Fair Housing Reality in Dallas vs. the View from the East Coast's Ivory Towers

Sometimes it’s almost funny to sit out here in the boondocks watching federal fair housing programs in actual operation and then compare that with the view from New York or Washington. Notice I said almost.

An editorial in my Sunday New York Times presented more or less the view I might see, I guess, if instead of being here I was on a plane looking down from 40,000 feet on federal fair housing (integration) law.

The editorial referenced the recent police-shooting riots in Baltimore and drew a direct parallel with disturbances in American cities a half century ago, as analyzed in the 1968 Kerner Commission Report. The Kerner Commission said we had too much racial segregation in America. The Times editorial two days ago said we still do. Hence riots.

On another day when everybody had more time, I might want to sit down over a mint tea and talk about that parallel. It seems to me these times are not at all those times. A half century ago the black underclass, lower class, working class, middle class and upper class were all still locked up together in the same concentration camp, which we called the ghetto.

The great and wonderful news about the mid-20th century civil rights movement is that it worked: Everybody who could get out and deserved to get out did get out, except for babies who couldn't get out because their parents were staying and babies can’t walk.

But now the outcome of all that upward and outward migration is that a baby born into the old ghetto will never live on the same block nor even on the same street with the son or daughter of a doctor, a teacher or maybe even an employed person of any kind.

We have to be really careful with simple geographical generalizations. So-called “South Dallas” or “southern Dallas” includes several areas of upward and outward mobility. But people there have moved up and out from the really problematic neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods — the left-behind places — are probably 10 times more problematic than they were 50 years ago because of the process of negative selection.
We have talked about this here before. We are talking about areas where as many as 60 percent of adults don’t even qualify as “unemployed” by federal standards, because they have never been employed. They are what is called “not in the labor force,” which often means they have criminal records and are virtually unemployable.

An anecdote from that part of the city that still haunts me came from my friend, veteran civil rights leader Peter Johnson, who told me of eavesdropping on an uncle giving his young nephews life advice. “Instead of teaching them what my uncles taught me when I was a little kid, which was how to hammer a nail and saw a 2-by-4, he was telling them how to act when they grew up and went to prison.”

The big issue for the people locked in the ghetto 50 years ago was getting somebody to open the damn gate. When the gates opened, some people, a lot of them, shot out through that open gate into the land of freedom and opportunity and became the lawyers and doctors they should have been all along.

That’s not who we’re talking about. That’s not now. This is a different order of problem. We all sort of know that at some level. Sorry for the dated cultural references, but we all know we’re not talking about Sanford and Son any more.

And here is what The New York Times' view fails to comprehend: Resistance to government-mandated housing integration today makes the battles of the 1960s and '70s seem almost wistfully innocent. At least back then the white people expressed their racism openly and honestly. Today the resistance to mandated integration is much smarter and even more effective. 
If the Times wants to see how it works today, they should send somebody to Dallas. Or, wait. I need to be more sensitive to the exigencies of contemporary newspaper publishing. The Times could have a travel expense embargo.

Tell you what I’m going to do: I am going to include below a copy of a lawsuit filed by Dallas developer Craig MacKenzie last March against Julian Castro, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, accusing Castro, HUD and by implication the Obama Administration of gutting a four-year federal fair housing investigation of Dallas.

We have talked about Craig MacKenzie and Curtis Lockey here so often and so much in the past, I doubt you need a recap, but maybe out-of-towners would.

Curtis Lockey and Craig MacKenzie are two downtown tower redevelopers who went to HUD five years or more ago and said Dallas had screwed them out of a development deal. They said their intention had been to obey federal fair housing law and build something integrated. They said Dallas killed the deal because Dallas wanted downtown to be racially segregated.

The feds spent four years investigating. They issued a “letter of findings” upholding Lockey and MacKenzie and finding Dallas guilty on almost every count in the original complaint. Dallas refused to negotiate with HUD on most of it. My sources, who are pretty good, told me HUD had told them Dallas was making HUDs’s Hurricane Sandy negotiations with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie look like a Sunday school picnic.

But instead of using the letter of findings as ammo to justify cutting off federal funds, HUD folded its hand and backed off a few weeks after Obama announced Castro’s appointment as HUD secretary. Our mayor, Mike Rawlings, who had flown to Washington to meet with Castro a week before the announcement, thanked him effusively , saying, “His commitment on this was remarkable, to be this hands-on.”

So that was what? Hands-On Castro telling his own fair housing people to keep their paws off Dallas?

All of this is still ongoing, no matter what they tell you at City Hall. This week, the federal judge in the MacKenzie suit told the Justice Department, which is defending HUD, it needs to file documents typically seen as precursors to trial, even though the Justice Department  had asked him last week to dismiss the suit. In a motion to dismiss, the Justice Department did not argue with any of the findings in the HUD letter or with MacKenzie’s accusations, basing its motion instead on standing and immunity questions.

Last week the city asked the federal court to take a second lawsuit filed by Lockey away from a sitting federal judge in Dallas and give it instead to a federal judge in Fort Worth who has ruled favorably on the city’s housing issues in the past. I’m no lawyer, but that looks like a shopping spree to me.

The Times editorial made it sound as if the nation’s fair housing problems can all be resolved with some kind of deck-chair re-shuffling in the bureaucracy:

But for these rules to be meaningful, the federal government will have to restructure its own programs so that more affordable housing is built in low-poverty, high opportunity neighborhoods. Federal officials must also be willing to do what they have generally been afraid to do in the past — withhold money from communities that perpetuate housing apartheid.
That’s just so wide of the mark in terms of how things really happen out here in the nation. HUD has got all the law and all the structure and dedicated personnel it needs in its Fair Housing wing. But none of that means squat if a mayor and a bunch of dignitaries — with their congressional delegation shoved firmly into their pocket — can get the politicians at the top to fold.

This is the Obama White House, for God’s sake. How much better will it ever get than it is right now for fair housing advocates? I don’t think people in New York or Washington really know what the question is now. They sure don’t know the answer.

2015.3.6 MacKenzie Complaint by Schutze

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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