Dallas' housing authority's efforts to redevelop a slew of public housing projects hit a snag this week after residents protested that they weren't adequately notified.
On Monday, DHA's board considered adopting changes to a long-term planning document formalizing details about the plan. But after hearing complaints from angry residents who were alerted by activists who went door to door handing out flyers over the weekend, the board rejected the amendment.
Jorge Baldor, the board's chairman, addressed the audience following the no vote. "We've heard you, and we've responded to you," he said.
It is unclear how the board's vote will affect the fate of the eight properties, which have long been slated for redevelopment.
One of them is Little Mexico Village, a historically significant property located downtown, adjacent to Uptown. According to the amendment, DHA would have submitted a "Request for Disposition Approval to sell at fair market value via public bid" to its federal regulator in mid-2021, kick-starting the process.
Activists seized on the news. After realizing residents were unaware, Texas Tenants Union tweeted about the agency's "plans to sell public housing" and distributed flyers at the property over the weekend.
"You can't have a public hearing to hear from residents if you don't tell them," said Sandy Rollins, the nonprofit's executive director. "So we told them."
As a result, tenants and activists lined the walls of a cramped room at DHA headquarters waiting their turn to speak Monday.
Dorothy Washington, a member of DHA's resident advisory board, said she was caught off guard by the flyers. "Right now, I don't know anything about anything," she said.
In a statement, DHA called the content of these flyers "inaccurate" and emphasized that redevelopment will be a "long, multiyear process."
"No decision has been made to sell Little Mexico Village and there is no impact to our families residing there at this time," read the statement.
The Texas Tenants' Union responded, "We strongly disagree that we gave inaccurate information to the tenants," and provided a copy of the flier.
HUD has strict guidelines for community involvement in public housing plans. DHA must consult the resident advisory board when developing plans, publish them online and then hold public hearings. The agency confirmed that it did all of these things.
But activists criticized the agency for burying the planning document deep on its website and not posting notice of the changes on the grounds of its properties.
"Publicly posting and livestreaming the meeting as this process goes forward should be the No. 1 concern," said Demetria McCain, president of the fair housing advocacy organization Inclusive Communities Project.
In the statement released later in the week to the Observer, DHA promised to conduct meetings with residents at the affected properties and inform residents via email in advance of future meetings.
At the meeting, Troy Broussard, the housing authority's CEO, was contrite. "Please accept my apologies for not communicating better with you as residents. We're going to get better at that. And I want you to know that we're going to involve you every step of the way," he said. "Today is the start of a conversation."
He assured residents that no one would lose housing and that the agency would find alternatives for anyone affected by construction.
But, Broussard said, DHA was committed to finding the "highest and best use" for its properties. That, it appears, means either selling the properties or partnering with private companies to construct new high-density, mixed-income buildings.
"DHA plans to parlay funds generated by redevelopment to build more affordable housing," wrote The Dallas Morning News in an editorial lauding the agency in early 2019.
In its statement, DHA said the vote would not halt its plans. Volunteer Services of America is already beginning construction of a senior home on one of the listed properties, a vacant lot in Oak Cliff.
The process is just beginning for the other properties and is likely to be more fraught. Little Mexico Village, located in Victory Park, is just steps from American Airlines Center. First a Jewish neighborhood, the area got its name in the early 20th century after Mexican immigrants, who were prohibited from moving to wealthier areas of northern Dallas, settled there.
Now surrounded by luxury high-rises, the property is a hot commodity.
DHA considered selling the property for $40 million in 2006 but eventually dropped the plans. In 2018, it and six other properties appeared on a list of "DHA real estate holdings planned for redevelopment activity" in a solicitation to developers. At the time, Broussard promised that residents would be engaged in the process.
"They'll be part of the planning strategy and they all have a voice — as well as the community — about what is being redeveloped," he told The Dallas Morning News.
Little Mexico Village is not the only one of the properties with historical significance facing uncertainty about its future. Cedar Springs Place in Oak Lawn is on the National Register of Historic Places. When it was built in 1937, it was the first Public Works Administration housing project west of the Mississippi.
Baldor said he was "deeply committed to honoring that history" but called the properties "an improper use of land" and said that DHA needed to build more affordable housing.
Redevelopment in partnership with private firms, he said, will allow DHA to upgrade its aging housing stock, improve the responsiveness of property management and create mixed-income communities. "I think it's a healthier environment for adults and kids to grow up when we have everybody living together," he said.
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While acknowledging that the amount of notice given to residents was "very lacking," Baldor emphasized that the board was becoming more accessible under his chairmanship. Its meetings, traditionally held at DHA headquarters, are now frequently held at its properties. And they're now held in the evening, rather than 1 p.m.
Baldor said he wanted to see DHA prioritize the creation of local councils — in addition to the central residential advisory board — that would facilitate communication between residents and management. He wants everyone on the same page.
"Let's just put the brakes on everything else and worry about this," he said.
Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional reporting.