The Real Reasons Why It's So Hard to Put Low-Income Housing in Rich Areas
Russell Fish at Tommy Fish School, which he founded in Kenya.
OOPS: copy below has been corrected to indicate location of proposed new elementary school correctly, near Central Expressway, not as previously reported near Dallas North Tollway.
Yesterday I told you White House cabinet member Julian Castro, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), had slipped into town under the radar the day before to chat with Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings. Rawlings’ spokesperson said after the meeting, “The secretary challenged the mayor to push for new affordable housing projects throughout the city.”
Also yesterday I looked in the mirror and told myself, “You better call Russell.” Russell Fish is an old source whom I consider a friend. We have written about him often before in the Observer. He is a successful tech inventor with a longstanding interest in school reform.
Sometimes it’s hard for me to make myself call him, because I disagree so deeply, so violently and so thoroughly with so much of what comes out of his mouth. He can come across as Trump on steroids. I always remind myself that Fish is a more complicated person than he sometimes would have you believe. I’ll tell you about that at the end.
And I like Russell. I went to his wedding.
But here goes. Fish is the chief instigator, prankster, propagandist and theologian behind a movement to defeat a $358.4 million school bond program in Highland Park Independent School District (HPISD), which serves Highland Park and University Park.
I have dealt with Fish enough over the years to know two things about him: 1) He’s very smart, and 2) If you can wade through the ideological mud — a big if, and sometimes I just have to get off the phone — he usually leads you to a subterranean stream of truth. But by then you've got some serious mud on your boots.
In this case he’s looking at the same low-income housing issue I have been talking about ad nauseum but from an extremely different perspective. I have been telling you about the thing Castro came to Dallas to jawbone Rawlings on — the need here to locate more low-income housing in affluent neighborhoods in the city.
Fish thinks he has found what will be the first target area when that effort gets underway. He’s talking about a zone of about 12 blocks near the intersection of Northwest Highway and North Central Expressway that falls within HPISD even though that area is within the city of Dallas, not the Park Cities. He thinks that’s where Dallas will stick its first big public housing project.
I have written about this before. It’s not a bad idea for Dallas. Putting some housing there might help get HUD off Dallas’ back about putting more housing in or near affluent areas. Plus, the kids from that housing would go to HPISD, not the Dallas schools.
As it happens, about $50 million of the bond money HPISD hopes voters will approve on November 3 is for a brand-new fifth elementary school for the district, in the very area Fish is talking about. Fish thinks putting the school there will almost compel Dallas to stick some of its new low-income housing across the street from the school, just because that would be too sweet a deal for Dallas to pass up.
So at this point I believe I will allow Fish to describe for you his reasons for not wanting that school to be built:
“What people do not want in the Park Cities, they don’t want people who are troublemakers. They don’t want people who are likely to bring problems. That’s drugs. That’s misbehavior. That’s making kids do stupid stuff. We’ve already got enough kids doing stupid stuff here already.”
He believes most of the people who would occupy new low income housing in the area would be recent immigrants from rural central Mexico:
“That is the kind of kid that’s coming in. There are no schools in these rural areas, no healthcare, no immunizations. It’s very, very primitive, not unlike rural villages in Africa. Half the kids that show up are used to crapping under a tree, wiping their butt with their hands. You have to explain, ‘We don’t do that here. We use the toilet paper. We wash our hands with soap,’ and that kind of thing. So it’s a huge, huge cultural difference.”
Fish believes that the U.S. Department of Education is using mandates for the treatment of gay, lesbian and transgender children to block-bust affluent enclaves:
“That becomes a real big problem in Highland Park. Everybody, yourself included, myself included, when we went to high school and middle school, there were lesbians and gays and whatever, and most people never knew. The people that did know didn’t give a shit. They just didn’t care. It didn’t matter.
“The only way that you know a student is one of these alternative sexual identities is if they proselytize, they protest or they have intimate sex (in public). That is the only way they get it out.”
He believes affluent white school districts are being ordered by Washington to accept all of these behaviors, while poor and black districts and at least one heavily Muslim district are let off the hook. In making this point, he refers to Dearborn, Michigan, near Detroit where he knows I lived long ago. Dearborn is now a predominantly Arab-American community:
“The districts where they are applying the legal test on this are primarily Anglo or Asian and academically successful. I find no indication at all that they have gone after any of the schools in Dearborn, Michigan, another one of your old stomping grounds. You know Dearborn, right? All Muslim.
“I can find no indication that they have gone after East Oakland in the area where I used to teach school, all black and all poor.”
All of this — the sexual identity requirements, the push for more low-income housing in high-income areas — Fish believes is part and parcel of an envy-driven Washington-based campaign to punish success.
“The bigger picture here is this is part of a takeover of this school district, one of the most successful school districts in the state of Texas, by a group that believes it is unfair that we are so successful. Part of that is handing control to Washington. This is a clear coordinated plan to end this school district as it has been known and end the reason it’s been so successful.”
Fish teaching at Tommy Fish School.
Fish believes an aspect of the campaign of envy is to paint success as based only on money and privilege, ignoring its underlying cultural and moral roots:
“The two reasons this school district has been as successful as it is, it is not about the money. It really isn’t. The first is independence. That means they don’t want to get shoved around by Washington. The key thing is that you have to get the feds and to a great extent get the Texas Education Agency out of your pants.
“Now we’ve got the feds helping us modify our curriculum. They’re helping us with the gay-straight alliance. They mean well, of course.
“The second is immense. Trust. There’s a very high trust between the community and the school district, the exact opposite of Dallas, of DISD. If you go into the high school or the middle school at lunch here, the people serving lunch, it’s not the fat old women with hairnets. It’s the moms.”
Fish believes HPISD is using hyped demographic figures to predict great increases in student enrollment in the future, increases that Fish does not believe will happen:
“They’re trying to raise money based on the stupendous growth that the demographers project, and in fact they’re bullshit. Highland Park is landlocked. It’s completely landlocked. It is a high-income community.
“They’re trying to make these arguments that the rednecks from the Ozarks that have eight kids are moving to the Park Cities, and that’s why we’re going to have this explosion of elementary kids. Families with one or two kids like my neighbors are going to be replaced by families that have three, four or five kids.”
The building of a school not within the corporate boundaries of the Park Cities, he says, will bring about oil-and-water conflicts between the governments of Dallas and the Park Cities, especially where policing is concerned:
“The fact that Highland Park is building a school in the city of Dallas instantly raises eyebrows around here, not the least of which means security is a problem of [the Dallas Police Department] as opposed to [the University Park Police Department].”
He also thinks multi-story housing for poor people invites other kinds of peril because it provides, “the advantages of height for dope dealers and a wealthy community as a customer base.”
What else? Oh, yes, he believes HPISD is raising money to build new schools, rather than retrofitting old ones, because it will be easier and cheaper to provide transgender bathrooms and locker rooms in new buildings, as opposed to ripping up the plumbing in existing schools.
And what did I say at the beginning — ideological mud, stream of truth, something like that? Where’s the stream, eh? What stream?
There is one. There is always a stream of truth in what Fish finds to talk about. He believes that HPISD, by building a school inside the city of Dallas, will lure new low-income housing to the vicinity of that school:
“If it wasn’t for this overlapping boundary, I don’t think this would even be a discussion. Why are we building a new school from scratch as opposed to adding a third story to either one of the existing elementaries?”
He has scouted the area and found still more incentives, he thinks, for low-income housing to be built nearby:
“There is a brand-new DART stop across the street. There is a grocery store across the street the other way. There’s an immigration office two blocks away. A brand-new elementary school in the best school district in the state of Texas 35 feet from the door. That’s pretty compelling [if] you want to really penalize a white community that you can’t get to otherwise.”
Building the housing there, he says, will take the bull’s eye off affluent neighborhoods within Dallas:
“By building this elementary school where you are building it and at this particular point in time, you improve the likelihood that that site will be chosen [for public housing] over a site in Lakewood or Preston Hollow or somewhere else. They’re looking at the rich white — what they consider segregated communities.”
That’s true. That is what Dallas is looking for. That is what Secretary Castro flew here to jawbone the mayor about. And everything else Fish says is exactly why putting low-income housing in or near affluent enclaves is so very, very difficult. It’s not the land costs. The land costs are incidental. It’s everything Fish just said.
I said he was complicated, right? Oh, yeah. He is. Fish is the founder and philanthropist behind multiple schools for rural children in Kenya. When he talks about kids in primitive conditions, he actually knows what he’s talking about. He named one school for his son, Tommy, and another for his longtime friend, Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.