The curfew seems to be enforced with a lot more gusto across the bridge to West Dallas. (Photo: Scot Miller)

Urbanism

Who Is to Blame for the West Dallas Humanitarian Crisis?

What makes the West Dallas crisis so deplorable is that it is a such a case study in the way that government fails its citizens.

I’ve scribbled a few thousand unpublishable words in some Word document buried in my computer all in an effort to wrap my head around the situation that has been unfolding in West Dallas over the past month or so. In short, a squabble between Mayor Mike Rawlings and a low-rent landlord has resulted in the threat of imminent eviction of very poor families and individuals from 300 sub-standard housing units in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood at the foot of the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge.

Wondering how a well-intentioned mayor-led effort to protect his most vulnerable constituents from being taken advantage of by slumlords could result in their mass eviction — the city’s former homeless czar potentially boosting the city’s homeless population in one fell swoop — has led me down more than a few rabbit holes, reading up on Dallas history, urban neighborhood revitalization efforts around the country, and arcane economic theories.

If I take a detached, coldly observational perspective on the West Dallas situation, it begins to look like a fascinating case study in the way urban economies work. The West Dallas evictions pit a city’s success against a city’s neglect, tangling the after-effects of public incentives for economic growth and municipal code intended to protect the dignity of individual citizens. The result is a kind of short-circuiting of political, social, and economic forces.

If I take a less-detached perspective and look at the situation for what it is, I become outraged and wonder why, in all the righteous-y ink that the Dallas Morning News and the Dallas Observer have spilled on the issue, no one has yet called it for what it is: the worst humanitarian crisis in Dallas since the influx of child refuges from Latin America in 2014.

A lot of the reporting has been frustrating. What has muddled the DMN’s reporting and editorializing has been an altruistic bent that wields a finger-wagging, church-y indignation against big bad evil landlords; the Dallas Observer’s reporting has been muddled by skirting too lightly along the lines of conspiratorial insinuation.

The problem is that it is all so much more complicated than that. Hundreds of individuals and families now face imminent eviction. It is not enough to blame the sleazy landlords who take advantage of poor people or the backroom political players who coddle rich developers. Both of these factors are at play in West Dallas, but only because the complicated tangle of fundamental economic forces that drive cities’ growth have been unleashed there in a rather naïve fashion.

That’s essentially what Jim Schutze finally spells out clearly today in his best column on the issue to date. It comes in response to a letter he received from Mayor Mike Rawlings’ spokesperson, Scott Goldstein, which took Schutze to task for some of those conspiratorial insinuations. I’m glad Goldstein chirped up, because it prompted Schutze to double down on his argument and lay it all out in plain English.

The piece is is well worth a full read, but I’ll do my best to briefly summarize his argument:

You can’t dump millions of city money into stirring rapid economic development into West Dallas, a city neighborhood that was the most blighted and neglected in Dallas history, without a plan for what will happen to those people who are displaced by that investment. And if your only plan to deal with the poor people in those neighborhoods is a well-intentioned but fundamentally short-sighted attempt to raise the standard of housing in that neighborhood by cracking down hard on landlords via code enforcement – thus disrupting the business model which, however deplorable, is actually providing housing for those poor people – then you are going to have a problem on your hands.

Yes, development can be good and growing the urban core into West Dallas is not intrinsically a bad thing. Yes, the low-rent housing business model is ugly and it often preys on the people who have no options other than renting sub-standard housing. But you can’t turn on the city faucet to create the development without turning on another faucet to create options for people who are inevitably going to displaced. Displacement is one of the oldest stories in urban history, and if you act surprised that it is happening in West Dallas, then you only look disingenuous. And you look doubly disingenuous if all this is happening in a city that has systematically failed to create sufficient affordable housing, while its entire affordable housing program is the subject of lawsuits and federal inquiries into gross neglect and an appalling lack of fiscal accountability.

What makes the West Dallas crisis so deplorable is that it is a such a case study in the way that government fails its citizens. Much of the public conversation around the issue has been a battling back-and-forth about intentions and motivations – how do you defend a slumlord? Why wouldn’t you want to uphold better housing standards for our poorest neighborhoods? Is this all just a cynical land grab?

But the problem here is that motives and actions are working in counterpoint to each other, canceling each other out. The mayor may have wanted the best in the world for the poor people of West Dallas, but when you act on those motivations in a way that only exacerbates the problems for those poor people, it really doesn’t matter what you intended to do. Your actions are the only true expression of your motives.

Here’s Schutze at his most indignant best:

Am I saying the mayor and the city council members did all this stuff because they knew it would wind up getting 300 families tossed out of their homes? No, I didn’t say that. Did I? Not yet.

I’m saying they didn’t think about it back when they should have thought about it. Back when they could have done something about it. If you truly have poor people in your heart, and if you can find a way to subsidize rich people at $40,000 a unit, you damned well can find some way to help poor working-class renters stay in their homes. And you damned well won’t lift a finger or set off any dynamite until you are rock-solid sure you won’t cost any poor people their homes by doing it.

But they didn’t start off thinking about keeping poor people in their homes, because they didn’t want to keep poor people in their homes. They wanted to take the poor people’s homes and even their neighborhood away from them and give it all to rich people.

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Comments

  • Betty Culbreath

    Its true and the saddest part of this situation is the Council member elected to serve the people in that District took active part in plan. All over Dallas there are projects that sit on land formally owned by Black people taken by eminent domain for some government use and ended up in hands of developers from Love Field to Uptown, Deep Elm, Ross avenue just to name a few.

  • Poetaster Dallas

    I was raised you are what you do, not what you say you’ll do.

    SONG OF THE TITLE LOAN KING

    Mike Rawlings is obviously dim
    It’s OVER when disclosed by Jim
    Trying to spin
    This loss to a win
    In a dirty, dark pond he must swim.

    It’s quite hard to argue with a tape
    That proves you’re kind of an ape
    In a shakedown
    (Sounding more clown)
    Mike just wants to change the landscape!

    “The recording makes me feel sleazy”,
    Well sir, if you didn’t make it easy!
    Title Loan King
    Don’t try to sing
    A new tune of caring, that’s just cheesy.

    All the houses you’ve built for the poor
    Wait – you haven’t by a thousand or more?
    Now that is caring
    And quite daring
    With a HUD that had been willing to ignore.

    But politics, they be a changing
    And Mike might be busily arranging
    A quid pro quo
    Seeds he’ll sow
    Fiscal backers for a future, exchanging.

  • elJuez

    Let’s rise above this bullshit. Dallas has been committing crimes against humanity long before Mike’s Grow South Project.

  • OldLakeHighlander

    All neighborhoods change, and I will submit that the vast majority of cheap post-war housing in South Dallas is ready for the scrap pile. These were never designed to be houses to last a life time and they are reaching their end of life. The other issue is that our Council finally stood up and put rental standards in place for the first time. Through that action they created a seismic shift in the real estate market. So now, what to do?

    Unfortunately, Dallas has one and only one real industry, and that is the constant churning of real estate with big incentives by our government in the form of taxpayer dollars. This will be another long, slow screwing of the taxpayer until we can get eight council members that do not make lining their pockets a priority over the interests of their citizens.

  • Kent Wardell

    Why would anyone be surprised about the West Dallas Humanitarian Crisis? Decades of racism, bigotry and political posturing in Dallas and other cities throughout Texas has created a nightmare legacy for those that need basic help and support. Substandard housing and services are not unique to Dallas and can be found all over the surrounding rural counties. How many years have we listen to those who have represented our communities with the promise that they would be the Change Masters. Why would we assume that our elected officials would have the knowledge, capability and foresight in understanding and solving this crisis. I am sure the mayor and city council are not holding “Meet and Greet” at 10 pm in this area in order to understand the residents situation. If the Dallas politicians, builders/developers, elite society are unwilling to spend weeks living as homeless on the streets, occupying substandard housing, being chased by feral dogs and suffering the indignities of crime and poverty, does not this situation lead to rampant hypocrisy?

  • mrEmannE

    “But you can’t turn on the city faucet to create the development without turning on another faucet to create options for people who are inevitably going to [be] displaced.”

    Bullshit. Who says you can’t? Of course you can. It happens every day in cities all over the world. The one thing I’ve grown really tired of in this story is the continuous nonsense spun out by reporters about what an unintentional failure this whole fiasco is on the part of everyone involved.
    Again I say, Bullshit! What is happening now is exactly what all parties intended to happen. Blocks busted. Old dirt covered up with new. Property values raised beyond what below-average renters, aka “poor people”, can afford. Poor people told to go someplace else. And NONE OF THIS is a failure on the part of the government OR of private enterprise. This is exactly how it works!
    Where government DOES fail is in the process of allowing this kind of poverty to exist in the first place! But there again, that’s not really government’s failure. That’s government’s intention. You wanna call that cynical? Naaa, man. That’s just paying attention. School’s out dude. There are no “good” intentions!

  • Mavdog

    “the worst humanitarian crisis in Dallas since the influx of child refuges from Latin America in 2014.”

    What a load of hyperbole. This is not a “humanitarian crisis”, there isn’t any threat to the health of those affected, they haven’t lost their ability to work or their possessions. If they were renters in the HMK houses they will need to move. A hassle for sure, certainly a disruption to their day to day lives that did not need to happen, but a “humanitarian crisis”? not by any stretch.

    It is a fiasco nonetheless. The power of the government has been used to the detriment of those who have no means of stopping it. Those who have access to the people in charge of the City’s machinery have used that ability to apply pressure on the landlord, and the renters are the collateral damage in this opera. There is nothing wrong with the City incentivizing an investor to improve property, but the City carrying water for investors in their pursuit of a targeted investment is deplorable. The City should be aiding these renters and should be finding ways to assist the landlord in making this affordable housing more livable.

  • DubiousBrother

    How many illegal immigrants are in Dallas today? As the Feds have allowed free flow across the border they have allowed this type of “crisis” to happen. The illegals need housing, jobs, schools, medical care …. but the ones effected the most are those at the lower end of the financial scale. Developers see opportunity in West Dallas so those that can afford it can live closer to downtown.
    The Black community pays the heaviest price as they are forced out of their neighborhoods in the name of gentrification and they do not benefit from the job creation. Look at the construction sites today and see how many Black workers there are. Young Black men have been frozen out of the entry level jobs that used to provide experience and a pay check.
    Local government may have dirty hands in this situation but Federal policy has played an important part in creating the mess.

  • D Hairston

    Real Estate developers leverage very cheap money….almost 0% interest for banks. In addition all the foreign money available along with a green card for every $500,000 of investment. Oh yes I forgot to mention the tax abatements the developers get the city to pay out to subsidize their deals. Shame on our Mayor and City Council. And RIP Neil Eddens. The man who championed for the middle class in Dallas.

  • The_Overdog

    I don’t agree that this is a case of government ‘failing its citizens’ – nearly every city in the US is more than accommodating to lousy landlords, and if ‘government’ had wanted to kick these people out, they could have a long time ago. In fact, look at this place in Plano, where the wreck got to an estimated at 3X the current market value to repair before the city dropped the hammer:
    https://www.plano.gov/AgendaCenter/ViewFile/Agenda/10182016-1859

    If landlords can’t afford to meet basic standards, then either the
    standards should be lowered (like they are in Juarez Mexico or Rio de
    Janero slums for example) or we should accept that sometimes people get
    forced out of rentals that don’t meet code. Can’t really have it both ways.

  • Larry Brautigam

    He Schutze.
    He scores.
    Slam dunk.

  • Ruth Ann Cook

    When we focus on building a beautiful city of opportunity for big business and the people who work in it; we veer into building a city for the wealthy. City leaders have to have a plan about how to deal with those who don’t “fit in” with the plans. Do the poor have no right to the home that they struggle to pay for, though the home is, by most people’s standards, inexpensive and deteriorating? We have an ethics lesson here.