Wednesday, July 6, 2022 Jul 6, 2022
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Everyone wants someone to provide housing for the poor. But who?
By Richard West |

WHEN LORI HAUGEN WALKED out of her home at the Webb Forest Apartments one day in September 1985. the signs announcing a zoning change had popped up overnight. What she learned after a few telephone calls was as blunt as a blow from a ball peen hammer: she and her neighbors had until the following February to find a new address. The owner, Triland International, planned to demolish the 240-unit, federally subsidized, privately owned apartment complex and replace it with a $220 million office and retail development.

Lori Haugen had never before protested anything, but she felt a basic injustice was being done. She did not want to be subdued into apathy like many of her friends by the thought and effort required to fight a real estate empire. Haugen knew the odds were slim as parchment against her saving her home, but it was worth a try. She well knew the long waiting lists at similar places. So she talked to tenants, organized some small get-togethers, and found herself chairperson of the Webb Forest Tenants’ Alliance.

Last year, Haugen’s home, the Webb Forest Apartments at Webb Chapel and Forest Lane in North Dallas, made history in the national effort to provide subsidized housing for low-income residents; the apartments were a byproduct of watershed legislation that dated back to the early Sixties.

On a hot August day in 1968, President Lyndon Johnson signed the 1968 Housing and Urban Development Act. It was the culmination of a trend that began in 1961, a radical new strategy to provide low-income housing, not through the sort of public housing programs used in the Thirties, nor the urban renewal schemes of the Fifties. Johnson’s vision relied on the private sector, helped by federal subsidies and tax breaks, to build multifamily rental units.

A key provision in the legislation provided a mortgage subsidy to builders, who then generally lowered their interest rates to buyers of low- and moderate-income housing to 1 percent, the subsidy being passed on to tenants as lower rents. To make sure developers would participate, HUD also allowed the project owners to prepay their forty-year mortgages after twenty years.

The results exceeded even President Johnson’s vaunted hopes nineteen years ago. Presently, there are 800,000 units nationwide, about 20 percent of the nation’s 4 million federally assisted rental housing units that arc covered by subsidies. But the plan had a fatal flaw. No one gave much thought to what would happen twenty years later when project owners could prepay their mortgages and convert the units to their “highest and best use,” which in Dallas will probably mean condos. shopping centers, and office empires.

Webb Forest was the first instance of this twenty-year anniversary in a large United States city, and when it happened, it was glaringly clear that Dallas had made few plans for the tenants of these prepayment mortgage units once the government’s subsidy period ended. Harry Jones, former director of the city’s Department of Housing and Neighborhood Services, outlined the problem during the Triland-Webb Forest city council hearings. The failure to foresee this loss of low income housing stock, he predicted, would hurl itself at the city like a steel wrecking ball. Jones pointed to:

. . .3,000 city residents waiting to move into subsidized housing projects;

. . .the possible loss of sixty-two apartment complexes, about 12,000 units, built over the years with prepayment federally subsidized mortgages;

. . .acute shortages anticipated in 1990-91, when almost 5,300 rental units could be lost.

The dilemma of Lori Haugen and her fellow tenants at Webb Forest represents a major chapter of one of the most serious dramas in Dallas: the problem of providing enough adequate low-income housing for its poorer citizens. Last year, evictions reached an all-time high. An estimated 46,300 families were forced from their homes, 16 percent more than two years ago and nearly double the cases in 1972. Add to this the closing of hundreds of federally subsidized housing units, neighborhood gentrification that has eliminated housing for the poor and driven up rents to unaffordable levels, and a weak economy, and you have a housing crisis as direct and arresting as a shout on the street.

It is not as if a present-day Paul Revere suddenly puckered, picked up the bugle, and sounded, “Housing Crisis!-’ Nothing in Dallas except perhaps future Cowboys running backs-has been so intensely researched and studied. Up on some dusty shelf in the catacombs of City Hall, you will find: the 1978 Housing Plan, adopted by the city council; the Dallas 2000 Report; the 1982 Issue Paper; the 1983 Report of the Public Housing Task Force; the 1984 Mayor’s Task Foree on Housing and Economic Development in Southern Dallas study; and the 1983 Enterprise Foundation’s “Dallas: A Survey of Housing and Poverty.” The most thorough attempt to face the problem, released last September, is called “A Better Dallas Through Better Housing,” the report of the Mayor’s Dallas Housing Task Force.

But despite the plethora of socio-hokum arguments, testimony, and analyses through the years, the situation has gone from bleak to the brink of despair. Listen to a few variations on this sad song:

.. .Dallas lost about 1,035 low-income houses per year from 1979-81 while from 1974-81 the number of low-income households increased 24 percent, from 75,000 to about 94,000. During the last five years, both trends have accelerated;

… More than 69 percent of Dallas renters pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing; almost 40 percent who earn less than $10,000 yearly pay more than half their income for housing;

.. .Of the city’s 402,000 public and private housing units, 72,000 are structurally substandard, 8,300 beyond repair;

. . .Eighty-three percent of all single elderly persons have low to moderate incomes, a population projected to grow 23 percent in the late Eighties. By 1995, almost 40 percent of elderly households will have incomes of less than $10,000.

The shortage of low-income housing has dealt a crippling blow to the “working poor,” many of whom simply cannot afford to live the working class life anymore. These are not crime-prone degenerates. They are, in many cases, righteous individuals with the shared values and aspirations of their more prosperous neighbors. More and more they fall behind and join those existing on social security checks, veterans’ benefits, workmen’s compensation, welfare/unemployment, and child payments. At best, they huddle together in a bit of seediness in the shadow of the city, foxholes for all those whom the city has isolated.

IT WAS A TENANT ORGANIZER WITH THE Texas Tenants’ Union and John Fullinwider of Common Ground who came out and talked with the Webb Forest tenants in a series of Sunday afternoon gatherings. They explained the law and discussed strategies to fight Triland, trying to show the tenants how to strut their insistence before the city council just as relentlessly as their experienced opponents. Attorney Kirk Williams, representing Triland, was a familiar and successful point man in zoning battles for the more powerful developers in Dallas. Before a six-memher city council planning committee in November 1985, he asserted that Triland had “no legal obligation to preserve the project as low-income housing or to preserve it at all. . .owners have a right under the law to those apartments.” Often during the long debates, he finished his remarks with a threat to sue the city.

Haugen and Fullinwider countered by stressing the special meaning of the case and the problem of low-income housing in general. Because it involved three of the most basic issues facing the city-an owner’s property rights and the role of development, the stability of nearby single-family neighborhoods, and, for the first time, the city’s need for low-income housing near jobs and out of minority neighborhoods-the Triland-Webb Forest affair became the most complex zoning case in memory, an onion-like riddle. And the more layers you peeled off. the more you were likely to weep.

By the time the city council had approved a solution last January. Williams had dropped his tough-it-out stance, struck the developer’s don’t-tread-on-me flag, and retreated- somewhat. He got his now $200-million complex, but not before agreeing to precedent-setting concessions to Haugen and her fellow tenants. Triland agreed to retain ninety-five units for at least two years, promised rent assistance for the displaced tenants forced to move from the 140 closed units, and promised to build 240 replacement low-and moderate-income units elsewhere.

WHILE PREPAID MORTGAGE ANNIVERSA-ries like the one at Webb Forest were occurring around the country, another significant milestone in housing was commemorated last year. Fifty years ago in Atlanta, President Franklin Roosevelt dedicated Americas first public housing project as part of his grandiose plan to offer hopes and homes to the nation’s poor. Even then, the question was posed: would public housing provide a staging area for traditional American advancement or become permanent homes for a permanent renting class? That three million other Americans (including 20,000 in Dallas) live in public housing projects today provides the answer. We also have learned that the projects will never provide what American cities have scarcely provided anywhere: neighborhoods in which poor and middle-class families live side by side and enjoy social relationships.

Dallas, however, is still trying, despite the great American tradition of NIMBY: yes, the city needs housing for the poor but Not In My Back Yard. During the same September that Lori Haugen spotted the zoning change notices at Webb Forest, more than 400 East Dallas citizens filled the Samuell-Grand Recreation Center gym to protest the Dallas Housing Authority’s plan to buy the Town Park Apartments on Shadyside Lane, smack-dab in their lovely Hollywood Heights neighborhood, and turn it into a government-subsidized public housing project.

The citizens brought familiar laments: property values would be ruined and crime would increase if the project went through. East Dallas citizens delivered a petition with more than 1,000 signatures to DHA executive director Jack Herrington. Everyone tiptoed around the truth except citizen Charlie Young, who said bluntly: if you don’t want to live near low-income renters let’s say so and stifle the other excuses.

The NIMBY reaction is understandable. Most of us don’t know public housing dwellers and what we don’t know, we fear. “One of the problems the task force had,” says Dale Kesler, “was communicating to the public exactly who low- and moderate-income housing dwellers are. Of the city’s 14,000 employees, a great many would qualif y, as would thousands of employees of the city’s top five employers.”

The DHA prevailed, bought Town Park, and has spent $6,500 a unit on improvements. The neighborhood residents filed suit along the way but dropped it when the DHA agreed to have the property managed for the first year by a private firm. And who are the Town Park tenants no neighborhood wants in their back yard? Racially, 50 percent are black, 39 percent white, 11 percent Hispanic. Vocationally, three work in construction, seven are domestics, thirteen are office clerks, twelve work in restaurants, eight in factories, four are store clerks, three work for printing companies, six in hospitals, and three work in day-care facilities. Six are students, twenty-eight live on social security checks, elderly or disability payments, three have their own income (usually child support payments), and forty-nine live on AFDC payments. They all pay from zero to $464 monthly rent depending on how they qualify for housing subsidies.

Darlene and Bill Propes live with their two daughters, Trina, eleven, and Tanya, twenty-two months, in Apartment 1014A at Town Park. Before last summer they lived in a three-bedroom house in Pleasant Grove, owned a car, and had a modest but good life. Last June, Bill Propes ripped a disc loose in his back while working on a water treatment plant in Seagoville. It wasn’t until August that he was scheduled for surgery-no money coming in meanwhile-so the Propes lost their house and car. It will be six months or a year before Bill Propes can return to work.

Looking for shelter, Darlene Propes learned of Town Park through the Holy Trinity Catholic Church’s Ministry of the Poor. Now, the family gets by on $868 a month from workmen’s compensation. “I’m not ashamed to say I cried the day we moved in here,” said Bill Propes. “This place saved us; we literally had no other place to go. It’s clean, quiet, there’s a park nearby for the kids, and I have good neighbors.” Propes says that “there’s other folks worse off” than his family. When he goes back to work, the Propes will move out of Town Park “so someone else can live here.”

THE VERY WORDS, “PUBLIC HOUSING,” STIR the emotions of many, perhaps because it is the country’s boldest venture into ownership of that holiest of private domains, the home and hearth. The concept has created controversy from the day the first project opened its doors. The program has always been dogged by critics, damned as a depository for families on welfare who are unwilling or unable to fend for themselves; for being a breeding ground for new slums. Housing officials have been blamed for caring more about the physical condition of buildings than the minds and hearts of tenants. The system has been blamed for being inordinately expensive, blamed for being mean and inhuman. Dale Kesler and his task force learned firsthand about the public housing controversy when, in a preliminary report, they advocated selling three housing projects near downtown with (heir 1,100 poor families and using (he money to build new low-income housing units. John Fullinwider, Dallas Jackson, and other community activists reacted as if they had been stung by bees. They reminded, one and all of the city’s $9.5 million sale in 1984 of the 347-unit Washington Place project. They reminded the task force of the city’s solemn promise to replace the sold apartments and how none had been replaced, until Town Park’s 150 units opened along with the renovated ninety-one-unit Simpson Place project. The city is still waiting tor the additional 106. The task force backed off and merely recommended rehabilitation of 1,200 boarded-up apartments in the West Dallas housing projects.

It is the craven projects of West Dallas, looking like vandalized urinals as they disdainfully crumple earthward, that people see in their mind’s eye when they think of public housing, not the attractive Town Park units lining a quiet East Dallas Street with trees that meet overhead like old friends shaking hands. Since (he West Dallas projects were completed in 1954, scheme after scheme has been proposed to rehabilitate this largest collection of low-rise public housing in (he country. All have failed. It is from this one-square-mile of squalor that two important recent public housing developments will emanate: the attempt to end the systematic segregation of low-income tenants and the federal government’s latest policy to provide low-income housing, the voucher system.

Two months ago the DHA board approved the settlement of a federal desegregation lawsuit that calls for the demolition of three-fourths of its 3.500-unit West Dallas project and a relocation plan for the residents to move into subsidized housing in non-minority neighborhoods. Earlier, HUD had agreed to commit $15 million to renovate 815 West Dallas apartments and provide 1.500 replacement units in the form of rental vouchers or subsidies during the next two years.

The new plans were not wholly unexpoct-ed : it has been clear to everyone for some time that the Reagan administration wants out of the public housing business. Federal spending for housing overall has dropped from $27 billion to $7.8 billion. There are virtually no federal programs to produce or rehabilitate additional low-income housing. For example, in 1980 about two-thirds of the 192,000 rental units were to be new or substantially rehabilitated units. In 1986, only 19,000 out of 101.500 were to be new. The Reagan administration obviously wants to shift from building new units to providing subsidies for residents seeking housing in the existing stock. To do this, the administration plans to substitute housing-subsidy vouchers for all the $7.8 billion a year now spent on U.S. housing aid. It is indeed a radical shift in the way our government has financed low-income housing, and it is these vouchers that West Dallas residents will use as escape tickets to seek apartments in Mesquite, Piano, Addison, anil other areas heretofore out of their economic reach.

Here is how the voucher system works: a couple earning $9,000 a year ($750 a month) finds an apartment for $498 a month, They pay 30 percent of their income (S225) and the federal government sends the landlord a monthly check for the remaining $273. Because the voucher program has been mired in bureaucratie mud and because of the scarcity of suitable rental units incertain cities, only 12.000 families around the country have so far used vouchers to sign leases. Still. HUD is undertaking a five-year, $142 million test involving 8,000 vouchers for sixty communities, including Dallas. HUD has pit>m-iscd to help in some way the 5,200 West Dallas tenants, but to date they have committed only 450 vouchers for this area, HUD will decide every year how many vouchers will be made available for these people.

John Fullinwider opposes the demolition of the West Dallas units and remains skeptical regarding the success of the voucher revolution. “The vouchers depend on congressional appropriations. What happens when a future Congress decides to end the