Dallas Isn't Very Good at Fighting Blight

Every so often, city officials descend on a particularly dismal corner of southern Dallas, say a few words about the neighborhood’s bright future and then gaze appreciatively while hulking construction equipment tears apart a decrepit house or apartment complex as TV cameras roll. It's an attention-grabbing and even useful spectacle. Far better to have a vacant lot next to an elementary school than a crack house. And far be it from us to begrudge anyone, even city officials, the primal satisfaction of watching things be destroyed.

But blight is stubborn and multi-tentacled. It sets in like a cancer and feeds upon itself, consuming whole neighborhoods in the process. There is no easy remedy. Demolishing nuisance properties is necessary but insufficient. So is going after landlords like the Topletz family, whose rental housing empire, however execrable, is as much a symptom of blight as its cause.

This isn't to say that local governments are completely helpless. There is, broadly speaking, a generally accepted, best-practice strategy for attacking blight, which is pretty close to Mayor Mike Rawlings' strategy for fixing Fair Park: "You’ve got to load up your guns, aim it right between the eyes and deal with it." To extend the metaphor a bit, these guns should be shotguns, they should be fired at close range by several people at once, and they should keep being fired even as the metaphorical body is prone on the pavement to ensure against zombie-like revivification. 

But while Dallas talks a good blight-fighting game, its gunmanship is wanting. The nonprofit Center for Community Progress teamed with the city for a comprehensive review of Dallas' blight-fighting efforts. It recently published its findings in a report and "action plan" intended to guide the city's efforts in dealing with vacant, abandoned and hopelessly dilapidated properties and returning them to productive use.

The biggest obstacles to an effective blight-fighting strategy in Dallas are, according to the report, bureaucratic. Remediation of blight necessarily involves a number of city departments (e.g., code enforcement, the city attorney's office, the land bank, housing, economic development, to name a few), to say nothing of the politicians lobbying for expanded efforts in their preferred areas. In Dallas, these various parts tend not to work together very well, as the report highlights repeatedly:

Local government leaders consistently described frustration with their perception that current blight remediation efforts are occurring in silos. Many shared that the lack of targeted coordinated efforts has led to large expenditures of time and resources on individual and disconnected problem properties that, taken together, fail to make a large and quantifiable impact in Dallas neighborhoods.

Reflecting and exacerbating the interdepartmental disconnect is the city's patchwork system for collecting data on problem properties. There's no centralized place where departments can access code citations, tax delinquencies, liens and other information that's vital for crafting a coherent blight strategy. The available information can be difficult to use, since departments code the data in different ways, an issue that could be solved with relative ease by assigning all departments a common identifier, like a tax ID number.
Better coordination between departments might then encourage the city to do a better job of using the tools it has available. The city has the authority to foreclose on properties with unpaid code violations but rarely does so, even though this provides the city with an important point of leverage and a possible short-cut for clearing the property's title and transferring it to a responsible owner. (As of 2012, there were more than 6,300 outstanding code liens in Dallas, according to data collected by Dallas Area Habitat for Humanity, the vast majority south of the Trinity River.) That's particularly important given the city's lack of influence in dealing with tax delinquent properties. Dallas County farms out its tax foreclosures to Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, the politically connected and nationally infamous debt-collection firm. The firm is reluctant to foreclose on dilapidated properties in troubled neighborhoods (i.e., those properties the city would most like to see taken care of) because auctioning off such properties doesn't yield a profit. There's a carve out in the contract that allows the city to flag something like 100 of those properties per year for foreclosure, but that's a small number compared with the scope of the problem. Then there's the land bank, which collects and assembles vacant and abandoned properties, ostensibly with an eye toward packaging them together and making them more marketable, but in Dallas it seems to operate without a well-defined vision.

None of the information in the Center for Community Progress report is groundbreaking. Two years ago, a team of UNT researchers commissioned by Habitat produced an exhaustive blight study that covered much of the same ground. Perhaps this report will more effectively focus the city's efforts on tightening up its internal processes instead of (or in addition to) seeking out the demolition photo ops. With the Topletz suit and an accompanying effort to register big-time landlords, the city is already moving forward on some of the recommendations contained in the report. Next, perhaps the City Council will toughen rules and increase inspections for rental properties. At some point down the line, the city should probably consider "Observation #4" from the report and figure out exactly how big its blight problem really is.

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