Welcome to the neighborhood

The woman in manager Reginald Giles' office at Frankford Townhomes was looking for a nice apartment to rent in North Dallas--clean, safe, and miles from the inner city.

Little did she know when she approached Giles last week that she was standing in the middle of a public housing project operated by the Dallas Housing Authority, and she wasn't particularly happy when she found out.

"She told me she didn't understand why people who don't work should receive such nice accommodations," Giles recalls. "But just because a person is poor, doesn't mean he or she has to live in poverty."

It was another one of those damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't moments on the Dallas Housing Authority's long uphill climb to deliver housing for the poor in middle-class North Dallas. But it may also be a sign that things are looking up for DHA as it tries to end decades of desegregation in the city's public housing.

"The stigma associated with public housing, number one, is the buildings," says Lori Moon, president and CEO of the Dallas Housing Authority. "And number two is the stereotypes and misconceptions people hold about the people that live there. But once you get past that physical stigma, you can begin to work with some of the other issues."

The 75 two-story units at Frankford, which opened in May, are now almost fully occupied with former tenants of other public-housing sites. Located at Frankford Road and Marsh Lane, the complex is a far cry from the stereotypical Good Times image of public housing. Paved lanes wind past manicured lawns surrounding brick and sided four-plexes. The rooms in the one- to three-bedroom apartments are small, but they're carpeted, with ceiling fans and central air and heat.

"They are really nice," says Lee McAtee, a local homeowner and a member of the Neighborhood Advisory Board, an organization of members from 14 homeowner associations that sued to keep public housing out of Far North Dallas. "They turned out a lot better than we were expecting them to. We just hope DHA sticks to their word regarding upkeep and everything."

To qualify to live at Frankford, tenants must either work or attend school, and must leave the public-housing rolls within five years.

The relatively lush life at Frankford stems in part from strange quarters--the very people who opposed their construction. Justifiably cynical North Dallas homeowners had heard public officials make promises of new and improved public housing in the past, only to see the results: neglected, rundown, and crime-ridden projects. Fearing that Frankford would suffer a similar fate and lower local property values, the Public Housing Steering Committee Inc., a group representing more than 2,000 mostly white area homeowners, sued to halt the construction of low-income housing in their neighborhood.

The result has been to improve the quality of life at Frankford.
Frankford Townhomes is the first of a planned 647 apartments ordered by U.S. District Judge Jerry Buchmeyer as part of the 13-year-old Walker housing discrimination suit. That suit, originally filed on behalf of three black low-income tenants, successfully claimed that Dallas had deliberately segregated public-housing tenants. As part of the remedy, DHA was ordered in February 1995 to begin constructing public housing in middle-class, predominantly white areas, such as Frankford Road.

Buchmeyer also formed the Frankford Homes Neighborhood Advisory Board and ordered the housing authority to consult with the group. Meeting regularly during the design of the complex with Moon and the authority's planning and development department, members of the advisory board played an active role in Frankford Townhomes' design.

Dick Prewitt, a member of the Bent Tree Hills Homeowners' Association, was a particularly vocal opponent of Frankford Townhomes, with good reason. Prewitt and 15 of his neighbors had spent upward of $300,000 to have homes built in what they expected to become the Bent Tree Hills gated community. But, Prewitt says, nearly six weeks after the housing authority announced its plans, the developers pulled out. The homes that have been built since are considerably cheaper.

Despite the fact that he will never fully recoup what he paid for his home, Prewitt says Frankford Homes are "not a blight on the neighborhood. It is 100 percent better than we thought it would be. They have done an extremely good job. It looks like middle-income, garden-type apartments. I just hope the people who go there appreciate what they have there. Everybody needs a helping hand."

Meanwhile, construction at two additional sites at Hillcrest Road near Frankford and at the corner of Meandering Way and McCallum Boulevard are on hold, awaiting a decision by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans in an appeal of Buchmeyer's Walker ruling.

But the issue is moot at Frankford Townhomes, and that's just fine with residents such as single mother Kellie Reynolds. She moved into one of the complex's two-bedroom apartments about a month ago with her 6-year-old daughter Monica. A home health-care worker and a former tenant of Rose Terrace Apartments, Reynolds says she likes being closer to shops, a fitness center, friends in the area and, of course, jobs.

Her new neighbors, many of whom fought to prevent her move, have, for the most part, been friendly. "A nearby church came out recently and gave us all a warm welcome," she says.

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