsidy. Using city of Dallas property taxes alone, if I create a million dollars of new value on my land and I’m not in a TIF, I have to pay new taxes of $7,825 a year on it.

If I am in the Sports Arena TIF, I not only can get that money back: By the arcane mysteries of compounding financial mystification and municipal generosity, I can actually get vast sums paid into my pocket that the guy outside the TIF can never dream of. Plus, the TIF money never makes it into the city’s general fund where everybody else’s taxes go to pay for things like streets and cops. I assume most TIF money winds up in Palm Springs.

The Trinity Groves “restaurant incubator” (the shopping mall of eateries) got $3.5 million from the TIF, but that was a modest sum compared to the mixed-use development across the street. It’s getting $14 million in its first phase alone.

That works out to a direct subsidy from the city of more than $40,000 per apartment. Most of the small rental houses down the street that people are worried about getting kicked out of are on the tax rolls at values between $10,00 and $20,000. So the city is giving away two and four times the value of those little houses in order to subsidize rents in a fancy new project where none of the threatened poor renters could ever dream of living.

That. Is. Not. Destiny. That’s some guys doing some stuff.

And really, I’m showing you only the smallest portion of what those guys are doing, the part that’s most visible because it flows directly into private hands and therefore must be reported. If you want to see the real money, you have to read to the bottom of the city’s annual report for the Sports Arena TIF.

Down at the bottom of the report, lumped together under “Economic Development Grants, Retail Incentives, Infrastructure Improvements, Technical Studies Environmental/Demolition,” you will see that the real amount the city is pumping in to create new development in that little area at the foot of the bridge is more like $80 million.

Now, wait. Am I saying it’s wrong for the city to pump $80 million out of the general fund into the pockets of developers to create new development in West Dallas? No, I didn’t say that. Did I? Not yet anyway.

What I am saying is that there is nothing “generic,” natural or even essentially market-driven about the forces of gentrification threatening to push poor renters out of their homes in West Dallas. The poor renters were OK – paying their rent and living where they were – until people at City Hall did some stuff to them.

City Hall created that growth. Not the market. The market came along behind later and helped, but only after City Hall lit the match.

City Hall also did some things that were less development-oriented, ostensibly more altruistic, like substantially raising health and safety standards for rental properties. I heard many voices in that debate expressing what I knew to be sincere interest in protecting poor renters from exploitative and unhealthy conditions.

But that wasn’t destiny, either. That was some guys doing some stuff as well.

Now I want to go back up to the top and talk again about the 300 poor renters caught in the crossfire who may wind up losing their homes. Let’s face it. By the time you pour eighty million bucks into a dirt-poor area to deliberately spur gentrification, by the time you jack up the housing standards enough to disrupt the business models of major low-rent private sector providers, you’ve been out there setting off a lot of dynamite, haven’t you?

Isn’t it a little disingenuous at that point to make “a rather generic statement about the impact that redevelopment in nearby areas of West Dallas might have on renters.” Might have? Might have? You spent $80 million to make it happen, and you’re not sure if it will have an effect? That’s hard to swallow.

Wait again. Am I saying the mayor and the city council members did all this stuff because they knew it would wind up getting 300 families tossed out of their homes? No, I didn’t say that. Did I? Not yet.

I’m saying they didn’t think about it back when they should have thought about it. Back when they could have done something about it. If you truly have poor people in your heart, and if you can find a way to subsidize rich people at $40,000 a unit, you damned well can find some way to help poor working-class renters stay in their homes. And you damned well won’t lift a finger or set off any dynamite until you are rock-solid sure you won’t cost any poor people their homes by doing it.

But they didn’t start off thinking about keeping poor people in their homes, because they didn’t want to keep poor people in their homes. They wanted to take the poor people’s homes and even their neighborhood away from them and give it all to rich people.

Now, sure, when the bad stuff happens and the poor people are on TV losing their homes, they all want to say it’s generic. Destiny did it.

So now maybe I’ll say some of what I didn’t say before. If I were destiny, I’d come down here and kick somebody’s ass for using my name.
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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