Raquel Favela left City Hall late last year, shortly after the City Council approved the first housing policy in Dallas’ history. She was the chief of economic development and housing, and the policy was created to set standards for how and where we should seek to improve the city’s housing stock. The boilerplate problem is that we must shore up a deficit of 20,000 units that would be affordable to the city’s lower and middle economic classes. When Favela came to City Hall in 2017, she says she found that housing dollars had largely sailed unchecked into southern Dallas, further concentrating poverty in a part of the city that lacked basic services like grocery stores and jobs and adequate transportation.
She advocated for a Market Value Analysis to help the city use data to understand which neighborhoods needed housing and which ones needed infrastructure improvements. A lot of this was a call for standardization, to put a policy in place that moved us beyond simply saying yes to anyone who had a project that qualified for public assistance and asked the right way.
Last week, the Department of Justice revealed that former southern Dallas Councilwoman Carolyn Davis had pleaded guilty to accepting $40,000 in bribes in order to advocate for a low-income housing project in her district. (The bribes allegedly occurred well before the approval of the housing policy.) Yesterday, mayoral candidate and state Rep. Eric Johnson held a press conference to announce a bill that would no longer allow elected representatives to have a formal say in which projects got federal or state dollars.
I couldn’t help but think about Favela’s thoughts about all this, so I asked her. And since she no longer works for the city, she can be open. Here’s what she wrote.
First, having a comprehensive housing policy like you do now goes a long way. It sets out the program rules, the policy priorities and the process for which the projects will be solicited and evaluated. That had never existed in Dallas. But there are still persistent issues facing City Hall. In other cities where this activity is closely monitored, elected officials are not allowed to meet with developers who are asking the city for financial or zoning support without a city executive present. The only reason a developer should meet with an elected official is to present a development concept early on in the process.
It’s reasonable to ask a council member or the mayor if they agree that the concept meets the policy goals as they understand them. It’s also reasonable for the council member to assist in identifying key neighborhood groups and leaders that should get vested in the project if it is consistent with adopted policies and goals. There is absolutely no reason why a developer should be informing a council member how his negotiations with staff are going. City staff should be allowed to do their jobs, which is to negotiate with developers until a deal is reached, then present the City Council with the proposal for judgment. The council member should not be involved in those negotiations, and should not be allowed to discuss such things with the developers prior to the council committee being briefed. Without these rules, it creates all kinds of opportunities for the kind of shakedown that occurs in Dallas.
There must be an ethics reform and it must have real consequences. Otherwise this will continue.