Could Whack-a-Doodles in Washington Be Better or Worse for Dallas?

Let’s say Donald Trump does appoint Dr. Ben Carson, a weird somnambulist with a comic-book understanding of government, to become secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). How would that make HUD worse?

In fact, isn’t that the essential Trump question? Sure, he’s scarily ignorant and a whack-a-doodle. But how do we know that’s not an improvement?

Let’s consider the relationship between HUD and Dallas. It’s hard to imagine how even total chaos at HUD wouldn’t be an improvement over what Dallas has dealt with from HUD for decades.

Take fair housing. The Atlantic has a new story out saying that the scary somnambulist might not carry out one core mission of HUD called “affirmatively furthering fair housing” — government-speak for racial desegregation.

So what? When did HUD ever do that? Never — not under Republican presidents, not under Democrats — has HUD ever aggressively prosecuted the principle of affirmatively furthering fair housing, even though it was mandated to do so by the 1968 Fair Housing Act.

In the few cases in which HUD has wound up going after a community over segregation, it has done so only after housing advocates persuaded a federal judge to order HUD to get up off its big cowardly butt and go enforce its own laws the way it’s supposed to.

One good example is Westchester County, New York, home of the Clintons and of former Democratic HUD secretary and now New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, none of whom has ever said more than half a peep about HUD’s stumbling efforts there to curtail government-sponsored racial segregation. HUD only went after Westchester when an advocacy group convinced a federal judge that HUD basically was breaking the law by not enforcing the law.

Another good example right here in Texas was the conciliation agreement HUD signed in 2010 worth $1.7 billion in federal disaster relief funds. In it, HUD promised to enforce its own fair housing laws, but only after two advocacy groups, Texas Appleseed and the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, forced HUD to do what it was supposed to have been doing all along.

Why wouldn’t HUD have been enforcing its own laws all along anyway? Well, we know the answer to that one all too well here in Dallas. HUD doesn’t enforce its laws because it doesn’t like its laws.

HUD is divided into two houses — community development and fair housing. The community development half gives away money — billions every year — in so-called “block grants” for local governments to spend pretty much as they wish, kind of like very big birthday presents.

Dallas, like most cities, converts the community development block grant money into slush funds for council members, cash they can sluice out to keep their constituents happy without raising local taxes. Local politicians love the community development side of HUD.

The fair housing side of HUD is made up of the segregation cops, the ones who are supposed to make sure that local communities spend their HUD money shoe-horning minority families into better-off whiter neighborhoods. Local politicians hate the fair housing side of HUD.

So HUD secretaries, from George Romney who served under Richard Nixon in the late 1960s to Julian Castro now serving under Obama, always try to keep their community development people on parade, out and about in the nation, and keep their fair housing folks locked up in Washington. In Dallas, we’ve got the Lockey and MacKenzie case to prove that one for us.

Curtis Lockey and Craig MacKenzie are two developers who went to HUD in 2010 and complained that Dallas city officials killed their downtown tower redo deal and cost them millions because the project they were to build was designed to comply with federal fair housing law.

Dallas, they told HUD, was rebuilding downtown as a deliberately segregated neighborhood. When Dallas found out Lockey and MacKenzie intended to obey the law and make their project integrated, Dallas pulled the rug, the two told HUD.

Worse, they told HUD, Dallas was using $125 million a year in HUD’s own deseg money to build its new segregated downtown stronghold. And worse again, they said, Dallas officials had been swearing every year that they weren’t doing any of that. The last charge, if proven, would put Dallas under the shadow of the federal False Claims Act — more on that in a moment.

HUD was goaded into keeping its investigation into the Lockey and MacKenzie complaint open only because Lockey and MacKenzie’s lawyers, who were carrying out a parallel investigation, kept putting irrefutable evidence on HUD’s desk to prove that the pair were telling the truth.

In 2013, four years after the complaint when HUD finally had no choice but to divulge its findings, the official HUD letter of findings backed up almost all of Lockey and MacKenzie’s claims.

Dallas, indeed, had been violating federal fair housing law, HUD’s investigators found. HUD came up with a lengthy document called a voluntary compliance agreement, or VCA, that Dallas was supposed to sign, agreeing to carry out a series of drastic reforms in order to keep getting that huge annual check from HUD.

But a year later, barely a month after President Obama appointed San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro as his second Secretary of HUD, Dallas’ Democratic mayor, Mike Rawlings, went to Washington and did a handshake deal with Castro. Together they killed the VCA and most of the big reforms Dallas was supposed to carry out. Rawlings later publicly thanked Castro for making the VCA go away.

So, excuse me. Is there really some way in which the somnambulist could make HUD any worse on this score than it is already? All he has to do is poke his head out of his office once a month and tell them to carry on.

The Atlantic article I referred to above includes a quote from an expert worrying that HUD, under the somnambulist, may subject the principle of affirmatively furthering fair housing to a “withering process, where the agency would be denied resources for things that the administration doesn’t prioritize.”

It’s already withered. It starts out withered. Withered is its natural state. Can you wither a withered thing? Even if you can, who cares if something already withered gets even more withered? It seems like a waste of time to worry about degrees of witheredness.

So, back to that thing about false claims. In the last few days there has been a big hue and cry because Trump is appointing a lobbyist for Quicken Loans Inc. to his team overseeing the transition at HUD.

Quicken Loans, along with a number of major banks, has been the target of an aggressive federal enforcement campaign using both the fair housing law and the false claims act to wring big settlements, some in the billions, from lenders the feds accuse of mortgage abuse.

Most of the defendants rolled over early on, agreeing to pay rather than battle the feds. Quicken is holding out resolutely, claiming the vast majority of their loans have been up to snuff and only a few technically in violation.

Shawn Krause, the Quicken employee whom Trump has named to his HUD team, was in charge of Quicken’s government relations. Critics are claiming that putting her at HUD, when Quicken’s fair housing and false claims charges are still outstanding, creates a big conflict of interest and puts a fox in the henhouse.

Yes. In fact it seems crazy. But, look: When it was a case of a couple of Democratic pols shaking hands behind closed doors in Washington, HUD agreed to do everything it could to decimate Lockey and MacKenzie’s fair housing and false claims case against Dallas.

Now, change up the scene and the cast of characters. The accused are no longer a Democratic mayor and a City Hall in a blue city. Now the defendants are a bunch of big banks and corporations whom the politicians consider fair game. All of a sudden HUD and the DOJ and all the other feds are out there with their elephant guns.

Speaking myself as an ex-hippie, former-far-left, pinko-commie son of a bitch, it’s hard to get my outrage factor going over the Quicken lady going to HUD. What the hell? Maybe she can at least get them to tell her who is subject to the false claims act and who is not.

And, as we all know in the sick little pits of our stomachs, no she can’t. We are way too deep in whack-a-doodle country now for any of that to happen. Nothing logical is going to come of any of this.

The somnambulist is going to appear on television doing his impersonation of a hypnotized throat-singer, saying all kinds of totally insane stuff about racial desegregation as a sinister global plot. Trump will tweet. And tweet. And tweet. People will steal the furniture. Absolutely crazy stuff will happen. Andrew Jackson’s White House will look like Buckingham Palace.

But is it worse? Before, we had a bunch of really smart people spending all of their time trying to con us. Now at least we have loons. We can watch the loons do things. It will keep us occupied. Yay?
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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

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