City Hall

Dallas to Suburbs: "Let's Get You More Desegregated"

A picture is emerging — very slowly from the fog of local politics — of the way Dallas probably is going to address its desegregation problems with the federal government. The city is under major pressure to redress decades of bad behavior by putting more “affordable housing” (code for racially desegregated housing) into more “areas of opportunity” (code for white neighborhoods).

I have been talking to many people on several sides of the issue, and I do believe I am beginning to glimpse the picture. For someone like me who thinks desegregation is an effective therapy for what is otherwise a fatal social cancer, the good thing in this picture is that the citywide housing policy that council member Scott Grigg’s housing committee will present to the City Council at the end of this month is going to include some of the smartest, most muscular deseg strategies this overwhelming segregated city has ever seen or seriously considered.

Those strategies are being woven together as we speak by a quite counterintuitive coalition of interest groups, from The Real Estate Council (TREC) on the right to the Inclusive Communities Project (ICP) on the left, all motivated by a shared perception that something has to change so we might as well make the change as smart as possible.

The downside, for someone like me who just doesn’t believe might is ever right, is that Dallas, I am quite sure, is going to try to offshore some of its toughest deseg challenges by pushing them out into the suburbs. In other words, instead of trying to put minority families into the most resistant affluent white areas within the city limits, we will see a kangaroo jump out into the 'burbs, where Dallas will seek to ship some number of its own affordable housing clients.

How would Dallas be able to pull that off? Easy. In fact it’s been right there in front of us, in all those boring deseg stories that nobody read, for the last couple of years. In 2014, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, a Democrat, trekked to Washington to appeal to former San Antonio mayor and fellow-Democrat Julian Castro, then the brand-new Obama-appointed secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), to get Dallas off the hook.

The year before, a five-year federal investigation reached the conclusion that Dallas had violated federal law over a period of years by using federal deseg funds in ways that actually promoted racial segregation. HUD was just on the verge of hammering Dallas with a series of tough demands.

Rawlings cut a deal with Castro. Castro, brand new in the post, publicly trashed his own agency’s investigation and agreed to let Dallas out of the toughest of the terms his agency had set for settlement. Rawlings later publicly thanked Castro for his help.

But over the course of the last two years, a certain uncomfortable legal reality has settled in over that basically political deal. The findings of fact from the HUD investigation are still there, still found, still fact and can’t be waved away with wands.

Even if Dallas escapes paying a penalty for past actions, it cannot continue with business as usual, which would mean continuing to use HUD funds to stuff as much affordable housing as possible into already segregated southern Dallas, fencing it out of downtown where the city is trying to develop a new high-rent district and doing little to nothing to use affordable housing money for its intended legal purpose — getting poor black families, Hispanic families and disabled people into whiter more affluent areas with better schools and less crime.

Dallas has got to use its federal affordable housing money to put minority residents into white areas. There’s no way out of it.

As I said above, the ideas being kicked around in hearings of the City Council housing committee include many concepts that are brave and new for Dallas — using a housing trust fund, for example, to purchase land in resistant areas, sort of like a straw buyer. Dallas Councilman Lee Kleinman has offered an intriguing idea that involves the creation of a market in tradable development rights as a way to create private sector incentive for subsidized housing.

But no matter how anybody goes at it, at some point the same push is always going to come back to the same shove. Racially diverse poor families will have to be able to live in subsidized housing in mainly white mainly affluent areas with good schools and low crime rates.

It’s the law. It’s how the money works. Let’s not argue whether integration is a good idea. I already showed you my own cards. I’m saying, like it or not, it has to happen, and all of the ideas being kicked around before the housing committee, even the ones from the business community, are about making it happen.

But how? To whom? Where exactly?

The watchword in all of this — the one to listen for most keenly — is “regional.” All of a sudden, you wouldn’t believe how many people in downtown Dallas are urgently concerned about the need to achieve more racial diversity “in the region.”

What does “in the region mean?” Well, I would think it means not in Dallas.

Take TREC, for example. They claim on their website to represent 95 percent of the commercial (not residential) real estate industry in North Texas. In their presentation to the housing committee, TREC waxed positively poetic in its enthusiasm for the regional approach.

The TREC presentation called for “utilizing local incentive opportunities and alternatives to on-site development to encourage affordable housing outside the city of Dallas.”

More specifically and intricately, TREC suggested that a multifamily residential developer using federal money, required by law to provide affordable units, could make “payments in lieu” of those units — not build any affordable units, in other words — and the money from those payments could be used to build affordable units elsewhere.

Where? You guessed it. The “region.”

The TREC presentation suggested helpfully that the city could “allow projects located outside the limits of the city of Dallas to comply with affordable housing requirements with approval by city of Dallas housing director.”

Get it? Because of the five-year federal probe and its findings, Dallas is burdened with the task of putting more affordable into “areas of opportunity” — always a hot potato for local leaders because of NIMBY blow-back.

So let’s say you are some suburban mayor. Well, guess what? Under this scheme, Mayor Rawlings, with his pal the HUD secretary at his side, could declare that your town counts as one of Rawlings’ areas of opportunity.

He puts some affordable housing into your town. The renters get vouchers from the Dallas Housing Authority. Castro pats Rawlings on the back and says, “Mike, you are making the tough decisions and showing real leadership here. Thank you.”

You may raise your hand to object, but nobody will see your hand, because you have a little hand.

Far from alone in its enthusiasm for the regional approach, TREC is actually singing with the choir. In a separate presentation, The Urban Land Institute, an 80-year-old national think tank with 38,000 members in the fields of land use and real estate development, told the committee that Dallas needs to “Go regional.”

The ULI urged that, “Dallas leaders must continue the efforts that have already begun to work constructively with neighboring communities.”

And, yes, absolutely, those efforts have been underway for more than a decade, and I personally happen to admire them for the most part, although I think I would characterize the philosophy more honestly as “work constructively or else.”

I told you about this last Friday in a column about ICP, a private nonprofit that is funded entirely by a $22 million housing trust fund that grew out of the Dallas Walker case, a 19-year-old battle over segregated public housing in Dallas.

ICP has perfected a way of working constructively with affluent highly resistant suburbs, offering them a chance to do affordable housing voluntarily or have ICP train its $800,000-a-year litigation budget on them like a legal anti-tank weapon. Most of them have wound up doing the housing but only after taking hard hits from ICP.

TREC, in its presentation, said: “Funding can be awarded by a Housing Trust Fund to a private or non-profit developer to be used for the production of affordable single family and multifamily housing. A Housing Trust Fund should be managed by a ‘qualified’ nonprofit entity.’”

The ICP presentation to the committee was really a pitch for its own services as such a trust fund. ICP came back time and again to tell the committee that “housing mobility” and regionalism are themes that play very well with HUD.

“HUD specifically recommends government participation in housing voucher mobility programs as a means of affirmatively furthering fair housing,” ICP said. Dallas needs to “participate in a regional housing voucher mobility assistance program.”

That program, ICP said, should be run by ICP. “ICP should be the regional housing mobility provider given its experience in providing mobility services for voucher families.”

To clarify, ICP was talking specifically about an area of expertise in which it does have a long resume — counseling people who get housing vouchers from the Dallas Housing Authority on what will be involved in their moving and living successfully in some place like suburban Plano. Not just experience, ICP has a real track record of success in making these things work.

While ICP did have several suggestions for the committee about getting the county and the regional metropolitan planning agency involved, it did not mention or try to sell any of TREC’s more adventurous ideas for using a housing trust fund as a straw buyer of land or administrator of in-lieu affordable housing credits.

So what on earth is wrong with any of this, especially for a libtard like me? Aren’t the suburbs snotty and segregated?

You know, I just don’t know if they really are anymore. I mean, I know they’re still snotty, but when I drive out there they don’t look very segregated. Now in addition to a lot of snotty white people, I think they may have a lot of snotty people of color living there, too.

I know this much, and I said it Friday. Dallas has done one lousy job of desegregating itself. It hasn’t achieved squat in terms of desegregating North Dallas, desegregating the Park Cities, even desegregating downtown for God’s sake.

So, apart from sheer might and political connectedness, how does Dallas get nominated to be the moral and political high priest of deseg, the one to go out and tell the suburbs how to do it? Especially given the slimy convenience of being able to leap-frog its own most resistant areas, isn’t this move awfully suspect?

What about this? Let’s make it a race. Let’s have Dallas and the suburbs figure out segregation for themselves, apart from one another, and let’s see who gets there first. I’m not putting any money down yet.