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The weirdness of HUD Secretary Ben Carson subtly influenced a City Council committee hearing on housing Wednesday.EXPAND
The weirdness of HUD Secretary Ben Carson subtly influenced a City Council committee hearing on housing Wednesday.
Gage Skidmore

Washington Sows Confusion as Dallas Struggles To Fix Its Housing Programs

If you think Weird Washington is a long way off, look again. The weirdness has come home to roost. And you know what? It might be good for us in the end. It might force us to grow up.

Dallas City Council member Tennell Atkins hosted a special committee meeting Thursday on a proposed new housing policy for the city. A lot of what’s driving the proposed new policy is a need to get the city into compliance with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Great idea. Now tell me what compliance would be. No, better yet, tell me what HUD even is these days. Under the direction of Secretary Dr. Ben Sleepy-Eyes Carson, nobody knows. Could be this. Could be that. Sleepy-Eyes Carson says a lot of stuff.

Dallas thought it was in major trouble three years ago because HUD, under Obama, said the city wasn’t using its HUD money to achieve racial desegregation. Now city staff are proposing a new citywide housing policy based on a Herculean effort that analyzed affordable housing data nationwide. It is supposed to remedy the city’s HUD problems and provide a pragmatic way to solve the more urgent affordable housing crisis in the city.

But that’s based on an assumption that we have a HUD problem. Maybe not. Maybe we’re ahead of the curve. Nobody knows.

The specific HUD policy Dallas is accused of violating is called “affirmatively furthering fair housing.” It has an acronym — AFFH. The courts have agreed that AFFH means racial desegregation. HUD gives Dallas and the Dallas Housing Authority hundreds of millions of dollars, all of it intended by law to go to AFFH.

The rule is that new subsidized housing does not affirmatively further anything if it is built in neighborhoods that are already segregated. And think about it. That just maintains or maybe even increases segregation by keeping people packed into segregated areas.

Recent research also shows that people, especially kids, have a much better chance at escaping poverty if they can escape poor neighborhoods. So all of that taken together produces what is supposed to be a firm HUD policy based on federal law saying that HUD money must be spent in what HUD calls “high opportunity areas.” It doesn’t exactly mean white, but, you know.

It means better off, with better schools, less crime, fewer gangs, a better class of drug dealers. And that makes sense, too, does it not? HUD could just stop spending $60 billion of our tax dollars every year and do nothing. Or, if it’s going to spend our money supposedly making things better for people, it should spend our money in ways that actually make things better for people.

One of the basic tenets of the new housing policy, then, is that Dallas should stop taking huge grants from HUD and spending the money in ways that violate AFFH. That means any new subsidized housing should be built in high opportunity areas, and you and I know what that means.

You might assume — I would have assumed just a few months ago — that the proposed new Dallas housing policy would run smack into enormous blowback from white people. And, please, I’m not pointing fingers. Some of my best friends are white.

I live in one of the most liberal parts of the city, and I think it’s fair to say my white liberal neighbors are among the most passionate and effective resisters of public housing in the city. We don’t even call it NIMBY. We call it NIMBYMF.

But, no. For once, we white folks are not necessarily the main villains and enemies of change. Not yet. We’re waiting in the wings.

At Thursday’s special called meeting at City Hall, the advance phalanx of people attacking the new policy was made up almost entirely of African-American operators of community housing development organizations (everybody calls them CHODOs) in southern Dallas.

The CHODOs were always the main beneficiaries of the city’s previous approach to affordable housing. Under the old regime, before the arrival of current City Manager T.C. Broadnax, the city doled out millions of dollars in HUD grant money to the community organizations to go ahead and build in already segregated areas, no problem.

Some of that money was in conventional loans. Some of it was in what are called forgivable loans, where the city forgives you for not paying the money back. Most of them were in what I call forgettable loans, where the city says, “Forget about it,” and you do, and so do they.

The forgettable loans, which may amount by now to hundreds of millions of forgotten dollars, are the subject of a special yearlong investigation by the HUD Office of Investigator General. Strong rumor is that a report is due at the end of the week saying what the OIG has found. Even stronger rumor was that the report, whenever it comes out, will focus on the CHODOs.

Former council member Carolyn Davis said things about HUD at a Wednesday meeting in City Hall that were probably untrue and also maybe true.EXPAND
Former council member Carolyn Davis said things about HUD at a Wednesday meeting in City Hall that were probably untrue and also maybe true.
Jim Schutze

But here’s the thing. Ben Carson has been telling Washington that he doesn’t believe in AFFH. Because AFFH is based on law and the courts, he can’t just drop it and say HUD won’t enforce AFFH anymore. But he is proposing a change in the agency’s official mission statement that sounds a whole lot like an abandonment of desegregation as a core purpose of the agency.

Carson is circulating a memo proposing to strip out language in the mission statement that says HUD’s goal is “inclusive and sustainable communities free from discrimination.” He wants to replace that language with something saying, “HUD’s mission is to ensure Americans have access to fair, affordable housing and opportunities to achieve self-sufficiency, thereby strengthening our communities and nation.”

You might say, oh, well, that’s just a mission statement — some kind of public relations mumbo-jumbo, not the law. But the problem yesterday, here in Dallas, was that Carson had sown confusion about HUD’s basic mission, and that ambiguity allowed people to say whatever they wanted about HUD.

Former Dallas City Council member and former housing committee chair Carolyn Davis, now a lobbyist for the CHODOs, told the council that the whole thing about “high opportunity areas” is an urban legend. HUD, she insisted, never said new public housing dollars can’t go into already segregated areas.

“HUD did not, when I was the housing chair, tell the city of Dallas that they could not build in those areas. That was a city decision.

“It is not written anywhere,” she said. “You can go to HUD right now, and they will not tell you as the federal government that you cannot build in those areas. It was a matter of choice.”

Under current circumstances in Washington, Davis is completely and fundamentally wrong, but she also is probably right. She’s wrong because HUD under Obama told Dallas in no uncertain terms that it had to promise not to put new housing money into “impacted areas,” meaning poor, segregated areas.

But Davis is probably right that you can’t get anybody at HUD to say it out loud again now. Nobody at HUD knows what Dr. Sleepy-Eyes is up to. So far, he has shown a propensity to crush the careers of people who even question his purchase of office furniture. God only knows what he would do to somebody who called him out publicly on AFFH.

In spite of all that — maybe because of it — one could sense a mood of commitment and optimism yesterday among some council members normally at each other’s throats. The new housing policy put forward by the staff seemed to make fundamental, pragmatic good sense to them.

Council member Scott Griggs called the plan a “pipeline to the future” and singled out key elements he thinks will make a difference.

“One is that we are no longer going to build down,” he said. Under the new plan, the city will invest instead only in projects designed to build stronger communities. “When we go into a neighborhood and into an area, the product we build and what we stabilize will build the area up.”

Another change, he said, is that the new plan will put an end to one-off grants of money to favored developers, reserving the money instead for coherent area plans.

“The bank of Dallas is closed,” Griggs said.

There will be no more unique grants. “That’s the bank of Dallas model we’ve used for decades. It doesn’t work. The model we’re shifting to now is to create markets.”

Griggs praised the proposed housing policy, saying “I think that [City Manager] T.C. [Broadnax] and [Chief of Economic Development and Neighborhood Services] Raquel [Favela] and her team have done a magnificent job.” All his fellow council members nodded solemnly in agreement.

After the meeting, I circulated around the room a little, asking council members, community activists and CHODO people if it bothered them that the direction from Washington seems so wacky. Mostly what I got were shrugged shoulders, funny little grins and a response I would generalize as, “What are we supposed to do about that?”

Later in the day, I spoke to Griggs on the phone. He said I was right that there is a keen sense of opportunity on the council — not perfect unison, of course, but a feeling that this new policy makes basic good sense and gives the council a solid base from which to work constructively:

“We depended on HUD to be the parent in the past, and that didn’t work out. So maybe this is our chance to grow up, be an adult and not need a parent to tell us what to do.”

Someday I’m going to write a children’s book called What To Do if Your Parents Turn Out To Be Nuts. I don’t know, maybe it has a happy ending.

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