Did anybody else notice that Inclusive Communities Project just got its hat handed to it on its big lawsuit against the state over placement of subsidized housing in already segregated neighborhoods in Dallas? No, I didn't think so. Welcome to Weirdtown.
After yesterday’s City Council briefing on a new city housing policy, I had one of those eyes-spinning-around conversations I have with people every once in a while whenever the topic turns to Dallas and race: The other persons eyes, big as saucers, are spinning around in circles because he or she can’t figure out what the hell anybody is talking about.
In this case the council’s housing committee had just finished discussing a new policy aimed at desegregating the city, with all the white council members on the committee supporting it and the black council members coming down somewhere between skepticism and outright hostility.
I had moved from the council briefing room and was sitting in the big council chamber, awaiting the start of yet another briefing. The person speaking to me, who is white, smart and passionately involved in downtown homeless issues for years, kept repeating over and again that it was the black people on the committee who were in favor of concentrating subsidized low-income housing in already segregated areas.
“That just plays right into the hands of the North Dallas interests that don’t want it anywhere near them,” she said.
That’s what makes Dallas an especially hard nut to crack. The pattern of hard-line racial separation that makes Dallas one of the nation’s most segregated cities wasn’t created by black people. But if you try to do anything about tearing that line down, one of the strongest centers of opposition to your efforts will be black leadership.
We could talk all day. If you want to view the political climate of southern Dallas in an entirely derogatory and dismissive light, then you can say the elected leaders who seek more and more subsidized housing in already racially segregated areas are poverty pimps, afraid that desegregation will dilute their voter base.
If you don’t just absolutely have to come down on it in an entirely negative light, you can say those leaders are defending the cultural cohesion and historical roots of their community in exactly the same way white neighborhoods do in old East Dallas, North Oak Cliff, Oak Lawn and the scant few other areas where white people in Dallas have stayed put long enough to develop an ounce or two of social cohesion.
But there you have it. For all kinds of reasons, Dallas is just really good at segregation. For decades, newly arrived Yankees have been reeling in horror when old-time white residents tell them, “Our colored people here in Dallas like to stay with their own kind.”
But wait 10 years. The same Yankee reels with even more horror when he realizes, “Oh my God, it’s true.” Not that Yankees are so great, by the way.
The housing policy discussed Monday at City Hall — a recommendation at this point, to be voted up or down later by the full City Council — is stellar and courageous. It attacks head-on the whole history of City Hall policies that have enforced racial segregation. The new policy calls for the full council to adopt an ordinance making it harder for landlords to slam doors on renters because they want to pay their rent with housing vouchers.
It would require developers who take big tax-money subsidies from City Hall to pay back the city by agreeing to hold down the rent on at least a few of their apartments so that lower income people can afford them. Especially when those subsidies are coming from federal money, that’s the law anyway, but Dallas has always been able to wriggle out of obeying that law in the past. So this new policy would say, “No more wriggle. Do it.”
But as I sat in the peanut gallery listening to the discussion, hearing the objections from black council members, thinking of the glee that would bring to certain North Dallas members, I couldn’t help but be struck by a certain aura of unreality. I wondered how long all the various parties to our system of mutually pleasing voluntary Jim Crow think this stuff can endure in the 21st century?
More specifically, I wondered if anybody in the room had heard about Judge Sidney A. Fitzwater’s ruling just before the weekend in the Inclusive Communities Project (ICP) lawsuit against the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs (TDHCA). Fitzwater blew ICP out of town, with what I read as a strong suggestion that if they wanted to do something about segregation in Dallas, ICP should have sued Dallas, not Texas.
You might remember just about a year ago ICP and its lawyers were being touted all over the nation for “winning” that case at the Supreme Court. Well, it turns out many in the media over-read that one. The Supreme Court agreed with ICP on an important issue but sent the case back down for Fitzwater to rehear it under new rules dictated by that issue.
He did. Last week he killed ICP’s lawsuit. Fitzwater said, among other things, that ICP, a Dallas-based nonprofit most of whose income comes from a trust that was funded by the city of Dallas under an out-of-court settlement, was trying to blame the state for decisions heavily influenced by other parties including the city of Dallas, but it wasn’t suing Dallas.
The state gives thumbs up or thumbs down decisions on Dallas subsidized housing projects funded with federal tax credits, but it can only approve or disapprove the ones Dallas brings to it. Fitzwater noted that Dallas never took any projects to Austin for approval that were in white areas.
“TDHCA asserted at oral argument, and ICP does not refute,” Fitzwater wrote, “that no developers have applied for credits for developments in predominately Caucasian areas in the City of Dallas since 1995.
“Accordingly, TDHCA has neither granted nor denied any such application, and it is not TDHCA’s discretion that has caused the lower number of [tax credit] units in the City of Dallas.”
It’s the same point Governor Greg Abbott tried to argue eight years ago when the ICP suit was new and Abbott was Texas attorney general: “In addition to the IRS and federal regulations,” then Attorney General Abbott wrote, “the City of Dallas, through its City Council and planning and zoning board, has a tremendous impact on the location of developments.”
Abbott was asking why ICP was suing the state for locating all the subsidized housing in southern Dallas when it looked to him like that cake was getting baked at City Hall before the state ever got a taste. Now Fitzwater has returned to something like the same point in kicking ICP out of court and assessing costs and attorneys fees against them.
And, yeah. If your brand-new house falls down on you, you don’t sue the mortgage company. You sue the guy that built it.
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Strangely and almost miraculously, Dallas has always found ways to keep on keeping on, preserving its strange little island of ancient racial practice in a sea of change. But that island is eroding from within: Witness this daring new housing policy emerging from a cadre of young mainly white new leaders.
And the sea of change is beating harder on the shores from without. The thing about the Fitzwater ruling is that it doesn’t mean anything is over. The Lockey and MacKenzie litigation I have written so much about here, in which two developers are suing Dallas over segregation, is based on exactly the same contention at the heart of Abbott’s argument and Fitzwater’s ruling, that racial segregation here is not an accident. It’s tradition expressed as policy, and the policy comes straight out of City Hall.
Did I mention who the judge is in Lockey and MacKenzie? It’s Fitzwater. And he just granted them a big win on standing and jurisdiction issues.
So I wonder: Does anybody in North or South Dallas feel the hot breath of history on their backs? Or do they all assume the rest of us will just continue to sit here forever staring at each other with our eyes spinning around, uttering over and over again that cold howling mantra of the online universe: WTF?