Just before summer, the Dallas City Plan Commission discussed a new affordable housing policy. The idea was relatively simple. When a developer comes to the city and asks it to change the zoning on a piece of property, he or she is essentially asking the city to make the land more valuable. In exchange for that value, the city would ask a developer to ensure that the property will include units accessible for people with a variety of incomes.
The assumption is that it is a good thing to have neighborhoods and buildings with mixed incomes, but the proposal was, understandably, very unpopular with real estate community. The plan commission voted overwhelmingly against it.
Why would it be in the city’s best interest to want more mixed-income neighborhoods?
Some insight is offered by this new article in The Atlantic. The piece opens by noting that the fight that broke out at a McKinney pool last month was allegedly sparked by a comment that was understood as implicitly racist: “go back to your Section 8 homes.” In other words, Section 8, which refers to a federal-sponsored program created in 1974 as a way to expand affordable housing opportunities, is now regarded as a racial slur. That speaks volumes about the way that issues of poverty and race are tied together in America.
The Atlantic story walks through the ways in which Section 8 housing, which was originally designed to offer poor renters a means to get out of impoverished ghettos or the public housing projects, has turned into a tool that perpetuates income and racial segregation. The policy ends up pushing low-income people into sub-standard housing or to locations that force costly commutes, limit access to services, and are served by underperforming schools.
Focusing mostly on Austin and Dallas, the article also shows how landlords abuse the system. The city of Austin attempted to curtail Section 8 abuses by passing an ordinance that prohibited landlords from refusing to rent to people with Section 8 vouchers. The Texas legislature, however, overrode their authority this past session by banning municipalities from passing the so-called “Source of Income” ordinances.
Dallas, as you may remember, has also been something of a hot bed of controversy surrounding HUD policies. There is the ongoing scuffle over a downtown development which has resulted in multiple lawsuits accusing the city of deliberate segregation when it comes distributing affordable housing credits. Then there’s the Inclusive Communities Project, which sued HUD over the way it calculated Fair Market Rents in Dallas under Section 8. The same organization also sued Texas, accusing a state agency of allocating tax credits only to properties in minority populated areas. The United States Supreme Court will weigh in on that case this term.
There have been some attempts to reform Section 8, including a pilot program launched in Dallas that has shown some promise. But taken as a whole, the entire Atlantic article offers a pretty damning account of our failure to devise and implement policy that alleviates poverty and vanquishes implicit segregation in urban and suburban communities. If you want to better understand what the impact and legacy of all of this is, just look at where Dallas ranks when it comes to upwards mobility among American cities.
Identifying the problem, of course, is always the easy part. The difficulty is devising better solutions. Perhaps the strategy discussed at the city plan commission is one such policy. But before we can come up with the right solutions, it is important to really understand the depth of the problem. Charleston, Furguson, Baltimore, Staten Island: there are lots of alarm bells going off in America. But perhaps the most powerful justification for linking those alarms with a need to rethink housing policy comes out of that pool brawl in McKinney.