In the aftermath of Iranscam, or Con-tragate, or whatever we’re calling the latest Washington scandal, many people have accused the press of falling in with the villains. If it hadn’t been for the media, the thinking goes, the secret would still be a secret. Gorbachev and the Ayatollah wouldn’t be enjoying a har-har at our expense, and our allies would not have had to suffer public humiliation at our indiscretions.
There is truth to the theory, although il reminds mc of the old riddle of whether a tree falling in the forest makes a sound even if no one is around to hear it. But insoluble riddles aside, the fact remains that if the media can be implicated in a conspiracy of openness, the reverse-remaining silent on an issue because it is difficult to package- can also be true. There arc some stories that are so slippery to grasp that they are largely ignored. The issue of our failure to provide adequate public housing for poor people often falls into that dark abyss.
Over the years, D has attempted periodically to shine a light on community concerns that should belong to all of us, but that arc. in fact, shared by few. Our effort to pie-sent the complexities of the public housing issue, which began some six months ago. ap-poars in this issue, beginning on page 84.
Our attack was two-pronged. First, we sent contributing editor Chris Thomas to City Hall to review tax records, look over court documents, interview housing inspectors, tour distressed properties, and talk to aggrieved renters in an effort to pinpoint our city’s most offensive local property owners. The abuses were horrifying: rotting plumbing, rats the size of your foot, sagging beams and porches, weeds that would hide the Pied Piper and the children of Hamelin. City housing inspectors are frustrated by budget cuts that weaken the city’s inspection process, and by callous property owners who let their housing units deteriorate to the point of endangering the health and safety of those unfortunate enough to live in them. Worse, the toothlessness of the citation process rarely does much to coax “recalcitrant property owners” into making repairs, even after they have repeatedly violated the city housing code.
Associate Editor Richard West, whose sensitive portrayals of Texas’s poor date back some fifteen years, tackled the larger questions of public housing. He focuses on the alarming news that some 10,000 to 12,000 units of low-income housing in Dallas. which were built under legislation signed into law by Lyndon Johnson in 1968, will reach maturity this decade and next, making possible their legal conversion to “highest and best use.” The most celebrated case thus far-and the nation’s first example ol’ what happens at the twenty-year cut-off point-was the Webb Forest Apartments, owned by Triland International. The threatened closing of the government-subsidized apartments ignited a healed battle in the city council and struck fear in the hearts of local housing activists.
The fate of Webb Forest still hangs in the balance-and worse, so do the fates of thousands of other families across the city who depond on housing subsidies to live. Federal housing money is drying up, stale money has never existed, and our local government seems hamstrung by the insurmountability of the problem. There are no easy answers. for sure, but meanwhile the poor are getting poorer and more numerous. Nationally, in this decade alone, an additional seven million Americans have fallen below the legal line of poverty.
It is templing to point a wagging finger at property owners like Triland. Bui Triland. after all. would have been within its rights to demolish the Webb Forest Apartments and build whatever it saw fit, poor people be damned. The law allows it. and a private company is not charged with taking care of a public need. Why weren’t our elected leaders looking ahead to this potential crisis and putting appropriate plans in motion?
There are several proposals that would affeet low-income housing on the table at city council right now, and one would hope that they command immediate attention. One, a reniai registration system thai would aid city housing inspectors in locating and citing absentee landlords, has been stymied by opposition from realtors for the past year-not a promising sign. Other, more dramatic steps, like taxes on zoning requests and property transfers, were discussed by the recent Mayor’s Dallas Housing Task Force, but were not included in the task force recommendations because the committee “could not reach a consensus,” according to the committee’s chair, businessman Dale Kesler.
The immediate challenge to our elected leaders at the local, state, and national level is to look to the future with a fresh eye. We must be creative in forming new partnerships (intra-governmental, public-private) if we are to widen the safety net that thousands of Dallas citizens will be free falling toward in the years ahead. Right now, the city is between a rock and a hard place. Dallas never has been inclined toward the sort of tradeoff’s with property owners that automatically provide a kickback for the community’s poor, (Some cities, like the oft-cited Toronto, require a builder to house a percentage of subsidized renter families in return for certain enhanced development rights. Others, like Boston, require a “linkage” fee to fund housing activities.) And even if the city did require developers to foot part of the public housing bill, today’s sagging real estate market provides few with the means to take advantage of such government incentives.
So. the insoluble riddle continues to baffle. The housing supply dwindles, the government coffers dry up, the ranks of the homeless swell at an alarming rate. Let’s he sure, as we approach the April city council and mayoral elections, that each and every candidate is asked to consider the problems presented by the public housing issue and give his or her studied response. D welcomes their replies.