City, Heal Thyself: Words of Wisdom From Last Night's Affordable Housing Forum

Last night's affordable housing forum at Temple Emanu-El was a lesson in getting things right by "thinking wrong," as architect Brent Brown likes to say. "Wrong," in Brown's view, really means "creatively." Despite an intermittently functioning PowerPoint presentation, Brown wowed the mostly middle-aged, well-dressed audience of about 160 with slides of his effort to rebuild South Dallas' Congo Street, home by home, without displacing people who had a stake in the neighborhood. It's a perfect paradigm for affordable housing -- except Brown wants to replace that term too.

"It's housing!" he said. "It's housing for people! We're all the same. We all eat breakfast in the morning. I wish we could find a way to realize that decent housing isn't going to make our property taxes go to hell."

The forum's official title was "Chasing the American Dream: Affordable Housing and the Role of the Private Sector in the Public Good," but what that role actually should be was somewhat eclipsed by the problem itself.

After introductions by Mike Sims, the Chair of Temple Emanu-El's Social Justice Advocacy Committee, and Rabbi Asher Knight, the first of the three panelists, Regina Nippert of the Dallas Faith Communities Coalition presented a series of statistics, the most alarming of which involved a combination of rising home prices, fewer homes built and an increase in "lay-over deaths" -- or babies killed because people roll onto them in the night (which Nippert associates with people moving in together to save money). Nippert urged "ordinary people to do extraordinary things" -- definitely the theme of the evening -- and Brown followed with the practical examples.

"The people that live in these places are our best resources to solve the problem [of affordable housing]," Brown said. "We have to look into the place, not bring the solution in from outside."

When he asked the people of Congo Street how they felt about getting houses built, they were on board -- and they were there every day, cooking breakfast and encouraging each other to work. If the people who live in neighborhoods could be the same people to improve them, he wonders, shouldn't a whole city be able to heal itself?

"I'm sorry," Brown said, half-grinning. "It's just so simple. In the end, you have a revitalized street! Sometimes it's just about doing."

Brown's act was hard to follow, City Manager Mary Suhm conceded.

She spoke about "sustainable communities," one of those happy but totally unspecific terms, and presented a virtual tour of the city's vision for Bexar Street: townhouses, quaint shops a la Snider Plaza and pothole-free streets (set, idealistically, to Michael Buble's "Feeling Good"). Suhm outlined the options for Bexar Street and the city's other NIP (Neighborhood Investment Program) areas: Stimulus money could go to installing wireless Internet and improving energy efficiency, Suhm said, and the 2010 bond program would take care of public infrastructure (streets, sidewalks, plumbing). If that sounds overly optimistic, stay tuned for a City Council stimulus briefing next Wednesday -- and a follow-up forum at Temple Emanu-El scheduled for April 30.

After the panelists spoke, Sims read questions submitted by the audience, most of them on the usual themes: whether housing or other necessities (schools, grocery stores, etc.) should come first -- the "chicken and the egg problem," as Sims put it -- and the issue of making mixed-income housing acceptable.

Nippert's answer was either wonderfully optimistic or woefully naïve: "Nobody wants" -- she corrected herself -- "Few people want to live in places where people are just like them." The audience nodded in agreement.

For Brown, though, it's as simple as necessity. He calls the colliding crises of the recession and the paucity of affordable housing a "perfect storm," and people on both sides of the socioeconomic divide will have to participate in order to save their city.

"We're all going to have to make sacrifices," Brown said. (He doesn't tend to sugarcoat the issue.) "It doesn't take superhero strength to make this happen. It takes doing."

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