Heartstrings and Purse Strings Tugged in Tough Council Debate on Housing the Poor

Dallas City Council member Casey Thomas wanted to help those in need. So did everybody else.
Dallas City Council member Casey Thomas wanted to help those in need. So did everybody else. dallascityhall.com
A lot of the time, probably too much, we talk about the Dallas City Council strictly in terms of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, death, famine, war and conquest. There’s more to it than those four guys.

A recent debate about a run-down apartment complex in far West Dallas illustrated what is probably a much more important theme on a day-to-day basis — the sheer difficulty and pain of making decisions about people’s lives.

In fact, if we were to look closely at the Oct. 24 council debate on Ridgecrest Apartments, most of us would come away just being really glad we’re not on the council. How would you or I like having to tell a weeping mother and her baby to take a hike — and that’s the right thing to do?

Most of us would be sitting there saying, “Wait, no, where is the part where I get to be the hero?” Maybe nowhere.

Ridgecrest, a 250-unit complex about a mile east of Mountain Creek Lake, is so soaked in crime and decay that the city is suing the owners under the city’s nuisance abatement ordinance. But, look, when you hear those words, crime and decay, you can get a wrong or insufficient picture of the place in your head. It doesn’t mean all of the people in the complex are criminals.

At Ridgecrest, as at hundreds of apartment complexes just like it across the city, struggling families with children are trying to eke out lives on what little they can afford. Often they are single mothers with incomes of paupers, striving to feed and protect young children while battling the other monsters of poverty, bad health and danger from human predators. And losing the battle.

Of the parade of beset mothers who appealed to the council at its hearing on Ridgecrest, the most affecting was Patricia Baghboud, who wept openly and had to be steadied by another woman who stood at her side:

“We did not ask to live in poverty. This is where we lay our head at night, with our kids and our grandkids. You all do not know what it’s like to live in poverty." — Patricia Baghboud

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“We did not ask to live in poverty,” she said, sobbing. “This is where we lay our head at night, with our kids and our grandkids. You all do not know what it’s like to live in poverty. You don’t know what it’s like to live in apartments like this. I speak to you all and hope you will take in consideration today to not shut us down.”

The question before the council was whether to pull apart a citywide housing policy that the council and staff just spent two years of agony crafting. The request to butcher the brand-new policy came from a developer who needed an exception in order to acquire federal subsidy money to renovate Ridgecrest.

The history at Ridgecrest is long and horrible, replete with earlier renovation projects, lots of promises, a dismal, seemingly inescapable tendency to go right back to those four guys I mentioned at the top. The purpose of the city’s new policy is to turn that long, awful history around.

Councilman Lee Kleinman pointed out one of the serious technical problems in the city’s approach to low-income housing before the new policy was adopted: In order to get federal money for a rehab project — appliances, countertops, carpet and paint — that might last two years under harsh use, the city has had to agree to deed restrictions locking in low-income rent levels for 15 years.

The rehab wears out. Conditions return to terrible. There is no money for another rehab. There is no incentive for anybody else to buy the place and fix it up, because the low rent levels are locked in by deed restriction for 13 more years. So the place just goes straight to hell again.

Kleinman said pumping new money under the old policies into places like Ridgecrest would be “perpetuating this cycle of bad properties and bad living conditions.”

He said of the current owners of Ridgecrest, “They have a prosecution case against them, and now they are asking us to approve someone else to fix the problems that the old owner created.

“Preserving the existing conditions, I don’t find that palatable and I certainly don’t find that compatible with our housing policy.”

Council member Scott Griggs pointed to what is probably an even more salient problem with putting more money into Ridgecrest: The city is under a legal compulsion from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and from federal courts to stop putting money into projects that perpetuate racial segregation and concentration of poverty.

Griggs asked city staff at the meeting if putting resources into Ridgecrest and another project also under consideration would comply with federal law, and he was told it would not.
click to enlarge Dallas City Manager T.C. Broadnax had to be the grown-up in the room. (His suit looked a lot better than that. This image is distorted by the video from which it was captured.) - DALLASCITYHALL.COM
Dallas City Manager T.C. Broadnax had to be the grown-up in the room. (His suit looked a lot better than that. This image is distorted by the video from which it was captured.)
“We are left with a legal issue, which is the fair housing issue,” he said. “We have an opinion from our city staff that I presume our city attorney has looked at also, that addresses a legal issue, not a policy issue, being whether or not these projects are in compliance with fair housing law and whether or not they affirmatively further fair housing.

“In the professional opinion of our city staff, the answer to that question is they do not.”

One response to the whole question, from council member Kevin Felder, was predictably cuckoo. Felder gave his version of an impassioned speech, saying he wanted the city to fix everything for everybody. He told City Manager T.C. Broadnax that the debate itself was creating uncertainty for the residents of Ridgecrest:

“This is compounding their condition, not knowing what is going to happen,” Felder said. “That is unconscionable.”

 “I am not blaming you,” he told Broadnax, “but I want you to hear what I am saying and craft some sort of immediate plan, some sort of contingency plan, to make sure they are protected in some sort of way, because these are the least of these. It should be in everyone’s heart to protect the least of these.”

Sure. Absolutely. And if the city manager had a magic wand in his coat pocket, why hadn’t he taken it out at the beginning of the meeting and saved everybody a lot of talk?

It was Broadnax’s role to talk to Felder and the rest of the council about scarce resources: “I know we’re talking about Ridgecrest today,” he said, “but you can multiply that by 10, 20, 30 similarly situated properties.

"It impacts me and it hurts me personally to see someone standing here at the podium who is not a professional speaker but speaks from passion." — Casey Thomas

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“The city does not have enough resources, and HUD does not have enough resources to address it.”

Broadnax said that at some point the city is not doing the responsible thing by stepping in, making promises it cannot keep and lifting responsibilities from shoulders of the people who ought properly to bear them.

“I think the fundamental thing we are glaringly omitting here is that the property owners have a fundamental responsibility to repair and invest in their properties and ensure that people have safe living conditions,” Broadnax told the council.

“We should not bail out this landlord by us trying to be a savior and perpetuating what we believe are historically segregated communities.”

But in all of it, the person whose words pained my own heart more than any other, even more than Patricia Baghboud, was council member Casey Thomas. With the catch of emotion in his voice, Thomas said, “To avoid violating our own policy, we have to say, ‘No, we can’t help you?’ That’s a problem with me. That’s very bothersome as someone who didn’t get in this job because I have political aspirations.

“I got in this job because I wanted to be able to help people,” Thomas said. “I wanted to be able to make people’s lives better. They want to have a better quality of life. It impacts me and it hurts me personally to see someone standing here at the podium who is not a professional speaker but speaks from passion.”

There is a thing I know from watching meetings like these my entire life, a thing that almost never finds its way into the day-to-day, who’s-on-first, he-said-she-said coverage of local politics. When Thomas says he got into it to help people, he’s probably speaking the God’s truth, and he probably speaks for all of them. If anything, the special genius of our American political system is that it recruits people to it who have a passion for making other people’s lives better.

Oh, sure, many a slip twixt the cup and the lip, feet of clay, Dwaine Caraway, the whole nine yards, and that’s mainly what we tell you about. But the inner light guiding the lot of them is a collective will to be the few who come to the rescue of the many.

That’s what Kleinman was talking about. It’s what Griggs meant. Broadnax is a very controlled personality, but you could hear passion in his voice, too. Felder I need a rain check on.

And Thomas. Maybe I’m projecting, but I thought I heard a weeping in his voice that sang directly to the weeping in the voice of that mother. She stood before them all and wept for her child, wept for her poverty, wept for her plea.

The motion to amend the new housing policy and allow the rehab deal at Ridgecrest was defeated by one vote. The City Council said no to the parade of poor mothers who had begged for a dispensation. It said no to them in order to say yes to an even greater multitude of people unseen in the wings of time, also suffering.

That’s why I’m glad I just have to write about this stuff. If you put me behind that dais and told me I actually had to do it, I think I’d change my name and move to Ohio at midnight.
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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze