City Hall Takes the Oath on Fair Housing, But Why on Earth Believe Them?

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On the surface everything always looks so sober and important at City Hall, following a solemn script as if every subcommittee meeting were a medical school graduation ceremony or the funeral of an important person. And then you get these bizarre little windows on what’s really going on.

Yesterday I was a little early for one meeting and caught the tail end of the one before it. Karl Zavitkovsky, the city’s director of economic development — the department in charge of handing out big tax subsidies to developers — had just been asked how much commitment his department has to providing fair housing in Dallas.

“I think the answer to that question is that it’s a box that needs to be checked every time we do a deal,” Zavitkovsky said.

A box that needs to be checked. Yes, for sure. But you’re not supposed to check the box unless you do the thing, the important part being the doing of the thing, not the checking of the box.

The other little window showed up in the next meeting, the council's housing committee, where I engaged in one of my favorite City Hall mental gymnastic exercises — in one ear and in the other.

In the one ear I heard city officials talking about how deeply committed the city is to fair housing and the marshaling of every available resource. But sitting right next to me in the peanut gallery was somebody who has been there when the resources were actually marshaled, or not. She was whispering in my other ear that city officials have always told her basically not to even bring up fair housing.

Fair housing is a legal term used to describe racial desegregation, but it’s a mistake to think that’s all it is. In other places around the country, New York, for example, fair housing laws and fair housing incentives are being used to ensure that people of all types other than the uber-rich will still be able to occupy America’s major cities in the decades ahead.

Dallas has a law on the books — the box Zavitkovksy said he had to remember to check — providing that apartment developers who get subsidies from special city taxing districts must agree to make 20 percent of their units “affordable” in exchange for the tax money the city hands out to them.

Check. But when’s the last time you saw a nice “affordable” apartment in Dallas?

Cristine Baril, a University of Texas graduate student who was sitting next to me at both the economic development and the housing meeting yesterday, is on the board of one of those special districts, called a tax increment financing or TIF district. She told me every time she and other board members ask city officials about affordable housing in the big subsidy deals they are being asked to sign off on, the city staff basically tells them to pipe down about that.

She said the city’s economic development staff had warned her TIF board not even to ask to negotiate with developers over affordable housing units. “We were told that developers will forego TIF money and not do any affordable housing,” she said.

Oh. So we check the box, do we? But we don’t even actually bring up reduced rent units with the developer? We don’t even try to negotiate?

I might even have felt some smidge of skepticism for Baril’s version of things — I mean, it can’t be that bald, can it, that they don’t even try to enforce the law? — were it not for the other window that opened on these matters two weeks ago in a city audit:  A report by the city auditor said basically, yup, that bald and balder.

Even though the city in a one-year period had spent $29.9 million in federal money legally dedicated to fair housing, the city auditor reported that housing officials were unable to produce any documentation to show that the funds were spent on fair housing or that they had ever checked to see if that’s where the money went.

Oh, so, here’s a reality check, as opposed to a check-box: That must be why there is no affordable housing in the desirable neighborhoods in Dallas. Yes, we do have affordable housing in scary-damn bad neighborhoods, but that’s not really what the term “fair housing” is supposed to mean.

It’s not fair housing if you have to run every time you go outdoors. It’s not really fair housing if the kids have to sleep in the tub because it’s bullet-proof. That’s not what fair means.

Another window, then, is the one that opens on real life. We look out that window and we see that Dallas doesn’t have any fair housing, that they just run their mouths about it at City Hall, stick to the script, but what they say has no relation whatsoever to the real world. They’re just checkin’ those boxes, man.

The thing with the TIF districts — the special tax districts that hand out free tax money to developers — is especially galling because the city has been using TIF money as one of its major legal defenses against the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. In 2013 HUD accused the city of failing to use both federal and local housing funds to “affirmatively further fair housing” — a legal term meaning actually doing it. One of the city’s primary defenses against those charges was the TIF money. It is local law, the city told HUD, that any apartment developer who gets a TIF subsidy must set aside 20 percent of the project for reduced-rent affordable units.
Yes, but as Zavitkovskty’s off-hand remark reveals, as Baril’s experience reinforces, as the city’s own audit proves, the city has not enforced the affordable housing rule for TIF funds. They didn’t even try.

The good news is that the city may have to mend its ways in the near future, at least in some degree. Baril told me that her TIF board was visited recently by members of the city attorney’s staff who told them that from here on out the TIF boards are going to have to enforce the 20 percent affordable rule.

The city’s new vigilance is the result of an administrative complaint and litigation two developers brought against the city for misusing HUD funds five years ago. Curtis Lockey and Craig MacKenzie told HUD that Dallas City Hall shut down their HUD-subsidized deal when it found out they intended to obey the law and set aside a large share of their units for affordable rents.

Since the Lockey and MacKenzie complaint was filed, the mayor of Dallas has traveled to Washington to negotiate with HUD; the secretary of HUD has visited here with top city officials; and the city has agreed to a voluntary settlement with HUD on the charges. At least on the surface, the city has attempted to approach fair housing with more energy than before, even though that’s not saying much.

But do they mean it? In a deal last December that city officials tried to keep secret, they redrew the boundaries of a taxing district specifically to let a developer out of the fair housing requirement, then came up with a cash grant of tens of millions of dollars so the developer wouldn’t lose any money from the city on the deal.

And I bet they checked that box anyway.

At yesterday’s meeting of the City Council housing committee, fair housing advocates and housing attorneys presented a detailed plan for the future by which the city could atone for past sins and do something truly effective. Demetria McCain, president of Inclusive Communities Project, urged the council to stop giving developers waivers on their fair housing obligations. Betsy Julian, a lawyer and former top HUD official herself, now ICP's in-house counsel, told the council she has sued HUD more often than local communities to achieve fair housing but that the goal of fair housing can be achieved.

Mike Daniel, a fair housing lawyer who, with his law partner, Laura Beshara, won a landmark discrimination case last year before the U.S. Supreme Court, told the council that strategies for achieving fair housing can work if the bodies that adopt them want them to work.

I’m sure that’s all true. I’m just not sure what it means for Dallas City Hall. The little windows all reveal the same landscape. No matter what City Hall has said in the past, no matter what laws it has passed, money it has accepted or given away or boxes checked, the intent of the city has always been to frustrate fair housing law, to stave off racial desegregation and even increase segregation, and, in its own smug way, thumb its nose at anybody and everybody who may demand or expect anything else from it.

As impressive and well designed as the ICP presentation was yesterday, I just don’t see it changing things much. Do we really believe the same officials who told their TIF board members not to even bring up fair housing are now going to turn into tough and effective advocates? Do we believe the whole culture at City hall is going to change?

They may promise in the formal proceedings to turn over a new leaf, but the windows show them laughing behind their hands. That’s why my hopes are still on Lockey and MacKenzie, who are still in court against the city, by the way. Only one thing will ever turn City Hall around and teach it a new attitude: a great big, very painful defeat in court.

We need the kind of event that gets one regime voted out of office and a new one voted in. That’s not going to come from the do-gooders, however good at heart they may be.Those do-gooders have been around a long time, too, doing all the good they could. What good has it done us so far?

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