City Hall

The City Promised 6,600 New Affordable Homes. It Delivered 320.

Vacant lots outnumber homes in The Bottom, a southern Dallas neighborhood just minutes from downtown.
Vacant lots outnumber homes in The Bottom, a southern Dallas neighborhood just minutes from downtown. Lucas Manfield
In early 2018, the city released a plan to build thousands of new units of affordable housing.

When the plan was introduced, then-Mayor Mike Rawlings said, "This is a very important day to show that government works in America, and we can take complex issues and get 15 of us in a place where we think we can move forward."

"Take a victory lap," said Mark Clayton, a Dallas City Council member at the time.

Over the next fiscal year, the city produced 320 new units — less than 5% of its goal.

David Noguera, the city's housing director, said the city was rethinking that goal. He gave an interview to the Observer ahead of briefing a council subcommittee on his plans for the new year.

It was "just not practical," he said, and pointed out that fewer than 5,000 affordably priced homes were built last year in all of the Dallas-Fort Worth area. He said the goal was meant to reflect the level of need rather than "give the impression that we had the capability of producing that."

The goal emerged from the city's comprehensive housing plan released in 2018, which promised to address a 20,000 shortage of affordable housing units in the city within three years.

"These goals could be achieved if the City provided development and homebuyer subsidies over the next 3 years," the plan reads. It was presented by the city's chief of economic development and housing, Raquel Favela.

The city tracks its progress toward its housing goals on an online dashboard. In the 2017 fiscal year, the city produced 550 units. In 2018, it was 320.

"The reason that 320 number is so low is because of all of these stops. We’re just now getting back into production mode.” — David Noguera

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In the city's latest budget accountability report, also released Tuesday, the goal posts had shifted. The year-end goal for "total number of new housing units occupied" is now 230 units.

According to Noguera, the few units that have been built since the plan was released are a result of investments made before 2015. The city didn't make any new investments between 2016 and 2018, he said.

He blamed a failed audit. The city was required to repay more than $1 million in 2018 after a federal investigation found the city had signed deals with shady contractors to rebuild dilapidated housing for low-income homeowners. The city said it would revamp the program.

Then, in 2019, the city was asked to return $6 million after federal auditors found problems with the city's oversight of another affordable housing program. Again, the city failed to follow environmental requirements and failed to ensure that contractors built the homes in a timely manner.

It wasn't just the misuse of federal funds. The city froze its land bank program — which obtains and then resells vacant lots to developers — in 2017 after The Dallas Morning News found one of the developers was selling the cut-rate lots to family members. That program was paused for two years.

"The reason that 320 number is so low is because of all of these stops," Noguera said. "We’re just now getting back into production mode.”

Still, he said, it will take several years for new investments to bear fruit. He doesn't expect any new projects to be ready for move-in until 2021.

Fundamentally, said Noguera, the problem comes down to funding. “To really make a dent in that number, I need big money,” he said, and pointed to San Francisco, which just passed a $600 million housing bond. Dallas' last housing bond, for $75 million, was approved in 2017.

The City Council's housing subcommittee met Tuesday. There, Noguera and the manager of the city's Housing Policy Taskforce, Pam Thompson, introduced their plans for 2020. This time, they wanted to set realistic expectations. Thompson emphasized that the city's Office of Housing and Neighborhood Revitalization has a limited budget and only a few staff members working on implementing the plan.

Still, she presented a spreadsheet with more than a dozen initiatives they said could be launched in 2020, including streamlining the permitting process and altering requirements for new developments. They asked the council to help them prioritize the menu of options.

Council members were enthusiastic about what they called an "aggressive," "ambitious" plan.

"We asked and you listened,” Casey Thomas said.

Eventually, the committee chair, Chad West, pointed out a difficulty in comparing the various options: the spreadsheet didn't give any indication of the cost or number of new homes produced by each initiative.

"What did we start with? What was created? I've asked for that a couple of times," West said. It was the end of the presentation, and no one jumped in with an answer.

West said he would expect such numbers in the future.
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Lucas Manfield is an editorial fellow at the Observer. He's a former software developer and a recent graduate of Columbia Journalism School.
Contact: Lucas Manfield