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City Council Ignores Lawyer on Affordable Housing Deal, Despite Righteous Talk About Poor Housing

The city is suing low-rent landlord Dennis Topletz to have a court seize all his property, because his family name, according to City Hall, is “synonymous with dilapidated and often crime-ridden, single-family rental property located primarily in the southern area of Dallas.” (See the suit below.)

So, wait. What does City Hall do for low-income people who need cheap rent? Dallas City Hall has hundreds of millions of dollars at its disposal in federal subsidies and development rights that it could leverage to provide more housing for low-income people. In fact, one good look at the city’s vast power, resources and authority to resolve low-income housing needs and all of a sudden the little Topletz properties disappear into the gloom.

Well, let me give you an example of the city’s great compassion for the non-rich. The Billingsley Co. is developing a thing called Cypress Waters, 1,000 acres of office and apartments next to a lake out by DFW airport. It’s really in Irving and Coppell, but technically it’s in Dallas because of an absurd little mapping trick used by Dallas to keep Grapevine Lake within the Dallas corporate boundaries.

Last week the Dallas City Council went into a closed-door secret session to discuss some worries the city attorney had about the Billingsley project. City Attorney Warren Ernst told the council that Billingsley owner Lucy Crow Billingsley, referred to in the meeting as “Lucy,” had succeeded in getting the city’s Economic Development Department to shrink the borders of a special tax district, taking the 10,000-unit residential portion of her project out of the district, even though being inside the district would have meant “tens of millions of dollars” in direct subsidy to her project from the city.

Why would she give up that much money? Ernst told the council Lucy wanted nothing more to do with that money because the city had signed an agreement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development promising to require that anybody who got that kind of subsidy devote 20 percent of their project to low-income housing.

We need to take a pause. Before I go an inch more with this I need to tell you that I contacted Billingsley last week, told her what I was going to write, and she replied in a email: “Jim, Bad data from a faulty source.” I interpret that as meaning that she is claiming that I have this thing all wrong. Her answer does mean I cannot tell you with any authority what her intentions may have been in this business. But I can tell you with absolute authority what the city attorney told the City Council her intentions were.

He was worried. Ernst even named people and entities he was concerned might sue the city over the Cypress Waters deal — specifically the Inclusive Communities Project, a nonprofit affordable housing advocacy group; longtime Dallas low-income housing advocacy attorney Mike Daniel; and Curtis Lockey, a developer whose accusations against the city spurred a four-year federal investigation that found Dallas guilty of deliberate racial segregation. 

If Billingsley had stayed in the tax subsidy district and accepted tens of millions of dollars in tax money from the city, she would have had to devote 2,000 of her 10,000 apartments to affordable housing as a payback for the money. Ernst told the council he had been OK with Billingsley ducking out of the tax district to get out of the low-income housing requirement, if that had meant she would be forfeiting the subsidy.

Ah, but there was the rub. The city was now putting other money into the deal, even if sort of indirectly. The agenda item the council voted on and approved immediately after the closed-door session was an $800,000 economic development grant financed with money from the Water Department to help a company called OneSource Virtual Inc. move from Las Colinas to the Billingsley project.

Ernst was concerned that the grant of city money to a tenant in the project, even though not from the taxing district, could still trigger the affordable housing portion of the HUD agreement. He didn’t suggest it would put any burden on the tenant, only on the city for failing to require Billingsley to do the 20 percent affordable component.

The city had to sign its agreement with HUD after HUD dug up 10 years' worth of egregious racism and segregation in Dallas city housing policy. Dallas signed it, Ernst told them, agreeing that from here on out that any money the city gives away to residential developers — any money, any greenbacks, any American currency of any kind from city coffers — carries the obligation to require 20 percent affordable in the project, including money from the Water Department.

In other words, this was a split between the city attorney, who was worried about the deal, and the economic development staff, who were telling the council to just do it.

Before I wrote this story, I wrote to Mayor Mike Rawlings,  Ernst and Economic Development Director Karl Zavitkovsky, telling them all in detail what I was going to write.

Christopher D. Bowers, first assistant city attorney, wrote me back: “Warren is out of the office today, and he has asked me to respond. We do not comment on what was said or not said in an executive session.”

Mayor Rawlings called me back and said he is committed to the cause of affordable housing in Dallas. “I am committed behind it and putting together every effort I can to make this happen.” He said the Water Department money found for the project was aimed at bringing in a specific tenant he had courted for the city and “had nothing to do with affordable housing.”

When I observed that Ernst had told them in the closed-door meeting that it did have implications for affordable housing and HUD, Rawlings said, “According to your source.” I didn’t discuss sources with him, as I am not discussing that issue here.

I did not hear back from Zavitkovsky.

But hold up a second. Yesterday I went all weepy on you in defense of a man, Topletz, whom The Dallas Morning News had just described in an editorial as lower than Scrooge. So now I’m throwing stones at Billingsley Co. because they wanted to hold on to their subsidy but get out of the affordable housing requirement?

No, not exactly. If I’m Billingsley and you’re Dallas, and if you tell me I don’t have to do something I don’t want to do but you will give me some money anyway, I guess I’ll probably take some money from you. I keep trying to jump up on my high horse about that one, but I just can’t quite make it into the saddle.

So is the point that Dallas City Hall is a bunch of crazy criminals, and HUD is going to send them all to jail? No, HUD isn’t sending anybody anywhere. We’ve talked about this before: HUD is an absolute junk-pile, a house divided against itself that doesn’t even know itself what its own mission is supposed to be.

I know sincere low-income housing advocates in this town who will tell you that HUD has done more than any other entity to hamper the development of fair housing in this city. HUD is a bad joke. City officials can flout their agreement with HUD because they know damned well they can get away with it. And they’re right. They can. That’s not to say they can’t get sued, but they don’t care about that because it’s not their money.

My point is a little off from there. Yesterday after my piece about the Topletz family went up online, Rudy Bush over at The Dallas Morning News tweeted that my piece was, “A truly gymnastic effort to twist the plain observable truth [into] something else.” The city’s campaign against the Topletz family is an echo of a long-running editorial campaign against them at the city’s only daily paper, and Bush, who was on the editorial board until a recent promotion, was defending that content, I assume.

Here’s what I think. The poor — the real poor, the people who are poor — are opaque to the kind of people who write editorials at the daily newspaper or occupy most of the berths at City Hall. They don’t even see them.

People are poor for all kinds of reasons, the same way people are rich or middle class for all kinds of reasons — values, luck, perseverance, persecution, an abundance of ability, a lack of ability, interest or the lack thereof. The virtuous, prosperous life isn’t absolutely everybody’s cup of tea. Some people don’t like tea. Some people want to pay cheap rent, sit on the porch all day and drink wine, and just like the rest of us they have their reasons and they have a right to their reasons.

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If somebody at the Morning News or City Hall really feels genuine compassion for the poor and really wants to see them living in better conditions, then why don’t they use the tools at their disposal? Wouldn’t that be a fair test of commitment?

Why do they get off so much on finding a villain in Topletz and heaping the coals of fate itself on his head? Why, when they have the means, the power and the glory in their own hands, don’t they do something with it when they get a chance?

I just showed you what they do instead when they have a chance to do good. I wonder if we’ll see any Morning News editorials calling Lucy Billingsley a Scrooge? Probably not, right? Unlike Topletz, Billingsley is safely out of Scrooge range.

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