Sorry, Guys, But Mortgage Subsidies Aren't the Answer in Southern Dallas

Interesting blow-black -- so muted you might call it whisper-back -- to recent stories and an op-ed piece in The Dallas Morning News extolling so-called economic progress in Southern Dallas.

One instance is on the paper's op-ed page today, a column from respected Southern Dallas blogger-journalist Shawn Williams, who echoes Dallas South News's Michael Hubbard's complaint about people who get excited about "an excess of low-income housing and a couple of fast-food restaurants" in his part of town.

"Citizens are no longer in the mood to give extra credit for window dressing," Williams writes.

I'm getting similar sentiments from callers, some of them from inside City Hall. They point to recent News essays by editorial writer Tod Robberson and minister-activist Gerald Britt, both all ga-ga about recent development projects in Southern Dallas that amount to more public housing and subsidized low-income housing.

In his op-ed on July 8, Robberson cited new public housing projects in the long-beleaguered Frazier and Dolphin neighborhoods as evidence of a renaissance. He also seemed to assign some of the credit for this incredible rebirth to The News editorial page's "Bridging the Gap" series, which called for tidier house-keeping in the city's southern black and Hispanic hemisphere.

"Some truly astonishing changes are happening," he wrote, "and they deserve attention even while our project continues to confront big problems plaguing the southern half of Dallas."

The same day, Britt took the whip to the city manager's staff for trying to convert a re-development project on Bexar Street from traditional private home ownership to a lease-purchase deal, which Britt sneeringly called "rental."

"We met with city staff," he wrote, "and demanded that they uphold the original agreement -- $425,000 for mortgage subsidies to 'seed' home ownership in the neighborhood."

They got it. Straight out of the general fund. Your taxes are going straight into a mortgage-subsidy program targeted at one program. Did you know that?

Shawn Williams is very careful in saying what I think he's trying to say about all this. Some of my callers are more blunt, mainly because they know I won't name them. The point is that neither Robberson nor Britt gets it: Public housing is not change. It's more of the same sad story.

Mortgage subsidies have a terrible track record of producing not home ownership but default, defeat and despair. If you want to do some eye-opening reading on the subject -- very tough sledding for old hippie liberals like me -- look at Gretchen Morgenson's new book, Reckless Endangerment. Morgenseon, a New York Times business reporter, and her co-author, housing finance expert Joshua Rosner, mercilessly skin and dissect a long, slimy history of scummy bastards in Washington and on Wall Street who have used minority home-ownership initiatives to line their own pockets and toss minority families onto the ash-heap of financial ruin.

In his own essay today, Williams makes what I assume is a very delicate and veiled reference to the current FBI corruption probe of Southern Dallas leaders, our second in recent years, and to the ongoing effort by older black leaders to stir up some kind of back-to-the-Civil Rights-Movement support for the embattled leaders in the churches.

"Protest and prayer vigils," he writes, "must be balanced with tough love and honest assessments."

Yeah. The purpose of the Civil Rights Movement, as I recall, was to produce equality of opportunity, not hand-outs and dependency.

Williams makes a point I have made here several times -- that the region's minority community is replete with very successful and self-reliant young families. They did it on their own, don't need hand-outs, don't want hand-outs and don't want their kids around people who want hand-outs.

That's why so many of them are in the 'burbs. Southern Dallas, meanwhile, is still stuck with a lot of leadership that can't get out of the '60s and can't tell a hand-out from a job.

Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, principle target of the ongoing federal probe, has said on multiple occasions that black people associate physical labor with slavery and find it demeaning.

That's bullshit. He finds it demeaning. People who have found success don't. People who find success, black or otherwise, do it the old-fashioned way. They work for it. How do we know that? Because there is no another way. (Again, take a look at the Morgenson-Rosner book.)

I don't want to fault private philanthropists like Walt Humann, who has done yeoman work in the Jubilee neighborhood in old South Dallas, mainly because I have known Humann for years and trust his impulses and integrity. But government-backed mortgage subsidies in this country have been financial landmines to people who have been their targets.

I assume the city wanted to do the Bexar project as lease-purchase to make sure the recipients could keep up a monthly mortgage payment. Britt's idea seems to be that merely putting up new buildings is the way to improve the economic lot of people in a terribly distressed community.

But buildings aren't crap. They're empty shells. They prove nothing. The test on Bexar Street comes over the next five years, as we see how those mortgages perform. Every family that fails on a mortgage is a tragedy, and the tragedy belongs not just to the failed family, but also to the people who put them in a position to fail.

What's the best way for a bad neighborhood to improve? It's for the people who live in it to get ownership of their own bad houses and fix them up gradually and modestly over the years. At the end of that exhausting process, people know how to own a house. It's not something people are born knowing.

Shawn Williams gets it. He cites freshly minted African-American state Rep. Eric Johnson as another who gets it. They're out there. The problem is, most of them are way out there -- spread around from DeSoto to Frisco, as far away as they can get from Southern Dallas and its culture of dependency.

This FBI investigation is the second debilitating chapter in Southern Dallas in three years. When history repeats itself this fast, somebody should be able to read the lesson.

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