City Hall

Housing Policy for Dallas Would Be World According to Lockey and MacKenzie

Probably all I’ll ever have to tell you about myself is that recently, while reading a City Hall PowerPoint presentation on a proposed new housing policy, I laughed out loud. You already know never to invite me to dinner, right?

Can’t help myself. Look. I have written about Curtis Lockey and Craig MacKenzie, two guys suing the city, for six years now. 

For at least the first five and a half years, the line the city manager gave City Council members and everybody in the media but me was that Lockey and MacKenzie were a couple of sore losers. They were two downtown developers, city staffers insisted, who fumbled their financing, lost their deal and now were trying to gouge the city out of spite.

So now I’m reading the citywide housing policy presentation  given to the City Council's housing committee on May 20, and it’s like I’m reading The World According to Lockey and MacKenzie. Every single thing those guys wanted to do with the old LTV tower downtown — every single one of the issues at the center of five years of litigation — is addressed, endorsed and agreed to in this proposed policy.

The big one is so-called affordability, meaning low rent. The city yanked approvals and financing on the Lockey and MacKenzie project when they found out how many affordable units the pair intended to build. Of the 700 residential rental units Lockey and MacKenzie proposed to develop at 1600 Pacific, 90 percent would have been at affordable rents, with 25 percent of the units at truly low rents, affordable by families with incomes at half the average income for the area or below.

Lockey and MacKenzie also intended to accept federal Section 8 housing vouchers. And they intended to make an even mix of floor plans, large and small, available as affordable units for people holding vouchers, all of which was required by federal law, at least formally.

In Dallas as in all major Texas cities, approximately 90 percent of people living in units subsidized with federally financed housing vouchers are minority. Put vouchers together with multi-bedroom apartments, and your tenant demographic skews toward poor and moderate income minority families with kids.

That was a big no-no for City Hall. City Hall did not want welfare mamas in its shiny new downtown residential district, even though the reconstruction of downtown was being financed with federal money because no private money would take the risk alone.

For example, in 2010 the city signed a major downtown tower redevelopment deal with Forest City Realty Trust of Cleveland, a company that played by City Hall rules. Forest City won huge help and financing from the city to redo the Continental Building downtown, but only after the city and Forest City worked together to get the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to let Forest City out of most of its affordability requirements. (See Lockey’s letter to the council blowing the whistle on the Forest City deal below.)

The proposed new housing policy doesn’t quite hit the affordability numbers that Lockey and MacKenzie intended to accomplish at LTV Tower, but the new policy would require any developer who receives city money or a tax break to build way more affordable units than anyone ever has in Dallas in the past.

So in other words, speaking to nine-tenths of my readers out there, you may not have to move to Oklahoma after all. If it ever gets into law, this new policy will make housing affordability a fact of life in Dallas, and we will all have Lockey and MacKenzie in large part to thank for it.

Lockey and MacKenzie are business guys, not civil rights crusaders. They wound up with a different kind of federal financing for their project than Forest City used.
Forest City was pre-Obama. Lockey and MacKenzie were post. Post-Obama, developers couldn’t just say mother-may-I anymore to HUD and get permission to dodge all their affordability requirements.

The city wasn’t up to speed on the difference. They loved the Lockey and MacKenzie deal and gave it green lights, checkered flags, go-aheads, bells, starter pistols, until Lockey and MacKenzie came in and reminded them (told them) that the LTV Tower project, post-Obama, would have to be truly affordable and accept Section 8 vouchers.

Oh, man, from that moment on City Hall looked like a bunch of escaped lobsters backing away from the cooking pot. They pulled permissions, delayed financing, ducked phone calls, did everything they could until Lockey, MacKenzie and their investors lost the deal and lost $8 million in the process. So Lockey and MacKenzie complained to HUD and sued.

HUD has a history of being pretty much entirely worthless on most of this stuff, unwilling to enforce its own laws or chase its own money — too much trouble and not real money anyway — until some third party sues it into acting, which is what Lockey and MacKenzie have been trying to do.

A great deal of pressure also has been brought on HUD to man up and do its job in Dallas by housing advocate Betsy Julian of Inclusive Communities Project and by housing advocacy lawyers Mike Daniel and Laura Beshara. And then you have Dallas council member Scott Griggs, chair of the council's housing committee, who has worked for six months to come up with an open, clean policy not based on backroom winks and nudges with HUD.

The Griggs proposal is more radical than indicated in any of the reporting I have seen so far. The proposal calls on the council to craft an ordinance making it illegal for landlords to refuse to rent to voucher holders, even though the Legislature last year passed a law against such ordinances.

Yeah. You got that right. Our wonderful, anti-government, home-rule, local-is-better, Tea Party legislators passed a law saying it’s illegal for any local community to enact an ordinance banning source of income discrimination. In other words, they’re for home rule unless it gets in the way of their racism. Then they turn into Joe Stalin.

Anyway, there are a few little cracks of daylight in the state law, and apparently Griggs thinks there may be a way to slip this ordinance or part of it through one of those cracks.

The most dramatic imprint I see on this proposal, from both Lockey and MacKenzie and from Griggs, is the clear outline of a new idea: Just do this stuff by the law or don’t do it.

Don’t suck in hundreds of millions of dollars in federal desegregation money if you don’t want to do desegregation. Don’t suck private sector entrepreneurs into the web and especially don’t suck their money into it if you don’t intend to play by the rules and live up to your contracts.

If you can’t get private money to redevelop your downtown, and if the federal money carries obligations you don’t want to meet, then you probably can’t redevelop your downtown right now. But don’t get us into this whole tangled back-corridor web of hugger-muggery, nudge-nudge, wink-wink, backward crab-walking and not taking phone calls.

If you read their complaints and their lawsuits, that’s The World According to Lockey and MacKenzie. This city may owe those guys a major debt when this is all said and done.

Curtis Lockey's Letter to Dallas City Council by DallasObserver

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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