Will Presidential Reporters Come Here to Check Julian Castro's Record at HUD?

Last week HUD Secretary and former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro was on MSNBC Live disarmingly fending off flattering suggestions by host Melissa Harris-Perry that he may be tapped as Hillary Clinton’s 2016 running mate: “I learned in life,” Castro said, “that if you want to have a great future you have to do a great job with what’s in front of you, so I’m trying not to forget what’s in front of me and do a fantastic job at HUD.”

And what could be sweeter than that? But, wait. What if he does become Clinton’s running mate? That could be great, maybe briefly, for the Dallas hotel business.

Why Dallas? At least for a week after his name is announced, hotel rooms here could be heavily booked by national reporters looking into the Lockey and MacKenzie HUD complaint and what happened to it the day Castro took office at HUD in May 2014. And, no, you wait a second, I’m not the only nutcase on earth who thinks this is an issue. I told you a couple weeks ago about the new HBO miniseries, Show Me a Hero, about a HUD housing desegregation crisis in Yonkers, New York, in the 1980s. It’s co-written by David Simon, the guy who created The Wire, called by President Obama the best TV show about America ever. Ever.

On the web last week, being interviewed by Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman about Hero, Simon compared the Lockey and MacKenzie case here to the one 30 years ago in Yonkers in Hero. He said what’s happening now in Dallas is evidence of a rubbery approach to desegregation by HUD and the Obama administration.

“The same dynamic is going on in Dallas, and HUD doesn’t have the stomach to fight it through,” he said. “They’re basically pulling up stakes and giving up on the case.”

Goodman said to him, “You’re not seeing the backbone of the Obama administration in Dallas?”

“Well, not in Dallas,” Simon said. He listed several things he thinks HUD is doing right in the fair housing fight, but then he said, “In Dallas you’ve seen a lack of backbone.”

Lockey and MacKenzie are real estate developers who say they lost tens of millions of dollars when the city of Dallas pulled the plug on a tower redevelopment deal they were doing downtown a decade ago. They say City Hall got mad at them for including affordable housing units. Since the project was largely financed with federal housing money, Lockey and MacKenzie say they were obeying the law by including the rent-controlled units and Dallas was breaking the law by punishing them.

In 2013, after a four-year investigation, HUD found that Lockey and MacKenzie were telling the truth and Dallas was not. HUD found that Dallas had systematically defrauded the federal government over a 10-year period by using money intended for desegregation to fund instead a system of deliberate racial segregation downtown.

Then six months after Castro took office, HUD basically tossed its investigation into the toilet, suggesting that its own investigators hadn’t known what they were doing. Dallas got away with a slap on the wrist and peck on the cheek. That’s what Simon was trying to call attention to in saying that the battle depicted in his miniseries is a fight that has never ended. Three decades after Yonkers the entire civil rights movement is still jammed up against the wall of fair housing, and Dallas is the best place to see that wall.

In his own remarks on MSNBC, Castro acknowledged the importance of getting the fair housing ball unstuck and moving it down the field:

“This idea that we ought to get folks into, at their choice, areas of higher opportunity makes a lot of sense,” he said. “Just a couple months ago there was very powerful research from a group out of Harvard led by Raj Chetti [showing that] when you get families into higher opportunity areas, it has great outcomes in terms of education and achievement in terms of income.”

But Castro back-filled with an endorsement of the competing view — that HUD money should be spent building a better ghetto: “At the same time, you can’t forget about the distressed areas and investing in the older urban core neighborhoods.”

He called for “the right mix,” which is always a safe bet, I guess, as opposed to the wrong mix: “I believe generally [in] getting this mix right of using housing choice vouchers plus reinvesting in the older traditional public housing. Getting that balance right is sometimes challenging, but it make sense.”

Yeah, yeah, but “the right mix” is not the piece that presidential campaign reporters might look for in the fall. The question here was not some mushy gray stuff about areas of opportunity versus community reinvestment. This was clear-cut: HUD’s investigators had Dallas by the throat and were just about to pour down a cup of some very strong medicine — penalties that would have set the tone nationally for federal fair housing policy. At the last minute, somebody knocked that cup out of their hands, and it was the first important decision of its kind after Castro took over.

The Dallas case, by the way, is still in court, and HUD is still AWOL from the fight. Lockey and MacKenzie both have new litigation underway.

Three weeks ago after the Dallas City Council and Plan Commission shot down a mixed-income housing proposal near chic new Klyde Warren Park downtown, a team of city attorneys met in closed “executive” session with both bodies and warned them not to propose and then vote down proposals that even sound like fair housing. “We are being watched,” the lawyers said repeatedly, following what sounded to some like a prepared script.

After HUD deep-sixed its investigation, Dallas signed a non-binding, face-saving agreement for HUD, promising to try to be nice and do what’s right on fair housing even though Dallas doesn’t have to do jack if it doesn’t feel like it. The lawyers were telling the council and commission that proposing a mild fair-housing measure — of a type already in use in major cities all over the country —  and then voting it down is like kicking Jack’s ass all the way around Klyde Warren Park.

It’s not just that HUD let Dallas off the hook. It’s that Dallas continues to flout the law and taunt HUD about it, which the lawyers suggested was, if nothing worse, bad karma.

Simon talked about why these things are important: “[Fair housing] remains for the 21st century the most fundamental question. If we don’t get this right, it’s problematic that we’re going to get the city right. If we don’t get the city right, I don’t see how this society becomes anything but second-rate, because we are an urban people.”

Right now the microcosm of all that is here.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze