A deceptively quiet-looking Dallas City Hall. Photo by Kelsey Shoemaker.

Policy

Fight Against Dallas’ New Housing Policy Reveals Scars of Disinvestment

Dallas' longstanding policy of concentrating affordable housing in South Dallas without providing adequate services may be changing. Or it may not.

As is often the case at Dallas City Hall, there were two narratives this morning during a specially called meeting of the Dallas City Council’s Economic Development Committee. One played out on the surface; the other simmered just beneath it.

On its face, the meeting was held to receive feedback from stakeholders on a new comprehensive housing policy that city staff wants to take before the Council. The policy, the first of its kind in Dallas’ history, would dramatically reshape the city’s approach to development, affordable housing, and how economic incentives are divvied out. The speakers at the meeting included representatives of Opportunity Dallas, the Apartment Association of Greater Dallas, the North Texas Community Development Association, Habitat for Humanity, Legal Aid, and other organizations. They offered ways in which the draft housing policy worked well, could be improved, or fell short. City staff want to gather all public comment by April 13, brief the Council by May 2, and record a vote by May 9.

I’m going to stay out of the weeds on all those groups’ input because that wasn’t the most significant thing that happened at City Hall this morning. All that stuff was on the surface. The big stuff all happened in that second narrative I mentioned, the one beneath the surface of the comments and impassioned speeches about the new housing policy and how it could impact the way the city encourages development and where. 

To understand what was really going on, all you had to do was listen to the fervent appeal to amend the new housing policy that came from representatives of the North Texas Community Development Association (NTCDA). Listening to the NTCDA’s representatives, Sherman Robertson and former council member Diane Ragsdale, one got the impression that the draft housing policy represented a continuation and deepening of age-old discriminatory housing practices in Dallas.

“Conditions exist [in southern Dallas] because of public and private redlining,” Ragsdale said at one point, referring to the policy followed by governments, real estate companies, and banking institutions that contributed to large-scale segregation that persists in Dallas, as well as in many other U.S. cities. “People should have the right to choose where they desire to live. Most of the neighborhoods in South Dallas, people are already there, and they are not going to disperse. We need to invest money into those neighborhoods.”

In Ragsdale’s characterization, the new housing policy amounts to a kind of resettlement program, a way to steer public investment away from southern Dallas and force people who live there to move into affluent neighborhoods to the north. If you live in one of those southern Dallas neighborhoods, it sounded like Ragsdale was talking about that age-old policy of disenfranchisement.

The southern sector lags behind the rest of Dallas economically to a large extent because, for the last 60 years, the city has neglected to invest in services there. Simultaneously, the city steered the vast majority of public funding for low-income housing into the south. That concentrated poverty, institutionalized segregation, and underwrote the cycles of poverty that trap residents in southern Dallas and make upward mobility so difficult to achieve. Ragsdale’s insinuation that this new policy would represent more of the same was alarming indeed.

Only, that’s not true.

The new policy recognizes the failures of Dallas’ historic approach to housing. It also takes into account the Supreme Court mandate that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development no longer steer affordable housing into poor neighborhoods, which concentrates poverty. Instead, the new housing plan aims to create mixed-income neighborhoods that promote upward mobility.

It also looks to end the ways developers have wiggled out of their requirements to build affordable housing in the center of the city or in northern Dallas. The policy recognizes that the old way of doing things hasn’t worked, and while you can argue about the details, the intent of the policy is to accomplish the precise opposite of what Ragsdale says it will do.

So, then, what was Ragsdale talking about? To understand that, we have to dig a little more into that simmering narrative beneath the surface. It entails peculiar initialism — CHDO — or what insiders call “CHODOs.” If you want a bit more background on CHODOs, the Observer’s Jim Schutze wrote about them earlier this week, and his ongoing reporting on the HUD investigation into City Hall’s affordable housing bookkeeping mismanagement is required reading if you want to fully understand what Ragsdale, the housing policy, and this CHODO stuff is all about. I will try to summarize.

CHODO is short for “community housing development organization.” It is an entity created by federal law to steer public funding into subsidized housing developments. On paper, it sounds like a good thing. No one knows where money needs to be invested in a community like the people who live in that community. CHODOs are designed as a kind of go-between that connects federal housing dollars and community improvements.

So far so good. But there’s a catch. The problem is that an auditor’s report discovered that, for the past decade or two, billions of federal dollars have poured into Dallas, and no one at City Hall kept track of where the money went. If you want to find out where the money disappeared to, you might start by asking the organizations tasked with connecting the federal dollars with the community — the CHODOs.

In theory, that should have been happening already. The City Council typically must approve public incentives that get handed out to private entities. Except that way back in 2001, the City Council passed a resolution that basically said, “We don’t want to know where those dollars go.” That resolution, which you can read here, does two things: 1) it states that the city of Dallas’ housing policy should focus on the creation of single-family houses and 2) that any developer who is building fewer than 100 new housing units does not need Council approval to receive funding.

In other words, it puts the CHODOs in charge of determining where all the HUD money goes.

So where did all the HUD money go? Did it go toward creating affordable housing units? At today’s committee briefing, Councilman Lee Kleinman tried to ask that exact question of Ragsdale, whose organization represents the CHODOs. Then, in a bizarre and virtuosic bit of rhetorical thrashing-about, committee chair Tennell Atkins managed to derail Kleinman’s line of questioning while agreeing in principle that the question should be asked — just not at this particular meeting.

Kleinman did manage to get this much out of Ragsdale: her group has helped to build about 250 new affordable housing units, well short of the 20,000 the housing policy says Dallas needs to meet demand in the coming years. Regardless of where past money disappeared to, the CHODOs hardly appear up to the task of providing that many houses; a shift in policy would seem in order.

But there are deeper, more troubling insinuations here. Right now, there is an investigator at Dallas City Hall attempting to determine where decades of public funding for affordable housing disappeared to. During that time, it was city policy to direct funding to the CHODOs to develop single family homes. It was a system that lacked basic accountability, and it raises a handful of simple questions.

Were the CHODOs used to funnel dollars to southern sector politicians and power brokers (in a fashion similar to the Fair Park Trust Fund) to shore up political support on the City Council? Did former city managers know all too well where the HUD funds were going? Were the funds part of the way managers got the Council to reliably “count to eight,” i.e. insuring a southern Dallas voting bloc to approve whatever project or agenda needed pushing forward in the moment?

The answers to these questions explain why the old guard was at City Hall today, pushing hard to keep steering money toward the southern sector the same way it’s always been done. The questions were the elephants in the room, central to the narrative that was simmering beneath the surface of this morning’s Economic Development and Housing Committee meeting — the one that relates to the missing HUD money and whoever profited from its disappearance. But this morning’s meeting, Councilman Atkins made clear, was not about “debate” or getting to the bottom of the situation, but about listening to feedback. And it was in listening to that feedback that revealed the disheartening reality of housing in Dallas.

What was clear from the meeting is that everyone agrees Dallas has failed a huge section of its population. It was all too clear that the historical disinvestment in southern Dallas has created deep scars in the community, making the pushback against the new housing policy particularly upsetting.

These scars not only perpetuate cycles of poverty and disinvestment, but they have also built up layers of suspicion. The fog that fell over the intentions of the draft housing policy was a familiar — and understandable — sense of distrust.

The good news is that the policy itself is not reflective of the old way of thinking, neither the attitude that seeks to concentrate affordable housing in the southern sector, nor the attitude that sought to create ways to steer unaccounted-for public funding to southern sector power brokers. Rather, the new policy recognizes that the old ways don’t work, and new approaches to lifting all of Dallas’ neighborhoods out of poverty need to be identified.

North Oak Cliff Councilman Scott Griggs summed up this shift in policy into three fundamental changes: 1) the city will stop investing public funds in providing “sub-market products” in poorer neighborhoods; 2) “The bank of Dallas is closed,” meaning the city will no longer dole out incentive money to prop up bad development investments; and 3) city housing policy will focus on creating more housing options for individuals living between 30 percent and 120 percent of the median income. This way, Griggs argues, the city is more likely to create neighborhoods that are accessible to residents with diverse levels of income.

To me, that sounds like a good shift in policy. But, then, if I were profiting from the old ways of doing business, it might sound like a nasty conspiracy.

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