If old South Dallas can bloom, if the open wounds of racism and red-lining up and down Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard can be closed and healed, then the entire body of the city will breathe heartier and happier. And maybe, just maybe, that’s what we are beginning to see.
But, man. Talk about doubt and misgiving. If this is a gift horse coming at us, people won’t just want to look it in the mouth. We may have to do a colonoscopy.
Last week Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson graciously did not throw me out of a roundtable discussion she hosted in Dallas dealing with the new federal “opportunity zones,” one of which has been designated in South Dallas, a neighborhood that extends at a radius of about a mile around Fair Park.
In some ways it was as if a flying saucer were sitting in the middle of the big meeting room where 50 or so people were gathered at a ring of tables. Everybody was on edge, waiting to see what would come out.
You never know. It could be Martians with big bags of money.
I wasn’t apprehensive myself so much as confused. The meeting was called by Johnson, a Democrat who has represented the 30th District in southern Dallas and Dallas County since 1992. Some people at her meeting were arms-length observers, like the executive director and deputy director of the Coalition for a New Dallas. But most of the people attending represented the local subsidized housing industry — nonprofits and community organizations long involved in government-supported housing and economic development.
The presenter was a guy from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, who was quick to say that opportunity zones are not a HUD program. Opportunity zones are the creation of a Trump/Republican tax law and administered by the Treasury Department. HUD is just the liaison with the community, he said.
I had spoken by phone the day before with Johnson, who told me she was trying to find out for herself what the zones are supposed to be: “We have had some pretty intense discussions among the Congressional Black Caucus on this whole plan,” she said, “because we are concerned about what it is all about.”
ade a very salient point. The opportunity zone program seems to contradict everything the federal government has been telling local communities about poverty for the last several years.
Beginning toward the end of the Obama era and extending to … well, now, I thought … the nation has been operating under a principle by which federal public housing money is not supposed to go back into already racially segregated, impoverished zones. Part executive fiat, part Supreme Court ruling, the new rule inspired a long, fairly agonizing process here in which the Dallas City Council adopted a whole new housing policy.
Part of what has everybody staring at the flying saucer now is a confusion over terms. The old new rule said money should go into something called “high opportunity areas,” meaning places that are less segregated and less poor. But the new new rule under the Trump program requires that new zones also called opportunity zones be created in areas with relatively high poverty rates.
“Previously,” Johnson told me, “I had a meeting with multiple nonprofits, the city manager and HUD. In that discussion, they talked about not being able to make any further investment in low-income areas.
“When I looked at the map of these opportunity zones, I said, ‘Wait a minute. This is almost the opposite of what HUD had talked about in that meeting.'”
The Obama-era rule has been very unpopular among most of the subsidized housing types who attended Johnson’s meeting, because they operate in southern Dallas, and the Obama rule intends to send government money north. The Trump-era rule seems to send money the other direction, but it’s not government money. It’s private investment money, which may be outside the reach of the subsidized housing industry. But nobody knows for sure yet how it works, so everybody’s staring at the flying saucer.
The Obama-era rule was based on a principle that has a ton of social research and confirming data behind it. The idea is that it’s a bad idea to pump money and effort into urban areas beset by high poverty, segregation, crime and drugs. You’re causing kids to grow up in a toxic environment.
There were always some glitches with that approach. For one, in order to remove people from areas beset by drug abuse, exactly where were we going to put them? Iraq? And then racism. Oh, right, we’re going to get people away from racism by putting them out in those neighborhoods where the Trump supporters live. That seems like a less than fully thought-out plan.
At the heart of it, though, was the notion of a locus, a place like a spot in the human body where disease has taken hold. So, to stick with the biological metaphor, we were supposed to cure the diseased organ by ... uh, putting it somewhere else in the body? No, I think this is just a bad metaphor.
But here’s the deal. For the last couple of weeks, I have been reporting on a dramatic phenomenon that seems to have nothing at all to do with government policy or government money: Beginning a couple of years ago, residential property values in South Dallas have been doubling in periods as short as one year — doubling in one year, quadrupling in two, in some cases. And the phenomenon is general, not confined to specific properties or even blocks.
The theories explaining it are so all over the map that it’s safe to say nobody knows exactly what’s going on. The closest I can come to a synthesis of what I’m hearing is this: Tough, determined Mexican immigrant families are moving in, reinforcing tough determined black families who have been there sticking it out all these years. Together they are pushing out the very poorest of the poor, many of whom were squatters.
Who knows where the squatters are going? And we should remember that not all of the squatters are crack-heads and hookers. Some of them are nice people, achingly poor and down on their luck, living a terrible life.
But the property values are going up, I am told, because South Dallas is slowly becoming a place where non-rich working families can live modestly and safely. As that trend continues, then South Dallas, like every other poor neighborhood where this same social process has taken place, will begin to attract a younger, more ethnically diverse, better educated crowd, and then watch those values go through the roof.
Call it gentrification, but where that process took place in East Dallas two and three decades ago, those soaring property values became a source of serious wealth creation for the working-class families who had owned the houses over time. Before anybody puts a stop to that, they had better check first with the current owners.
One thing caught my eye during the HUD guy’s presentation at the Johnson meeting. It was sort of a little footnote at the bottom of a PowerPoint slide. The new Trump opportunity zones, the slide said, are more accessible for developers and investors than LIHTC, the existing low-income housing tax credit program, pronounced lie-tek by most people.
I thought, “Oh, LIHTC, you mean the one that keeps getting City Council members and developers and lawyers indicted and sent to the pen?” I can’t even count how many people from here have gone to the big house over that one.
Designed to encourage investment in subsidized housing, LIHTC has this little seed of evil embedded in it, born of racism. The suburbs didn’t want any LIHTC housing, so they got the law changed to require the permission of local elected officials to locate LIHTC projects in their districts. Of course they always said no. But some elected officials in southern Dallas started selling their yes vote for bribes.
The new opportunity zones operate almost beyond the reach of local officials. Investors get a major break on capital gains tax if they put money into either real estate or businesses within an opportunity zone. And it’s totally between them and the Treasury Department. They don’t have to report their investments to local government, and neither does Treasury. In that sense, the program operates outside the local radar.
Nevertheless, there is a limited amount of steering that local government can do. At the end of last week, Mayor Eric Johnson announced he had landed a major grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to pay for staff to monitor and guide opportunity zone activity in the city.
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Congresswoman Johnson said at her meeting last week she thinks one of the best ways to provide low-income housing is to protect what’s already on the ground. She’s looking for a way the opportunity zones can help people hold on to 100-year-old houses and not lose them to taxes or infrastructure costs.
That’s all well and good. But putting the whole thing somewhat beyond the reach of the usual suspects could also be a good thing. You know who might step out of that imaginary flying saucer I was talking about? Maybe not Martians. It might be a bunch of people from South Dallas.
They might step out and tell everybody at that big meeting: “Thanks for your help, but basically we got this.” Instead of a solution born at City Hall or in Washington, this healing of the wounds could be organic, beyond the ken of government, let alone its reach. And then government could come to South Dallas in modesty, hat in hand, to ask how it might help.
Wouldn’t that be something? And if it’s something Trump did right by accident, well, fine. I’ll just shoot myself.