City Hall announced late yesterday that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has caved on the 4-year-old Lockey/MacKenzie racial segregation complaint against Dallas officials, vacating most of the findings of a four-year federal civil rights investigation. A settlement signed yesterday by HUD and the city (see below) is a clean-sweep victory for Dallas and a bruising defeat for HUD.
In yesterday's settlement, HUD admits unspecified errors in its November 2013 finding of noncompliance. HUD releases Dallas from any obligation to pay a fine or suffer a loss of federal funding. The agreement makes no mention of compensation for Curtis Lockey or Craig MacKenzie, downtown developers who claimed Dallas scotched their tower re-do deal at 1600 Pacific because it would have accepted too many minority tenants.
The accord signed yesterday is a bitter slap for Lockey and MacKenzie and I hope I can say, without sounding too self-referential, for me as well, since I've been pretty much the Lone Ranger around here for the last couple years predicting exactly the opposite outcome.
Last January when City Attorney Warren Ernst sent HUD a defiant letter attacking the charges, I pretty much mocked him for it and predicted a harsh outcome for the city. Well, mock me.
See also: Dallas to HUD, Stuff It.
Ernst won big on this one, and so did City Manager A.C. Gonzalez. The settlement agreement leaves open a few unresolved matters, but the overwhelming take-away is that HUD took a dive and Ernst and Gonzalez took home the trophy. The city admits no wrongdoing of any kind, walking away unscathed from what would have been an ugly designation as a place that deliberately practices racial segregation by policy. That's a win.
So I should be ready to shoot myself, right? Well, you know how we journalists are. It's not a bad day yet if it's still a good a story. And this one may be even better, story-wise, than with a less one-sided outcome.
This isn't merely a win for Dallas. It's a total and dramatic defeat for the fair housing lawyers at HUD who pressed their claim of non-compliance based on a four-year federal investigation of behavior and policy at Dallas City Hall. This defeat for them may or may not garner a lot of attention in the general press, but, believe me, it will be scrutinized to the bone by the housing press and by local housing officials all over the country.
Hoping not to sound too defensive here, I think I should tell you why I was so sure this would go the other way. It's because the top fair housing officials at HUD, including Bryan Greene, general deputy assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity, who signed yesterday's agreement, were telling my sources emphatically there would be no cave-in by HUD. I told Curtis Lockey last September I was hearing HUD had already agreed to fold its hand, and Lockey was passing my remarks on to HUD.
Last September, Greene emailed Lockey and told him, "I don't know what's in the water there, or whether people simply aren't drinking enough of it, but that's not true." Sara Pratt, a HUD deputy assistant secretary, emailed Lockey to assure him, "The information you provide is not consistent with HUD's position."
The information I could get from HUD at the time was all boiler-plate from the public relations office -- negotiations still underway, no comment, blah-blah -- but I was confident for a number of reasons that the emails to Lockey were genuine, not counterfeit. That meant HUD officials at the very top of the fair housing division were guaranteeing Lockey in writing there would be no cave by them.
Somebody caved. It seems as if it had to be someone above Greene and Pratt's level. There is only one person, an assistant secretary, between them and newly appointed HUD Secretary Julian Castro, former mayor of San Antonio.
That's all above my pay-grade. Castro is an Obama cabinet member. I don't claim to be able to see what's going on at that level. On the other hand, the specific mechanics of the cave-in won't matter much to public housing officials around the country. Their take-away from this will be that Dallas beat HUD. That's what counts.
It means officials in Westchester County, New York, who signed a settlement agreement with HUD in 2009 on a similar complaint, were suckers. They're still tied up in court , getting their federal funding cut off and being tarred in the press, basically because they made the mistake of signing a settlement that the feds can now hold over their heads.
Judging by the outcome here, Westchester's mistake was settling with HUD -- agreeing to HUD's charges of discrimination. If you are a housing official in Jacktown in the state of Somewhere, you're going to look at the Dallas outcome and see these facts: HUD carried out a four-year investigation of Dallas, after which all of the top air housing officials at HUD signed on for a full-court press against Dallas on racial discrimination charges.
As late as a couple months ago, the top fair housing officials at HUD were saying in writing they were still committed to the cause and there would be no retreat. Whatever happened within HUD, however Dallas was able to pull it off, the outcome is plain to see: The entire fair housing division at HUD wound up looking like somebody stole their pants.
At some point in this long saga, Dallas fair housing advocate and attorney Elizabeth Julian talked to me about fair housing and civil rights. She would know. From 1994 to 1999 under President Bill Clinton she was an assistant secretary of HUD for fair housing, occupying the post just above the positions of Greene and Pratt. I can't put my finger on my notes, but a close paraphrase of what Julian said to me would be, "Fair housing is where the entire civil rights movement has ended up."
She meant that fair housing is kind of the Maginot Line, the last trench at the front lines where desegregation activism has been stalled for at least a decade. It's the tough one. Look at Westchester. That's where Clintons and Cuomos live. And the resistance there to using federal housing money to force the racial desegregation of residential neighborhoods has been ferocious (although not ferocious enough, by Dallas standards).
Forgive me for feeling a little histrionic, perhaps, on this day of my own major personal wrongitude, but if Julian is right, and if the Dallas decision is the harbinger I think it is, then maybe that part of the civil rights movement is kind of over. The decision here means there is no one in Washington, not even at the cabinet level, who has got the juice or the commitment to prosecute this kind of enforcement.
HUD had a four-year investigation of the facts behind them. They seemed to have their entire fair housing division mounted up and calling for battle. And Dallas pantsed them anyway. That means nobody needs to be afraid of HUD on fair housing law again, and definitely nobody should ever sign a fair housing settlement with HUD again.
That means a lot.
By the way, Lockey and MacKenzie are back in federal court in Dallas with a new version of their whistleblower lawsuit against Dallas. They claim this new version corrects flaws in an earlier iteration that allowed a federal appeals court to pour them out.
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Even if a federal judge here refuses to allow them to amend their suit, they can still bring a fresh new lawsuit, at least in theory. The settlement signed by HUD states explicitly that it is not supposed to harm or effect any third party's right to seek justice in the courts, which is a reference to Lockey and MacKenzie. So that part's not over.
The part that is over is the political story, and it's bigger. Politically at least, nobody has to worry about HUD and fair housing again, at least not under current conditions in Washington. That's still a very good story. And, see: Even when I'm wrong I'm happy. Our little secret, OK?