City Hall

HBO's Show Me a Hero Could Be Set in Dallas Today, Minus the Hero

Months ago, Dallas school board member Miguel Solis shipped me a copy of a 1999 book called Show Me a Hero  by former New York Times writer (now senior columnist at Huffington Post) Lisa Belkin, about a late 1980s affordable housing/desegregation fight in Yonkers, an inner-rim suburb of New York. Solis told me I should read it, but I read something about the Chippewa fur trade instead.

My bad. Now an HBO miniseries has launched, of the same name and based on the book, co-written by David Simon, who created the earlier HBO hit series The Wire. I’m already hooked on the miniseries, and I am also going back and reading the book at the same time so I can do spoiler alerts on myself, a bad personal reading habit born of my work.

Here’s where I sit while I watch and read, however: it’s so weird, like watching all of this unfold from my La-Z-Boy reclining chair on a distant comet somewhere, knowing that the whole scene and the entire debate about affordable housing goes on nationally in some kind of deliberate ignorance of what just happened here. In Dallas.

We just fought the same fight. We’re the biggest city ever to come under the same kind of gun Yonkers faced 30 years ago, but in our case, the Department of Housing and Urban Development took a dive.

The late 1980s fight in Yonkers has eerie parallels with the four-year battle with HUD from which Dallas apparently has emerged unscathed. In the opening scenes of the miniseries, elders of the Yonkers NAACP, plaintiffs in a housing lawsuit, shrug and look bored when their lawyer tells him he just won and the judge just ordered construction of 200 affordable units in the white part of town.

The young lawyer, who is white, looks both hurt and puzzled. He asks if he did something wrong. An elderly man, who is black, shrugs and says no, but he and the others are “just tired.” They don’t really care all that much anymore about housing erected over where the white people live.

Of course now, almost 30 years later, that’s very much the posture of elected black leadership in Dallas. I just wrote about this a couple days ago (sorry) , when all of the newly elected black Dallas City Council members gave exactly the same shrug I just saw on that TV show. They voted against a significant effort at achieving desegregation and affordable housing in Dallas.

The two of the four who would speak to me about it afterward said they were less interested in the desegregation aspect of a fight over a big new luxury residential project near downtown than they were in “being fair” to the developer, who didn’t want to include any affordable units.

Desegregation? Meh.

In a recent appearance on the Diane Rehm Show on NPR , new HUD Secretary and former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro fielded an interminable series of ultra-softball questions from listeners (“I was wondering if you would ever consider coming back to Texas to run for governor?”) and never once got a question about the first thing he did when President Obama appointed him: Practically his first act on taking office was to kick the pins from under a four-year federal investigation of housing fraud in Dallas.

In a final “letter of non-compliance,” HUD found Dallas had been taking federal deseg money for a decade, lying about what it was doing with it, spending it instead to rehab old office towers downtown and keep affordable housing out of downtown. That letter imposed tough sanctions on Dallas if the city wanted to keep its nose in the trough of federal funds (Answer: Yes, it does want to keep its nose in the trough).

For example, Dallas was going to be required to pass an ordinance by which any residential multifamily housing project anywhere in the city that received any public subsidy at all — HUD money, local tax increment financing money, tax credits, anything public — would be required by law to accept HUD Section 8 rent vouchers. Before Castro came on the picture, HUD was demanding that Dallas pass an ordinance to “prohibit the denial of applicants based upon source of income.”

Castro visited with our very able mayor, Mike Rawlings. Shortly afterward, that requirement was scaled back to one by which city staff must present an income discrimination ordinance to the council, but the council doesn’t have to pass it. Instead all the city has to do is show HUD, “a copy of the public record reflecting the City Council's consideration and action on such an ordinance.”

Like, “Yeah, we looked at it. Don’t think so.” Or, “We’re tired.”

What is so remarkable, as I look down at Earth from my La-Z-Boy on the comet, is that the very welcome bloom of dialogue around Hero, which is all about affordable housing, utterly ignores the most significant recent turn of events in the housing desegregation battle, which happened here. And I kind of think I know why.

The HUD four-year probe of Dallas didn’t come from any of the usual suspects. It wasn’t spawned by any outcry from housing activists, community organizers or elected officials — the kind of people who pretty much own this dialogue, the ones who get calls from reporters.

The Dallas HUD case arose from complaints made by two business people. Developers Curtis Lockey and Craig MacKenzie  basically said that Dallas had invited them to invest serious money in a HUD-backed deal downtown. They did.They naively assumed they were supposed to obey the law and HUD regulations on including affordable units. When city officials saw the affordable units in their plan they yanked the rug on the deal and screwed Lockey and MacKenzie out of their investment.

Lockey hooked up with a top Washington law firmand invested a lot of time and money in a complaint to HUD. He told HUD that Dallas was practicing fraud and racial segregation downtown.

HUD then spent four years investigating the complaint, with Dallas fighting them every inch of the way every way it could, trying to get the investigation killed. In the end HUD said Lockey and MacKenzie were right and Dallas was guilty.

But here’s the thing. The Lockey and MacKenzie grievance, at least initially, was not grounded in ideology. It was a business deal. You invited us in. We put down real money. You had a secret game book. You shafted us on the deal. You were breaking the law. Guess what. We’re not going to roll over and play dead on that.

But that actually makes Lockey and MacKenzie outliers in the desegregation industry. A few —- not all — local activists on housing issues are derisive when they talk about Lockey and MacKenzie, describing them as upstarts who don’t know their place, as if housing activism were a medieval guild.

And, look, otherwise, the affordable housing deal is done here. That cake is baked. City Hall has its deal. I guess HUD has its deal now, too. The real estate industry is quite happy with the market as its going now. The elected black leadership ether doesn’t care about desegregation or views it as an active threat to its commercial interests.

And so we wind with narratives like the one we talked about a couple days ago (sorry). It’s what so weird about the whole debate and why Show Me a Hero is so strangely dislocated in time. The heads-up viewer must ask at some point: “If all that happened way back then, 30 years ago, then why is all of it still stuck on the same dime now?”

The answer is that everybody likes the dime. Our mayor likes the dime. Julian Castro likes the dime. The dime is nicely round. Everybody gets paid, except for Lockey and MacKenzie, and they don’t count. They’re not in the show. Only people in the show count, and they only count their dimes.