Let’s make sure we understand exactly what just happened at Wednesday's Dallas City Council meeting. City Council member Monica Alonzo, with a dozen of her poorest constituents standing at the rail begging her to help them stay in their meager homes, voted against housing for the poor.
Mayor Mike Rawlings, who has insisted his only interest is in helping poor people stay in their homes, voted against housing for the poor.
Two black council members, Casey Thomas II and Erik Wilson, voted against ending a form of housing discrimination, knowing that its particular impact is on poor black and Hispanic citizens.
Everybody lies about race. With elected officials, it’s important sometimes to totally ignore what they say and just watch how they vote instead. Wednesday was a day when the votes told a terrible tale.
We’ve been talking here for more than a week about 300 families in West Dallas afraid they will lose their homes because they are caught in a crossfire over city standards for rental property. In a recent 1,700-word letter to me taking me to task for my coverage of the mayor’s role in this fight, Scott Goldstein, the mayor’s spokesperson, quoted the mayor’s remarks in an audio recording that we published here Oct. 19.
In his letter, Goldstein said of the mayor, “… as he notes early in the conversation, two key tenets of his initiative are expanding homeownership and enhancing rental opportunities for people who currently live in this neighborhood.”
We need to get this right. The mayor’s vote Wednesday was a vote to kill rental housing opportunities for poor people living in any neighborhood in this city. His leadership Wednesday to kill housing opportunities for poor people was directly in line and in keeping with his entire history on this issue going back to his mission to Washington exactly two years ago when he talked HUD Secretary Julian Castro out of making Dallas provide more housing for its poor and minority citizens.
The mayor’s record on affordable housing and racial desegregation is unbroken, consistent and clear. He’s against it. Look at the votes, ignore the words.
Of course no one openly admits opposing fair housing — well, make that almost no one. At Wednesday’s meeting Council Member Rickey Callahan put an honest if ugly color on the proceedings by mouthing a series of hateful race-laden references to Detroit and criminality when talking about poor people and people of color in Dallas. But the others who voted to kill the anti-discrimination ordinance covered their traces in marble-mouthed rationalization.
Consider the roles of council members Thomas and Wilson. They’re black. But in order to stay right with their political patron, the mayor, they had to vote in favor of racial discrimination. How would you like to be those guys? No. On second thought, forget I even asked.
The specific issue was housing rent-support vouchers. In Dallas thousands of poor families who are granted federal rental assistance vouchers — Section 8 vouchers — every year are unable to use them except in the worst neighborhoods because landlords in better areas refuse to accept them, even when a tenant meets every other requirement and is able to pay the full rent with the help of the voucher.
Before Wednesday’s vote a number of speakers both from the public and on the council made it perfectly clear what this issue really is about. It’s about race. It’s about loathing for the poor. It’s about a city divided into hemispheres, one affluent, the other with the highest child poverty in the country.
The most comprehensive explanation of the issue came from Mike Koprowski, chief of transformation and innovation for the Dallas schools, who spoke from the public microphone. Koprowski said he was speaking for himself, not the school district.
Koprowski’s job, however, is to develop mixed-income schools. He spoke to the importance of helping more poor families with kids move out of the very worst neighborhoods of the city and to the particular hurdle presented by voucher discrimination.
“The problem is real,” Koprowski said. “Landlords in high opportunity areas consistently refuse voucher holders even when the voucher covers the asked rent. It’s a national problem.
“Voucher discrimination plays a role in keeping low income families in neighborhoods mired in concentrated poverty, which research clearly shows leads to compounded inequality and terrible economic mobility.
“The consequences are particularly insidious for children. By contrast, mountains of research show that diverse neighborhoods enable mobility and spur economic growth. Studies find dramatic improvement in life trajectories for voucher holders that are able to move to better neighborhoods, particularly for kids.
“At its most human level, this is about families on the lowest ends of the poverty spectrum, our most vulnerable citizens, many of whom are disabled, going to a landlord and inquiring: ‘I’d like to live here. It would be a better life for me and my kids. I can afford the asked rent with my voucher. You have units available. It’s a stable lawful source of income, and I meet all of the other qualifications of tenancy.’
“And the landlord merely says, ‘No.’ Imagine what that does to a person’s self worth. Imagine what it does to a family’s humanity.
“I believe that those who take a stand against discrimination end on the right side of history,” Koprowski told the council. “Nine out of 10 voucher holders are low-income people of color seeking opportunity like we all do. Voucher discrimination has a disproportionate impact, almost pretty much an exclusive impact on low-income people of color.
“While the practice may appear neutral to some,” he said, “regardless of intent it manifests as a form of discrimination as plain as day.”
Councilman Scott Griggs, chair of the council’s housing committee and architect of the anti-voucher-discrimination ordinance, framed it eloquently in terms of the city’s ongoing dual challenges of race and poverty:
“We have a huge amount of poverty in the city of Dallas,” Griggs said. “Today we can take a step toward making it better.
“This is not going to be a silver bullet. This is not going to end the work of the housing committee,” he said. “This is not going to end the work of the all City Council on housing, on poverty, on other issues. This is one part of a much longer plan, a much bigger plan we are all working on.
“But this is an important part of it. We have to more evenly distribute our resources. … We have to open up doors for people. That is what this is about. The housing voucher needs to be a key, and it needs to be a key for every apartment in the city of Dallas that can unlock the door for a family to live in any apartment.”
Council members Tiffinni Young and Carolyn King Arnold also spoke in favor of the proposed ordinance and voted for it. Young said, “As we look at the discrimination that is going on across the city of Dallas and as some have said across this country, and we talk about being a world-class city … how do we call ourselves a world-class city and we have the childhood poverty that exists in this city?”
There was pathos in the Wednesday council meeting because a number of tenants of HMK Ltd., the landlord at the center of a battle over rental housing standards in West Dallas, showed up at the meeting to plead for help. They are afraid that the city’s new tougher rental standards and a decision by their landlord to quit the business will put them out of their homes.
The mayor, as Goldstein underlined in his letter to me, wants them and everyone else to know that his heart goes out to the poor tenants. And maybe it does. But not his vote.
This mayor ignored direct advice from the city attorney last May and earned a few right-wing brownie points by voting against a sex show at the convention center. His line was basically that threats of litigation could be damned. So now we have litigation.
But Wednesday when it came to his first chance to do something real and constructive for affordable housing opportunities in the city, Rawlings cited a new flimsy state law almost universally conceded to be unconstitutional that bars cities from barring voucher discrimination. He also said he wasn’t sure ending discrimination would help that many people anyway.
Therefore, he said, “I’m going to have a tough time supporting this.” And didn’t.
As for Wilson and Thomas, the two black council members who voted in favor of continued racial discrimination, their betrayal of their own constituents probably wasn’t even the worst betrayal of the day. The truly unbelievable one was by Alonzo, who represents the district where the HMK residents live.
Alonzo has made a great show of her concern for the 300 families at the center of the HMK controversy. But, like Thomas and Wilson, she depends on the mayor for political largess and sides with him whenever possible.
Now, I could be mean about it and say that people in District 6 are fools anyway if they count on Monica Alonzo for more than a knife in the back, as witnessed most recently by her vote to kill a proposed charter school that enjoyed deep support from her constituents. Really there are only two ways to get Alonzo’s support: hire her favored consultant or get the mayor to tell her to do it.
But I can’t be mean about her constituents. I have seen them and heard them in their community. I know that they have no idea how things work at City Hall, no idea whom to trust or where to go for help. Half of them ask the cops.
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It pains me to say it, but it also would be wrong and maybe even immoral not to tell the HMK residents the truth about Alonzo. The truth was in her vote Wednesday. She doesn’t give a damn about those people. She cares about sucking up to the mayor and steering business to her consultants.
Who does care? Go to the votes. In alphabetical order, the council members who voted in favor of the ordinance to end voucher discrimination were Carolyn King Arnold, Mark Clayton, Scott Griggs, Philip Kingston, Adam Medrano and Tiffinni A. Young.
At the end of the meeting, the council voted and passed a much watered down version of the anti-discrimination ordinance. The council members who voted against even that watered down version, in alphabetical order, were Rickey Callahan, Jennifer Gates, Sandy Greyson, Lee Kleinman and Adam McGough. Out of alphabetical order but deserving of special mention all on his own as a vote against even the watered-down anti-discrimination ordinance was one Casey Thomas II.
Now that is obedience.