City Hall

City Hall Wants to Screw Oak Cliff The Same Way It Did East Dallas

Before we get into a whole thing about it, let me just ask a question. If a formerly down-at-the-heels inner city neighborhood is becoming more middle class, which way should house prices be going, up or down?

Well, wait. Two questions. If the city wanted to promote middle class housing in a neighborhood, would it  do it by building houses cheaper than the ones already there?

Sorry, I thought of a third one. If a house is truly “affordable” to middle class buyers, why would the construction of it have to be subsidized with city bond money, and why would the city have to provide financing for the buyers? If all that subsidy is going into it to keep the price down, doesn’t that mean it is by its very nature low-income housing?

I ask for a reason. City Hall is trying to screw central Oak Cliff right now the same way it tried to screw Old East Dallas 30 years ago, by jamming subsidized housing into it so the subsidized housing won’t go north. The success of Old East Dallas today came straight out of that battle.

The same eventual outcome will occur in Oak Cliff, but not without a long hard struggle. Some brush fires in that struggle ignited last Friday when residents of one central Oak Cliff neighborhood began petitioning the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to accept them as interveners in a segregation complaint brought against the city by real estate developers Curtis Lockey and Craig MacKenzie.  In the nearly seven years of the Lockey and MacKenzie legal battle with City Hall, this may be the first time the pair will have grassroots allies.

The fingerprint here, the clue that tells the tale, is City Hall’s assertion that it’s going to help the area just south of North Oak Cliff become more solidly middle class by building tract homes subsidized with tax money.

Think about it. Subsidized tract homes might help a very poor area by providing nicer houses for poor people. But how can subsidized tract homes help a struggling but upwardly mobile area get more middle class? In fact, doesn’t this smell like something else may be going on?

Three weeks ago the City Council adopted a plan to build $29 million worth of houses in the city’s southern sector — a quarter of that money to come from city coffers as direct subsidy – with a concentration of new city-built homes in the area south of Kiest Park in Oak Cliff.

The city says those houses will sell for $110,00 to $185,000. Mayor Mike Rawlings is touting the project as part of his “Grow South” initiative to bring the middle class back into southern Dallas.

But people in central Oak Cliff say the middle class is already ensconced in their part of town on its own steam. Cheap subsidized housing can only harm the fragile momentum they have achieved already.

Raymond Crawford, known for his role as an activist on environmental issues, is a resident of the area.  “These neighborhoods are custom homes from the '60s that a lot of younger people, younger being 40 and under, are buying, like for $175,000, and they are able to flip them for $350,000, so it’s a hot neighborhood," he says.
In their complaints to HUD and multiple lawsuits, Lockey and MacKenzie have offered a different argument — that Dallas practices segregation by concentrating subsidized housing in the southern sector. Crawford says he knows already that his side’s resistance will be characterized by City Hall as not-in-my-backyard racism, a bitter irony, he says because his backyard is manifestly less racist than the mayor’s.

“They’re building 20 homes just for the mayor to cover his political ass on ‘Grow South,’” he says. “The neighborhoods over here are already a microcosm of any great American city. We have black. We have white. We have gay. We have straight. We have Hispanic. We have singles. We have couples. We have everything already.”

Crawford told me the first of his neighbors to file an intervener request with HUD on Friday was an African-American homeowner. “The people expressing concern are all of the above, of all colors. It’s not just me. It’s not just white people. Everyone knows the city really doesn’t do anything good on this type of project.”

I don’t know whether someone can join a HUD anti-segregation complaint by arguing that the segregation is harming their own property values. We will soon see, when HUD replies to the would-be interveners. By law that has to happen within the next few weeks.

But this much I do know clearly from my own neighborhood history in East Dallas: First of all, there is always a certain subsidized housing mafia (lower-case m) hanging around, made up of people engaged in the subsidized housing industry. They are Realtors, builders, lawyers, legitimate developers, but their number also includes a certain quotient of free-lance land-flippers and that most pernicious of bottom-feeding omnivores, the well-connected City Hall back-corridor influence peddler posing as a “consultant,” otherwise known as a poverty pimp.

The bottom-feeders don’t care where the housing goes. They just want it to go, because that’s how they make their money. Their first instinct will always be to make common cause with the traditional powers-that-be in North Dallas who do not want it to come their way. The path of least resistance or soft target has always been the bottom-feeder’s first choice, and that target has always been older neighborhoods east or south.

In Dallas – I wrote about this last week — the picture has been additionally complicated by traditional black elected leadership’s lack of appetite for integration. Call it a historical tradition of separatism or call it just wanting to hold on to constituents, the fact is that black leaders here want more subsidized housing in their districts and typically align themselves with the white leaders who will help them get it. It just works that way.

It worked that way for East Dallas 30 years ago. It’s going to work that way for central Oak Cliff now. The very people who really do practice racial segregation and separatism in this city will accuse Crawford and his neighbors of being NIMBY racists.

The accusers’ minds will not be changed when Crawford and his neighbors show up at City Hall and prove with their faces that they are already integrated and diverse. The accusers’ minds will not be changed because the argument itself is cynical in the first place. They already know that central Oak Cliff is diverse. They know it doesn’t need the city’s help to become more diverse.

They just want to build stuff, make money and score political points with some other constituency elsewhere in the city. Crawford and his neighbors are collateral damage.

That’s really the point I wanted to get to here and the lesson I think my part of town can offer from its own experience. Inner city neighborhoods where people actually like diversity, even thrive on it, simply have to stand their ground against all the various accusers who will show up to bait them for being out of step.

Out of step with what? Segregation? Mono-racial neighborhoods? Out of step with the idea that older neighborhoods have less to lose? Fine. Please. Be out of step with all that.

And Crawford touched on an even more fundamental issue, when he said City Hall is not known for doing much good. Believe it. Almost all of the good and the growth in East Dallas, especially in the early years, were accomplished against the active opposition of City Hall.

City Hall was always there with some completely destructive plan, like ramming highways through neighborhoods or rezoning thoroughfares for tenements and used car lots. Neighborhood activists who fought those initiatives were typically treated with condescension or outright dismissal. I still remember the Dallas Citizens Council leader who assured me that “nice people will never live in used houses.”

North Oak Cliff is another stunning example of grassroots activists who have created their own success by remaining faithful to their own vision. The evidence on the ground, the lesson of history is that neighborhoods are smarter than City Hall. All the best things that have happened in Dallas in the last 30 years have happened in spite of City Hall.

And then, if anybody in central Oak Cliff is still wavering, there’s national history. The Lockey and MacKenzie litigation is premised on the assumption that official policies of deliberate racial segregation cannot prevail. They may manage to stick around here and there, in this nook or that cranny, but the overwhelming tide of history is against them.

The struggle for diverse stable city neighborhoods feels like a lonely one at times. It’s amazing sometimes how many people either actively oppose it or at least give it a wide berth. Let me give you an example. One of the most intractable fights in the nation over segregation and housing policy has been in affluent Westchester County, New York. County officials, HUD, housing activists and the federal courts have been duking it out there for more than a decade.

Guess whose family residences are in that county? Hillary Clinton and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo both live in New Castle/Chappaqua, one of Westchester's ritzier precincts. They haven't said a lot about their home county’s 10-year diversity war. Clinton has remained silent even though her hamlet, Chappaqua, was singled out for obstruction in the matter by a federal judge last month. 

The truth is that urban middle class neighborhoods have to go it alone a lot of the time. The bare beginnings of an inner city old neighborhood coalition are beginning to be visible on the Dallas City Council, and that would be nice. But for now the eight-vote majority that carries the day is still dominated by interests that really don’t care about fostering a stable diverse middle class in the inner city, even when they say they do.

No, make that especially when they say they do.
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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