Housing the Poor Alongside the Rich

Tod Robberson, Dallas Morning News, August 10, 2008

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[Years] ago . . . the Dallas Housing Authority tried to open a subsidized, low-income housing project, the Villas at Hillcrest, on the edge of an affluent, white neighborhood. Court challenges by homeowners held up the project for 12 years.

From its inception, the Villas project had been tinged with racial considerations. In 1995, a federal court ruled that DHA practices had effectively forced black residents to live in isolated, clustered slums. It said DHA essentially was helping keep West Dallas and southern Dallas poor and minority-dominated, leaving affluent whites to populate northern Dallas.

Fourteen Far North Dallas homeowners’ groups filed suit to stop the Villas project, arguing that their constitutional rights were being violated. Locating the Villas in their midst, they said, would drag down property values and bring an increase in crime. A federal appeals judge ruled in 2005 that the Villas project should proceed. It finally opened last month. It’s worth noting that a 75-unit project opened in 1998 about three miles west of the Villas, and it is widely deemed to be problem-free.

But arguments persist about the perceived negative effects of low-income housing. An article in the current issue of The Atlantic Monthly appears to confirm Far North Dallas residents’ worst fears.

Citing crime reports and other statistical data, it says that federal efforts to redistribute urban low-income housing have been a disaster for America’s suburbs. Suburban crime has jumped as a direct result. Suburban police forces, accustomed to a relatively sedate rate of crime, have struggled to cope with an onslaught of burglaries, rapes, assaults and murders, the article says.

A central premise is that, yes, dispersing subsidized housing did provide poor families the opportunity to escape crime-ridden ghettos. But after many moved to the suburbs, they became hosts to ex-convicts and gang members, who established a new base of criminal operations. The article quotes a suburban Memphis police officer saying, “My job right now is to protect the people from all the animals.”

The Atlantic piece caused quite a stir among academics and researchers who specialize in poverty studies and low-income housing. Twenty-nine of them published an angry rebuttal in the journal Shelterforce, saying: “The article uses this racist code language to stigmatize both the tenants and the programs. It is not guilt by association but by mere proximity.”

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The Atlantic article focused particularly on recipients of Section 8 housing vouchers. The program is designed to break up pockets of poverty by allowing poor families to live wherever a landlord will accept Section 8 vouchers as part of the rent payment. More than 1.8 million households nationwide benefit from the vouchers.

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If The Atlantic’s premise were true, crime in northern Dallas should have jumped noticeably as the poor migrated to the north from the south. But statistics don’t bear that out.

Yes, according to official Dallas Police Department crime statistics, northern Dallas saw the number of some violent crimes go up slightly. For example, there were eight more murders (a 7 percent increase), 170 more aggravated assaults (a 5 percent increase), and 202 more robberies (a 5 percent increase) reported in 2004 than in 2000.

But theft reports actually declined in northern Dallas. And the north’s average population growth exceeded its violent crime rate; on a per capita basis, it’s possible to argue those crime rates went down. So that’s hardly a definitive picture of crime migrating northward, and the statistics don’t come close to justifying the concerns registered by the homeowners groups who sued to block the Villas from opening.

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There’s no shortage of research documenting the failure of federal housing programs in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. The model was simply to keep poor people in ghettos by building newer, more modern projects to replace run-down projects in the same areas. Unsurprisingly, those new projects became run-down eyesores that did nothing to help poor people climb out of poverty.

An alternative model developed in the early 1990s, Hope VI, involved replacing big complexes with more neighborly, townhome-style developments. Various developers also took advantage of low-income housing tax credits, which gave them a financial incentive to replace dumpy, old apartment complexes with new ones, provided that a portion of dwellings would be reserved for low-income residents.

In Dallas, this model is showing some promise by providing an incentive to fix up dilapidated apartment complexes and a low-cost place for poorer people to live closer to affluent areas—where good jobs are available.

Still, as the Far North Dallas lawsuit underscores, affluent residents fear that their property values will plummet when the poor move in. It’s a natural concern.

A few days ago, I took a drive around the Villas, off Hillcrest Road and sandwiched between the President George Bush Turnpike and an upscale subdivision, Highland Creek Estates. At the Villas, workers were busily putting in sod on lawns, installing a playground and doing interior finishing work. The rooflines don’t vary much between the Villas and the neighboring Estates, even though a 7-foot wall separates them.

The Villas are built to look like the kind of sprawling, single-family homes you’d expect in a North Texas suburb. But they’re actually designed to accommodate several families each. There are no for-sale signs to indicate that people in the Estates are pulling up and leaving. Nearby, at the new Windsor Crest subdivision, where homes sell “from the $480s,” at least one under-construction house already has a big “sold” sign out front.

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But is it necessarily true that low-income housing brings down property values?

Two academics at the University of Texas at Dallas, Dr. Roxanne Ezzet-Lofstrom and Dr. James C. Murdoch, set out to test this assumption. Their findings, published in the Williams Review in 2006, found that property values actually increased more—by about 2.1 percent—for homes within half a mile of projects involving low-income housing tax credits.

Their study covered 133 housing projects in Dallas County built between 1986 and 2003. They found that the newer, more modern low-income projects, spurred by tax credits for developers, were attracting people from a mix of income backgrounds. The complexes turned out to be a small boon for surrounding homeowners.

There are some common-sense explanations for why northern Dallas residents should care about dispersing poverty. As long as poverty remains so heavily concentrated in southern Dallas, the entire city will be less attractive to outsiders as a viable place to live.

When MillerCoors recently chose Chicago over Dallas for its new headquarters, it cited among other reasons the availability of affordable housing close to the city center in Chicago. Actually, Dallas has far more affordable housing meeting that criterion, but it’s in an area that’s shunned by half of the city. Funny how MillerCoors didn’t see that as a selling point.

The concentration of poor people in southern Dallas leads to increased regional health problems and health care costs, studies have shown. The south’s higher unemployment rates and lower educational achievement also drag down the region’s performance ratings.

When outsiders think of relocating to Dallas, these factors send a strong negative impression, and it reflects on everyone’s property values.

Last year, Riccardo Bodini, a community economic development specialist, devised a formula to track and compare housing-appreciation values from 1990 to 2004 in Dallas County, Cook County surrounding Chicago, King County surrounding Seattle, and Cuyahoga County, around Cleveland. He found that Dallas County’s appreciation rate was the lowest of the four.

Dallas County also ranked lowest in terms of “convergence,” which is the ability of urban-suburban areas to bridge their socioeconomic divisions by finding ways for people of varying incomes to live alongside one another.

The lack of convergence and existence of large pockets of poverty in Dallas might be causing our real estate values to be depressed compared to other metropolitan areas, Mr. Bodini wrote in the fall 2007 Williams Review.

So if homeowners in Far North Dallas are really concerned about their property values, they need to do more to erase the city’s rich-poor-racial divide—not maintain it.

But it’s not just northerners who are putting up roadblocks. One of this newspapers’ goals is to make southern Dallas so attractive that more affluent northern residents would think of moving there. The uplifting influence of their migration would help spur an economic revival, boost land values, create business-investment incentives and increase employment.

But not everyone in southern Dallas is thrilled at such a prospect. Many fear gentrification and exploitation. A business leader in South Dallas/Fair Park articulated these exact concerns to me shortly after we launched our southern Dallas initiative in the June 22 Points section. His specific concern was that South Dallas would start to look too “white” in its developmental scope, thus robbing the neighborhood of its distinctly black look and feel.

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The Dallas Housing Authority begins accepting online applications today for court-ordered rental assistance available to black residents who want to live in predominantly white neighborhoods.

The DHA is required to offer the vouchers only to blacks as part of a court settlement to address past discrimination. Applications will be accepted only online, through midnight on Sunday. Computers will be available at the DHA offices at 3131 Fish Trap Road in West Dallas for people who do not have personal computers. The agency’s general waiting list for rental vouchers remains closed. Rent vouchers pay part of a family’s rent, based on its income.

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