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Dallas Housing Department praised by former critics

By Bill Zeeble, KERA 90.1 reporter

Dallas, TX – Bill Zeeble, KERA 90.1 reporter: For more than a decade, many of Dallas' older neighborhoods, especially in the southern sector, have declined because of the rise of drugs, prostitution, and violence. A lot of long-time residents moved out. Those who stayed blamed lax city services for making the situation even worse. In the 90's, officials say some problems were finally addressed. But others were created, according to Dallas Mayor Laura Miller, who talked about them in the St. Philips neighborhood, in southern Dallas.

Dallas Mayor Laura Miller: Dallas has come in over the last decade and has gone street by street by street, and taken down a lot of substandard homes and left nothing but vacant lots in their place. And vacant lots don't help a neighborhood.

Hand Lawson, Executive Director, South Fair Community Development Corporation: Here was this vacant land, housing was gone, but drugs remained. Most apartment owners just abandoned and gave up.

Zeeble: Hank Lawson is Executive Director of the South Fair Community Development Corporation, or CDC. South Fair runs the relatively new Eban Village apartments, with about 440 units. A few hundred yards from Fair Park, the complex stands on four square blocks that used to contain notorious crack hangouts.

Lawson: When we took this over here, they averaged four homicides a year. In 1992-94, it was six homicides.

Zeeble: Not anymore, thanks to efforts of the South Fair CDC. Dozens of similar community development corporations have grown up in the city's low-income neighborhoods. Funded by private and government money to revitalize needy neighborhoods, CDC's work with cities to foster development. But not exactly in Dallas, which critics say is 15 years behind other cities in successfully dealing with these community groups. Lawson says he tried working with Dallas.

Lawson: They wanted to do a program for girls. They had a social worker, had a scheduled program. And she'd come in here and set the program up. But they wouldn't follow the schedule. Come in here, be haphazard, and I said, "No, no, if you got a program, I want an effort to make it come alive." I'm not interested in having "throw out the ball and let them run around." So, we kicked them out. We want responsibility, structure, discipline.

Zeeble: Lawson and other CDC directors say they really need the city's help with those kinds of programs, because neighborhood revitalization is often more about personal empowerment and human motivation than construction. Finally, in the past year, Lawson says the city seems to be getting it, thanks to its new housing director.

Lawson: Mr. Killingsworth's there now, altogether different attitude and perspective about development, and we're going back to the table. We're going back on the human service. So we now have a lot of city employees come to our Monday meeting.

Zeeble: Jerry Killingsworth retired from Bank One on the last day of December 2001, where he often worked with CDC's, and took the city's Housing Director job on the first workday in January 2002. He wanted the department to focus on affordable housing and to be run more like a business that reached out to both profit and non-profit organizations. He knew it would be tough, because he says many developers considered the city an impediment instead of an ally. In other words, the Housing Department had a bad reputation.

Jerry Killingsworth, Housing Director, City of Dallas: It didn't just happen by chance. It happened by neglect.

Zeeble: Instead of blaming his predecessors, Killingsworth says he wanted better results. The year before he took over, the department completed about 1700 projects, including repair work, and land acquisition. After his first year, that number rose to 2000.

Killingsworth: That's over a 15% increase in one year. Our goal this year is closer to 2800. Now we're talking about, in a 2-year period of time, we're increasing the production from 1700-plus units to over 2700. That's a big shift. We are doing this production with 20% less staff.

Sherry Mixon, Executive Director, T.R. Hoover Community Development Corporation: Mr. Killingsworth - he's a wonderful person.

Zeeble: Sherry Mixon runs the T.R. Hoover CDC, in Dallas' Idyll neighborhood. For years, she says, the area suffered from crumbling homes, empty lots, truancy, and other problems that plague some minority communities. Mixon says much remains to be done, but at least now, she says the Housing Department seems ready to help.

Mixon: Mr. Killingsworth gets out in the community. He's there, he listens, he does get back with you; he's a responsive person.

Zeeble: Longtime affordable housing advocate Don Williams agrees. In the 1990's, the retired Trammel Crow executive created the Foundation for Community Empowerment, a non-profit organization to help CDC's. Williams too had become frustrated with the city, but persevered. The Mayor named him to head her Affordable Task Force on Workforce Housing. Williams worked with CDC's and the Housing Department on the report that recommends, for example, a large scale, one-time land acquisition effort, foreclosure on identified properties, demolition of unsalvageable properties, and concentrating most affordable housing resources in neighborhoods with the greatest opportunity. Nearly two dozen detailed recommendations are listed. Again, Don Williams.

Don Williams, affordable housing advocate: With this task force and the report to the mayor and city council, I think we now have a strong unity of support from the public sector to really get after workforce housing in this city. The tide really has turned, and I think a new day is here.

Zeeble: That's also because Williams' own organization recently helped raise $3 million from private and public sources like banks and Fannie Mae to help the CDC's meet operating expenses. Beginning this month, grants of $100,000 will become available to Dallas Community Development Corporations. That way, says Jon Edmonds, they can put more of their resources into development instead of struggling to survive. Edmonds is Executive Director of the Foundation for Community Empowerment.

Jon Edmonds, Executive Director, Foundation for Community Empowerment: In addition to that money, they will receive training dollars, and there'll be technical assistance dollars. And I know what will happen. It'll strengthen that industry of CDC's so they can then be about the real business of developing housing and economic development in the neighborhood.

Zeeble: Edmonds believes the money will put CDC's in a healthier position to deal with banks, and partner with developers.

Edmonds: First, the non-profit developers are on site. If you do that correctly and it works, you'll see a partnership happen between non- and for-profit developers. And ultimately, the for-profits will take over, and that's what you want. You want to turn this stuff back into the mainstream, and that's where cities want to go.

Zeeble: Because it puts housing on the tax rolls, instead of it being revenue-neutral as an empty lot, or a burden as an abandoned home that feeds crime and ruins communities. While Don Williams is pleased with recent progress, he'd like to see increased home repair, mortgage and down-payment programs that could benefit more people. And he wants progress along the undeveloped I-20 corridor.

Williams: The city hasn't been willing to extend infrastructure, utilities, streets, and water down to major sections of southern Dallas and they lay fallow in essence. We have so many working families that can afford and need housing and we haven't had the forces together to make that happen.

Zeeble: The city's Housing Director Jerry Killingsworth says he's now in place to try to make that happen. But he also has the task force report to implement, and his own list of projects to tackle, from more single-family homes to new apartments in parts of South Dallas, where there's a huge need. He's grateful to the Affordable Housing Task Force for creating a blueprint for action.

Killingsworth: The Task Force, having occurred I think, has helped us advance the cause two to three years.

Zeeble: For KERA 90.1, I'm Bill Zeeble.

To contact Bill Zeeble, please send emails to