Every six months or so Dallas is shocked, shocked again to find that racial segregation is going on here, but every time we discover it again, Dallas always avoids saying who. Somebody did it. Segregation is an act. People with names have to do things for segregation to persist. It’s not the weather.
Last week’s iteration of our cyclical shocked, shocked syndrome was a well-done story in The Dallas Morning News by Dana Amihere, pointing out the hardships poor families suffer when new affordable housing gets stuffed into old bad neighborhoods.
I’m not knocking Amihere’s piece. She did a great job illustrating a point that is sometimes obscure for people not familiar with poverty: You can put a poor person in a better house, but if that house is surrounded by poverty and far away from opportunity, then the dollars you spent on it may not achieve much in terms of helping that person escape poverty.
What struck me in Amihere’s story – and this was not her fault because it’s what people say when you ask – was the impression that these problems are somehow new or recent and that they are the result of great gray abstract forces. These things just happen out there, trends and vectors that sweep in off the social prairie like dust storms, far too vast, irresistible and somehow natural to be pinned on anybody in particular.
That’s just nonsense. The names not only can be named, they have been named, and I’m not talking ancient history here. I’m talking about name-naming within the last few years, so startling you kind of have to bend over backward and pull your hat over your ears to avoid hearing the names again.
Speaking of bending over backward, the Morning News piece quotes businessman Albert Black, chairman of the board of directors of the Dallas Housing Authority, whose bland assurance is that, “We’re moving away from the isolationist kind of public housing that was an island of despair.”
Housing activist Betsy Julian is quoted imparting the wisdom that real estate is, “Location, location, location.” Her partner in activism, lawyer Mike Daniel, says trying to break the pattern of racial segregation in affordable housing is “like fighting a losing battle,” but he adds, “if you quit, you lose.”
Don’t you lose a losing battle whether you quit or not? And why is Black, chairman of the housing authority, only “moving away” from segregation? How about running away, as in utterly abandoning?
All of this very mild-mannered moving away and depressed resignation becomes bitterly ironic when we reflect on the fact that the specific why’s and wherefore’s, the acts, the names, the events and policies that have kept racial segregation in force in Dallas were laid out most recently in lurid detail in a 28-page document released Nov. 22, 2013, by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. It summarized findings of a four-year federal investigation.
According to HUD’s official “Letter of Findings of Non-Compliance,” the city took $75 million in federal housing money from HUD, drew an equator across the city, dividing it into majority white and majority non-white hemispheres, then imposed different rules on the two halves to make sure affordable housing would be barred from the north and pushed south.
The letter states federal investigators found evidence of “a pattern of negative reactions to projects that would provide affordable housing in the Northern Sector of Dallas.”
The letter singles out and names the Atmos Complex downtown, developed by Hamilton Properties, for having been green-lighted and funded by the city, “even though that project would concentrate 90 percent of its affordable units in one building of a multi-building development.”
The letter names current Dallas director of economic development Karl Zavitkovsky and retired head of housing Jerry Killingsworth as agents of the policies that kept affordable housing out of the white sector:
“The investigation found that on October 15, 2008, Karl Zavitkovsky, the Director of Economic Development for the City, told the complainant that the City did not see Section 8 as an option on the project.”
The letter quotes correspondence in which a member of a city housing finance board complained about the heavy-handedness with which Zavitkovsky and Killingsworth fought to keep affordable housing out of a HUD-financed redevelopment project downtown:
“I am extremely concerned that neither Jerry Killingsworth nor Karl Zavitkovsky are really interested in this project,” wrote Monique Allen, secretary of the board of the Dallas Housing Finance Corp. “Both appear to have their own plans and do not include affordable housing.”
The HUD letter of findings dives deep into a complicated stock purchase agreement between Hamilton Properties and Forest City of Chicago, another downtown developer heavily subsidized by HUD and the city. According to federal investigators, the agreement, which had to be sanctioned and signed off on by the city, was a deal to keep affordable housing out of downtown, even though downtown was being redeveloped with HUD affordable housing money:
“The Department (HUD) finds that the City approved a stock purchase agreement involving the City, Hamilton Properties and Forest City, which included requirements that effectively limited the availability of the housing based on race, national origin and disability.”
The letter said that by endorsing the contract, the city violated federal law and engaged in acts that “have the effect of subjecting persons to discrimination based on race, national origin and disability.”
I’m really only giving you a sampling of the findings in the letter. The totality is a searing name-naming indictment of the city for promulgating multiple official policies aimed at racial segregation and also for conspiring behind the scenes to violate federal housing law while gobbling down federal housing money.
The city’s purpose from start to finish, according to findings of the four-year investigation, was to make sure affordable housing would continue to be shunted south into Albert Black’s islands of despair, meanwhile using HUD and city tax money in the white sector to subsidize “upscale hotels, condominiums and luxury rental apartments with large floor plans.”
Was this letter some kind of obscure federal report or document that might have eluded the attention of a lot of city officials or others outside of City Hall closely involved in low-income and affordable housing issues in Dallas? Hardly. If anything, it lit City Hall up like a bomb.
The four-year investigation that produced the letter was HUD’s response to a complaint brought against the city by two real estate developers, Curtis Lockey and Craig MacKenzie. They told HUD that Dallas had pulled the rug from under their own downtown Dallas project when city officials figured out Lockey and MacKenzie intended to obey federal law and provide the amount of affordable housing needed to make their project legal. After four years looking into it, HUD said they were right.
Far from not being aware of the findings or ignoring them, City Hall went more or less ballistic. Mayor Mike Rawlings flew to Washington and talked the newly appointed HUD secretary, former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, into a political agreement by which Castro deep-sixed the investigation and abrogated the list of remedies HUD had wanted to impose.
The list of proposed remedies is instructive. Had Rawlings not done his handshake deal with Castro, had Dallas instead set about getting the remedies done, The Dallas Morning News would not have had a story to write last week. In the intervening years since the letter of findings came out, Dallas would have done the following:
Passed a law saying any project anywhere in the city subsidized with HUD or city money must reserve at least 25 percent of its units for people paying with rent vouchers.
Passed a law making it illegal to refuse to rent to someone for the sole reason that the person intends to make all or part of a rent payment with a voucher.
Launched a new project downtown to replace the Lockey and MacKenzie project – one with at least 51 percent affordable units.
Carried out an audit and inspection of all existing subsidized projects to make sure they are meeting their affordable housing requirements under the law.
Made sure new subsidized housing gets built in “areas of opportunity,” not islands of despair.
The only one of those items that the City Council has even taken a stab at was a ban on source of income discrimination proposed last October. The measure would have made it illegal for landlords to refuse to rent to an applicant who met all other qualifications but intended to use a voucher for payment. Mayor Rawlings and City Council members Lee Kleinman and Jennifer Gates led the successful opposition to that measure.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the Observer's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Dallas's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
The point there is this: The policies of racial segregation outlined in the letter did not stop when the letter was published. They have been aggressively preserved and protected, and they continue in force forward into tomorrow.
There is another important piece of the puzzle that I would be remiss in failing to provide. Even though a lot of good work has been done in southern Dallas using HUD and other tax money to revitalize neighborhoods – Frazier Courts is an example – the fact remains that some island of despair projects have been built where they are because African-American leadership in southern Dallas wanted them there.
The brutal old Turner Courts projects near Hawn Freeway and 310 in far South Dallas were not torn down and replaced on the same site with something called Buckeye Trail Commons because white people wanted it done that way. Every former City Council member with a ballpoint pen was clamoring to get in on that one.
In fact, every time we are shocked, shocked again to rediscover racial segregation going on in our city and every time we wonder how on earth it could have happened, we should all turn together and look into the grand municipal mirror. We can all wave hello.