Editor's note: This article was updated Oct. 4 to correct details about Laura Cadena's efforts to move to West Dallas.
DALLAS — Back in 1995, Johnnie Armstrong set his sights on the city’s oldest black neighborhood, established in 1872 by emancipated slaves. He found himself a “raggedy old house” in Joppa — “Joppee” to the locals — paid $1,700 for it, and set about fixing it up. He’s got his boats in his garage, solar panels on his roof, and it is home, and it is what he loves.
But next door, like a lot of the other homes in Joppa, there’s an abandoned house, and it’s beset by weeds and snakes. The retired maintenance worker says he can’t get the city to do anything about that godforsaken shack, so he keeps up its yard as best he can.
Stand in one of Joppa’s streets and you can see the downtown skyline six miles to the north, a paean to Dallas’s go-go economy. But Joppa is a neighborhood calcified in time, Exhibit A of the city’s history of entrenched racial segregation and its neglect of majority black and Latino neighborhoods. It’s also a dumping ground for environmental pollution and a host of other woes: Whenever the wind blows, Armstrong says, the dust from the nearby asphalt factory hovers, coating solar panels, clogging lungs.
For years, Dallas has poured millions of federal dollars into affordable housing, to little effect. But in May, the City Council unanimously passed a new comprehensive housing policy, a first for the city. The goal is to build 20,000 new homes — but only in select, pre-approved neighborhoods deemed ripe for revitalization.
The new policy is one of the few in the country that aggressively attacks segregation, according to Miguel Solis, president of the Latino Center for Leadership Development in Dallas, who helped craft it. Officials aim to do that in three ways: by creating and maintaining affordable housing throughout the city rather than in a few pockets; by increasing fair housing choices through a rental voucher sublease program (which gives incentives to landlords and developers to rent to voucher holders); and by tackling patterns of segregation through incentives and requirements for housing developers.
But skeptics say the new strategy will do little to help black residents in the city's most beleaguered communities in South Dallas — like Joppa — because it concentrates development money elsewhere.
The quandary Dallas faces is familiar across the United States: Should cities invest their limited resources in the neighborhoods that are the most in need, or should they put the money toward neighborhoods that are slightly better off — ones that officials think have a better chance at eventual prosperity?
‘Engineered by the Government’
Dallas, where Armstrong has lived all of his 80 years, is a city of stark opposites. To look at a color-coded map of Dallas neighborhoods tells the tale: whites to the north, blacks to the south, Latinos mostly to the west and east.
Here, there are literally cities within the city, such as the overwhelmingly white Highland Park, population 8,950, median income above $200,000, a micro-city populated with high-end designer boutiques and newly renovated bungalows boasting signs emblazoned with “BETO U.S. Senate 2018,” for Beto O’Rourke, the progressive Democrat trying to unseat Republican Ted Cruz.
Meanwhile, the black middle class fled for the southern suburbs in the ’90s, its exodus creating what one housing advocate calls a “receding hairline” for the city, leaving behind the black working poor in neighborhoods short on resources and long on crime and pollution.
“Blacks weren’t fleeing from blacks, they’re fleeing from [expletive] services and [expletive] schools, and fleeing to places where they have a better shot at control,” said Mike Daniel, a white civil rights attorney in Dallas who over the years has won a number of racial segregation suits.
Like many cities across the country, Dallas is racially diverse — 42 percent Latino, 29 percent white, 25 percent black and 3 percent Asian — but also highly segregated.
The city ranks as the least inclusive in the country, according to an April report by the Urban Institute. That means that here, racial segregation and economic deprivation are inextricably tied together. (City officials note the data in the report is from 2013 and said it doesn’t reflect the progress Dallas has made recently.)
“This [segregation] didn’t happen by accident,” said Mike Koprowski, who worked on the new Dallas housing policy before moving to Washington this year to serve as national campaign director for the National Low Income Housing Coalition, an advocacy group.
“This was engineered by the government at all levels,” Koprowski said.
Indeed, the city’s long history of segregation dates to the post-Civil War era. But the architecture of its segregated communities was crafted in the 1940s, by an urban planner from St. Louis, Harland Bartholomew, whom city officials hired to do something about the city’s black population.
Bartholomew created so-called Negro districts cut off from the rest of the city, districts that bumped up against levees and heavy industry. Black families who bought homes outside those confines didn’t get to keep them for long. Bombings were a regular occurrence in Jim Crow Dallas — crimes that went unpunished.
Today, racial conflict still burbles, sometimes under the surface, sometimes erupting. Last month, a white off-duty Dallas police officer shot and killed her neighbor, an unarmed black man, after allegedly mistaking his apartment for hers (she’s been charged with manslaughter and fired). On Saturday, angry protesters flooded a town hall meeting, shouting “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!”
But some see glimmers of hope for Dallas.
“For a city — a city within Texas — to confront structural racism from a policy and investment perspective is courageous,” said Salin Geevarghese, a former HUD official in the Obama administration.
To do so means facing up to unpleasant facts about city governance, he said: “You’ve got to uncover where there have been intentional tools to keep people separated from opportunity. And that’s really painful to talk about.”
Solis of the Latino Center, who is also a member of the Dallas school board, said for years in Dallas, segregation was “the elephant in the room, an unspoken thing.” Before, he said, “city officials either didn’t want to put it on the table because they were afraid of inflaming discussions about race — or they were OK with the way the system sort of played itself out.”
‘Redlining’ or Investing in Potential?
To revitalize downtrodden neighborhoods, Dallas wants to promote the construction of mixed-income housing, spark the rehabilitation of existing homes and encourage homebuying. To accomplish those goals, it will change zoning rules and use city and federal money to offer tax incentives, low-interest loans and grants to developers.
Dallas hopes these steps will help desegregate the city, said Raquel Favela, the city’s former director of economic development who oversaw the making of the housing policy. “We’re helping people move. The housing policy is trying to create some opportunities within the city of Dallas.”
The city will offer rental assistance to tenants, home improvement assistance to homeowners, and it will issue bonds to pay for infrastructure repairs in dilapidated areas.
The city is focusing its efforts on areas it considers ripe for redevelopment, dividing them into three categories.
“Redevelopment areas” are those where there are projects, such as renovating an existing, dilapidated mall, that could be completed relatively quickly. Then there are “stabilization areas,” such as West Dallas, where lower-income residents are in danger of being displaced by gentrification. Next are the “emerging market areas” that are ripe for gentrification, but where the infrastructure needs a major overhaul.
The policy will also create “neighborhood empowerment zones,” where the city will waive building and development fees for property owners and developers who participate in city housing programs. And homeowners in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods will be able to get low-interest loans from the city to renovate their homes and may qualify for property tax relief.
For Laura Cadena, whose family has owned houses in West Dallas for generations, the change is welcome. She’s wanted to move in for years, but because the neighborhood was so impoverished, she said, no bank would give her a loan to build a home.
Her family’s neighborhood didn’t get paved roads until the 1980s, she said.
"It took years to get some basic services compared to the rest of the city, and now it’s booming,” Cadena said. “It’s hard for the families that have been there.”
Now, old, battered bungalows butt up against spanking new, $450,000 townhouses.
But while Cadena welcomes the change, she sees disparities.
“You see the new developments getting the new streets and the new amenities,” Cadena said. “And the streets where people live aren’t being upgraded as fast.”
‘Too Poor to Be Helped’
Many developers don’t like the new policy, according to a developer who asked not to be identified for fear of running afoul of the city. That’s because it creates too many restrictions and its goals are unrealistic, given the financial tools they will have at their disposal, he said. “It’s just another way for them to pick the developers they want to pick for projects.”
Many nonprofit community developers, who build affordable housing units with federal dollars, also oppose the policy. They say it amounts to “redlining,” cutting out the poorest neighborhoods in the city.
As an example, a neighborhood that’s closer to a white, wealthy neighborhood will benefit from the city’s revitalization dollars. But a neighborhood like Joppa, which is isolated, in its own low-income pocket of town and cut off from wealthier neighborhoods, would not be able to take advantage of much of the city’s housing policy, they say.
“The very people who have been denied are further denied,” said Diane Ragsdale, a former city councilwoman who is now the managing director of Innercity Community Development.
“The housing policy is saying that there are neighborhoods that are too poor to be helped.”
‘Peanut Butter Approach’
Dallas officials also face some state-imposed roadblocks. Under one state law, Texas cities can’t prohibit landlords from discriminating against people with housing vouchers. Texas also is the only state in the country that forbids “inclusionary zoning,” the practice of requiring real estate developers to include low-income units in their plans.
And last year, the Legislature banned cities from charging “linkage fees” for new construction — a tool often used to support affordable housing.
In the past, Dallas took a “peanut butter approach” to revitalizing the city, Koprowski said: Take a pot of economic development money, and spread it evenly across the city, to all 14 districts, from the have-nots to the have-a-lots.
A better approach, he said: To identify a few neighborhoods and “go deep,” flooding those with resources and redevelopment.
Ultimately, that’s the approach that Dallas decided to take. The city can’t afford to build great schools or libraries in Joppa, and the neighborhood lacks other amenities, such as grocery stores, that families want. The home values in a neighborhood are tied to its desirability — or lack of it.
“The city doesn’t have enough money to create a market where there isn’t one,” Favela said. “It’s a shame, no question. I can’t fix that. If money were no object ... but money is.”
The best way to help neighborhoods like that, she says, is to help residents find better housing and better opportunities elsewhere.
But Howard Husock, a housing expert with the libertarian-leaning Manhattan Institute, said that approach is misguided. Far better, he said, would be to help people who want to stay in their current neighborhoods thrive where they are, by controlling crime, improving schools and building parks.
“Why are we giving up on making bad neighborhoods good neighborhoods?” Husock asked.
As Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, a Democrat, sees things, it was time for the city to try a radically different approach.
“I think that we have used the strategy that everybody gets a little piece for a long time and it hasn’t worked,” Rawlings said. “I’m not ready to turn my back on certain neighborhoods, but I think we can help these neighborhoods in other ways.”
Rawlings said the housing policy is just a blueprint that can be adapted as needed. He said he’ll measure its success by the number of affordable housing units the city ultimately builds.
‘Can Someone Bring a Grocery Store?’
Demetria McCain, a tall woman with a thatch of corkscrew curls, is driving through the segregated pockets of Dallas, past abandoned strip malls, beat up bungalows and battered-looking convenience stores with names like Big Daddy’s Supermarket.
A product of Dallas’ black middle class, she heads up the Inclusive Communities Project, which has successfully sued the city in a series of racial segregation lawsuits, including a 2015 Supreme Court ruling that any government policy that ends up perpetuating segregation is illegal, even if it was unintended.
She pulls into Buckeye Trail Commons, a new public housing development. It feels like a movie set: quiet and hushed, with row after row of identical, modest townhomes. It’s an oasis amid blight, far from jobs, public transportation, even grocery stores.
And that, McCain says, is exactly the problem with what passes for affordable housing in Dallas. The focus is on building units, when it should also be on improving the quality of life for low-income residents.
“These places are great products,” McCain says, gesturing at the townhomes. “But can someone bring a grocery store? Some jobs? Lower the crime rate?”
Nothing But a Small Town
In Joppa, there are pockets of well-kept bungalows like Armstrong’s, often next to abandoned shacks, or an empty field where a house once stood. Trash piles up on corners and in vacant lots. The lone school, where students attended grades one through twelve, was shuttered a long time ago, its football field now unused. There are few sidewalks. There are no grocery stores — one open and closed for lack of business a few years back — but there are churches in abundance, and even a mosque.
“Joppa is nothing but a small town,” said Billie Williams, a burly man in his early 30s who has lived here all his life. “And we’re all trying to make it.”
These days, the population has dwindled to fewer than 500. Most of the folks here are black, some Latino, almost all homeowners, and virtually all are poor. Over the years, Habitat for Humanity has built more than a hundred owner-occupied bungalows here, mostly using private donations.
The city’s housing policy likely won’t touch the people of Joppa, said Cyndy Lutz, a former Habitat for Humanity executive who oversaw the construction in Joppa. Most here don’t want to leave, but would benefit from help to fix up their houses, bring them up to code.
Or get some help buying the shack next door that’s been overrun by snakes.
Williams would like to see a grocery store here. A gym for the kids to play. And jobs. The only options for work for him and his friends are to hop on a bus, which takes forever, to get to a temp agency, where they wait on line, hoping to find work as a day laborer.
“They’re starving us down here,” Williams said.