Dallas City Hall gets whopped upside the head for its low-income housing policy.

Tell me first. To be a cool place to live, what does downtown Dallas need? Action. Tons and tons of people, not all super-rich, not all homeless, either.

But that's the problem with downtown. Rich people in the towers. Desperadoes in the alleys. Long empty sidewalks between.

For that to change, downtown needs to become affordable to jobsians. Not rich. Not poor. Not white, black or brown. Just people with jobs.

Guess what. I think maybe that door just cracked.

In a small room in the bowels of City Hall at 8:30 in the morning on one of those hard weather days last week, an obscure body voted to change direction on the renovation of a handful of old office towers—known as the Atmos Project.

It was the first hint of a whole new thing, and it only happened because some guys whopped the city upside the head with a two-by-four. I will come back to that, of course, because I know you love head-whoppings.

The important thing is this: The city board, whose name is too long for me to mention yet, voted to put way more subsidized low-rent apartments into the Atmos re-development deal than originally planned.

For decades, Dallas has taken federal funds designed to foster low-income housing downtown and used the money instead to make downtown hotsy-totsy. The result is what you see now—notsy.

Cool new residential communities are springing up all around downtown like wild roses in a graveyard. Making the drive into downtown, on the surface streets from almost any direction, you will traverse a newly vibrant corridor. In that sense, Dallas is really happening.

But downtown itself continues to molder, because City Hall has been trying to create the high-rise equivalent of a gated community downtown, and gated communities suck.

So now I guess I have to name the official board that did the vote, right? Here it comes: This was a vote of the Joint Board of Directors of the Reinvestment Zone Number Eleven City of Dallas, Texas Downtown Connection Tax Increment Financing District and the Reinvestment Zone Number Five City of Dallas, Texas City Center Tax Increment Financing District and Downtown Dallas Development Authority.

Could we agree to something here, just to move things along? How about we call them The Obscure Body?

OK. The Obscure Body is in charge of handing out millions of dollars in city tax money to developers who agree, in exchange for the loot, to come in and renovate old empty office towers as apartment buildings.

It sticks in my craw—does it yours?—to give tax money to people to pay them to do business. But if we didn't give developers this incentive, nobody would touch downtown—as few did from about 1985 to 2005—and downtown would just sit there and rot forever.

So this way we dish the developers some fairly huge amounts of our municipal wealth, along with state and federal money, and in return they create something that we want—a vibrant downtown.

But...and this is a major but...the downtown created under this system is almost entirely a creation of government, our government, by us, through our elected officials, with our money. So our government needs to have a strong voice in how the money is spent and what gets created.

The city has jurisdiction over money bequeathed to it by the federal government as "community development block grant" funds. That money, administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, carries specific strict legal requirements dealing with affordable housing.

If you use HUD money on a housing project, then at least 51 percent of the units in that project are supposed to be available at guaranteed low rents for 15 years or more.

Last summer I wrote two columns ("A Tale of Two Cities," May 6, 2010, and "Fee Fi Fo Feds," June 10, 2010) about two developers, Curtis Lockey and Craig MacKenzie, who claim that The Obscure Body has worked for years to defeat affordable housing efforts: They say the Body hands out the HUD money, but then they make sure no affordable housing or very little gets built downtown.

Lockey and MacKenzie say The Obscure Body screwed them out of $30 million on a downtown development deal because they were trying to do what HUD required by making most of their project affordable. Their complaint is still under review by HUD—a shoe waiting to fall.

But the accusations in this business also have an even nastier edge. Lockey and Mackenzie have alleged in a complaint to HUD that the behavior of The Obscure Body in particular and Dallas City Hall in general has been about keeping downtown white.

As an example, the developers pointed to the deal that The Obscure Body voted on last week—a deal in which the two men had no personal interest or role. The Atmos project is four buildings in all, usually called the Atmos Complex, at the east end of downtown. These buildings, long dis-used, no longer have any connection with Atmos Energy, the natural gas utility that once owned them.

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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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