How City Hall Resegregated Dallas

Segregation. The word itself feels like a tough question on an American history exam. In the year 2013, how in the world could Dallas, the nation's ninth largest city, have put itself in a picture most Americans probably associate with police dogs snarling at children in black and white newsreels of the 1950s?

How did Dallas do it? Very carefully, according to a grim 29-page report summarizing a four-year investigation by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). One foot in front of the other.

The HUD investigative report released last week depicts the city of Dallas, beginning in 2000, as dividing itself officially into white and minority hemispheres, then conspiring to use federal money dedicated by law to desegregation for the opposite purpose — increasing segregation.

In one instance, the city yanked the financing for a downtown redevelopment deal when the developers said they were going to obey federal law by providing the required number of low-income housing units. In other cases the city required downtown developers to sign deed restrictions by which they vowed never to meet the federal guidelines for low-income housing, even though they were using federal low-income housing money to finance their deals.

Where downtown tower developers did have to meet minimum low-income housing guidelines in order to get federal financing, HUD says the city of Dallas later let them out of those requirements, even after HUD warned Dallas not to do it. And where any of those requirements did somehow stick so that developers still had to offer a certain number of reduced-rent units, the city practically announced it was never going to check up on anybody to make sure they were meeting their requirements.

All of these efforts to keep affordable housing out of downtown had the effect of keeping racial minorities, the foreign-born and disabled people out of downtown, HUD says, because the overwhelming majority of people in Dallas who need cheap rent fall into those categories. And no matter how any of us may feel about that doctrine, everybody in city and local government in America should have known for the last 30 years that that's how federal law looks at it: Discriminate against the poor in an urban setting, and you are discriminating against minorities and the disabled.

The most transparent example of what the city was doing had to do with something called Housing and Economic Recovery Act (HERA) bonds. In 2009 the city granted $102 million in HERA bond financing to a project at 1600 Pacific Ave. After the developers told the city the bonds required a high percentage of low-income units, a requirement they intended to meet, the city took the bonds away from them. Then the city informed the state entity administering the bond fund that it was sending back all of its $150 million in HERA money for low-income housing.

That's the kind of pull-up-the-drawbridge stuff you expect to hear about in some place called Trophy Acres Estates, like, "We don't want federal highway money, because we don't want to widen the highway, because we don't want buses, because we don't want minorities." But the ninth largest city in the country?

The careful process at City Hall for keeping minorities out of a white majority downtown may seem rather abstract and technical — all about bonds and contracts and so on — but the process on the other side of the city's carefully drawn color line was anything but careful and had brutal personal consequences.

Beginning soon after 2000, black, Hispanic and white middle-class neighborhood leaders in southern Dallas and Oak Cliff, sensing correctly that their part of the city was suddenly the target of a disproportionate share of new government-subsidized housing, began to urge their elected officials to protect them from more of it. But a sloppy sluice of bribes took care of that problem. Suddenly the black wing of the City Council couldn't get enough subsidized housing into its part of town fast enough.

Three years ago black City Council member Don Hill, once mentioned for mayor, drew an 18-year federal sentence for taking housing bribes, his wife was sentenced to nine years, his appointee to the plan commission got 14 years and a host of other bit players in the southern Dallas housing bribery saga received lesser sentences.

The process by which more subsidized housing was pushed south while being kept out of downtown and out of northern white neighborhoods was a matter of well-known public record. In 2011 at the urging of some southern Dallas leaders, a mayoral task force produced a report showing exactly what had happened.

The city's own report showed that from 1990 to 1999, almost 10,000 low-income tax-credit housing units were created, of which exactly half went into the city's southern sector and half went north. But in the 2000 to 2010 span, another 10,000 were units were created, 80 percent of which went south and only 20 percent north.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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