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Orange dots represent Hispanics in the 2010 census. Green dots represent African Americans.EXPAND
Orange dots represent Hispanics in the 2010 census. Green dots represent African Americans.
Image Copyright, 2013, Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia (Dustin A. Cable, creator)

Does South Dallas Need City Hall to Save It? Does Anybody?

Last week, I wrote about some astonishing trends in property values in what has long been one of the city’s poorest, most racially segregated neighborhoods. Old South Dallas, which extends about a mile south from Fair Park, is seeing increases of almost 100% in as little as a year.

After that story ran, I talked to several knowledgeable people about why they think that’s happening and what it means for the future of the area. If there is a takeaway from those conversations, it’s double-edged.

People who know southern Dallas and West Dallas, who know poor neighborhoods and have seen gentrification, foresee enormous cruelty and displacement ahead and believe the city ought to intervene to mitigate the worst of it. But people who know the city don’t want it to intervene too much.

After all, they ask, what’s the track record here? Local government intervention in the housing market has produced a dolorous history of City Council members packed off to the pen and almost nothing in the way of strong neighborhood preservation or creation.

Meanwhile, the people I talk to tell me that strong neighborhood creation is exactly what we are looking at. Why should we want the city, with its ham-fisted penchant for making everything worse, to get in the way? Maybe what we need is twofold: a City Hall that will help and a City Hall that will stop helping.

Everybody I talked to agreed on one thing: The primary force pushing values up in South Dallas and farther south in other poor portions of southern Dallas is Mexicanization — the arrival of Mexican American, Mexican immigrant and undocumented Mexican homeownership.

Betty Culbreath, a longtime leader in the African American community, former head of the county health department, former member of the Dallas Plan Commission, said to me: “If we say this publicly, they’re going to call us racist and everything else. But you know that the Mexicans are going to take care of their families.”

The best demographic rendering I have been able to find is the “dot racial map” from the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia. Its limitation is that it is based on 2010 census data, now almost a decade out of date. But even 10 years ago, the dot racial map depicts an influx of Hispanics almost surrounding South Dallas.

I get all messed up trying to figure out the census on white/black/Hispanic percentages, because sometimes Hispanics are counted as white and sometimes not, and sometimes whites are counted as white and sometimes as “white only” (or, as I think of us, only white). The best comparison for me is “persons not of Hispanic or Latino origin” versus persons who are.

In that comparison, between 2000 and 2010 the census found that Dallas went from 36% Hispanic to 42%. Black people stayed about the same, hovering near 25%. And we only-whites dropped from over 50% to below 30. When I try to add it up, there are people just missing. I figure they must be journalists.

Very strong anecdotal evidence and my own visual experience from driving the areas in question are reinforced by school enrollment data and changing electoral politics. I just don’t find anybody who disagrees that the major Hispanic growth has been in southern, West and East Dallas and that the push is now being felt in South Dallas.

The other indicator for it is in the political tension that shows up sometimes between black and Hispanic leadership — a sentiment not shared by Culbreath, who begrudges nothing: “The Mexicans know how to do their intrafamily banking. When the money comes in, they will go buy a house for this little family here, and then later they’re going to get a house over there for this other part of the family.”

Culbreath says the racist mistake in looking at what’s happening in southern Dallas is in taking it for a straight racial replacement rather than a class replacement. The black, employed, working, mortgage-paying classes moved out of these areas decades ago, she says. They’re all in Duncanville and Plano, moving on up.

Left behind is a small, brave army of leftover middle class black people, some very old people on Social Security who are barely hanging onto houses they have owned most of their lives, and crack-heads squatting in abandoned houses held by speculators and former city officials. It’s a mix that has kept crime high and land values low for decades.

So, yes, the arrival of hardworking law-abiding people who pay their mortgages and keep to themselves will gradually render a neighborhood less scary, more stable and therefore more valuable and a better investment. Landowner Khraish Khraish, who for two years has been selling off a large portfolio of rental homes to poor working families in West Dallas, told me, “Hispanics are a great investment.

“The Hispanic community, whether it’s legal or illegal, is the basis for a stable Texas economy in general. From my perspective, Hispanics will work no matter what and no matter what job or field.

“I was looking at my mortgage loans, my portfolio, just a couple days ago. Of course I have a little bit of delinquency, nothing major, but my delinquencies are not Hispanic. They’re just not.”

Khraish and his attorney, John Carney, are not entirely sanguine about what’s just ahead for South Dallas. They told me experience has taught them that poor homeowners in South Dallas, barely hanging on now, are about to be attacked from two sides — by the city, hitting them with soaring taxes, and by scam artists, who will lend them money at usurious rates for the taxes and then use the loans to grab ownership of the land.

In West Dallas where Khraish owns most of his land, the city made things even worse by using tougher building codes and blitzkrieg building inspections to shut down rental properties, claiming it wanted to spur home ownership. But then the city immediately began subsidizing expensive apartments on the same ground to the tune of $10,000 a unit. The only people who have done anything to increase home ownership are Khraish and the Topletz family, longtime landlords in southern Dallas.

On this block on Guaranty Street in South Dallas, appraised values have increased 92.34% in one year.EXPAND
On this block on Guaranty Street in South Dallas, appraised values have increased 92.34% in one year.
Jim Schutze

It’s why longtime community organizer John Fullinwider calls real estate “the most cruel and ruthless of all capitalist markets.

“If you and I get squeezed out of the stock market because we don’t have enough money to invest, we don’t really think about it, but the real estate market takes people’s homes away.”

I asked him where he thinks very poor people go when they lose their homes.

“Some of them are pushed out of the city,” he said. “Some are pushed in. They double up. And some of them die. They wind up on the street and die.

“The government is supposed to mitigate the cruelty of the system. But if this is class warfare, the generals are all on the City Council, and they use their power to do just the opposite.”

I spoke to other people involved in land in South Dallas who did not want to be named for fear of earning the wrath of people at City Hall. One of the things I heard from them was respect for the old-time, stable, black property owners in South Dallas who have stuck it out. Talk about not easy.

But there is enormous skepticism of the old elected black leadership class, which has gained control of significant amounts of real estate through subsidy politics. Nobody sees anything great coming from that direction.

Related to that skepticism, I heard people saying we need to be very careful about inviting City Hall in to do too much intervention in the market. City Hall will do what City Hall does. It will blunder in armed with all kinds of HUD money, state approvals and related restrictions, not to mention the bribes.

Why? If what we are seeing is the organic growth of strong working-class neighborhoods — something the city hasn’t really seen since World War II — why would we want City Hall stomping around in the middle of it with its big muddy boots?

Because I’m a snowflake, I might be tempted to say South Dallas should be protected from mega-development. But experience tells me that, if somebody wants to come in and start throwing around really big bucks, most of those families would like to make their own decisions, thank you.

It’s not the center of the situation that’s the problem. The center is just what Khraish says it is — working people building a stable community and boosting the whole economy.

The problem is the ragged edge. One knife blade is the extreme, even fatal cruelty of displacement. The other edge is the absolute treachery of City Hall in aiding and abetting the displacement. The city pretends to care but helps clear the land two ways:

It practices under-the-table eminent domain to force land sales. Then it hands out big, fat subsidies to rich guys. Those rich guys either don’t need those subsidies to do real estate, or, if they do, they should get out of real estate. But City Hall is always on their side.

“If you look at the council now,” Fullinwider asks, “who is the champion of the poor?”

These tough problems were important to Mayor Eric Johnson when he was in the Legislature. He introduced legislation, quickly shot down by tea partyists, designed not to stop or hobble development but to share the wealth and assuage some of the cruelty. Tristan Hallman, the mayor’s chief of policy and communications, told me at the end of last week that the mayor remains interested in these issues.

We have to look at it in at least two ways, do we not? On the one hand, we should see the enormous promise of new Americans healing shattered ground. But we also must look with conscience and responsibility on the perils facing those who have stayed the course through unbelievable tribulation. We should do this right. That would be new.

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