Large Marge has opened the gates of gentrification 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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