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Audit: Dallas’ plan for affordable housing shortage fails to address racist housing policies

Dallas City Hall
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Dallas’ plan to combat a severe shortage of affordable housing fails to address the impact of racist housing policies and practices, an audit concludes.

An audit concluded that Dallas' Comprehensive Housing Policy hopes to “overcome patterns of segregation and concentrations of poverty” but lays out no “vision or strategies” to increase equity by reducing racial disparities.

The City of Dallas’ plan to combat a severe shortage of affordable housing fails to address the impact of racist housing policies and practices, according to a new equity audit of the city’s Comprehensive Housing Policy ordered by the city council.

The Dallas City Council’s Housing and Homelessness Solutions Committee requested an equity audit of the city’s Comprehensive Housing Policy over the summer. The city hired the firm. The consulting firm presented its conclusions to the committee on Tuesday.

One of the stated goals of the Comprehensive Housing Policy is to “overcome patterns of segregation and concentrations of poverty” in Dallas. But it lays out no “vision or strategies” to meet those goals in a way that will increase equity by reducing racial disparities.

The audit says city leaders must take significant action and be prepared to spend “significant dollars” if they are serious about building adequate affordable housing and reducing “stark racial disparities in Dallas’s housing outcomes.”

“The time is right for us to move forward with implementing the [audit’s] recommendations that will close the gaps as it relates to racial equity and housing in the city of Dallas,” Council member Casey Thomas said Monday evening. He requested the audit when he took over as chairman of the council’s Housing and Homelessness Solutions Committee.

To make a serious effort at improving equity in Dallas and reducing racial disparities, the city will need to fundamentally rethink its housing policy and set clear priorities for addressing not just housing-related inequities, the audit says. But the legacy of disinvestment in city services and infrastructure has limited the economic potential of historically Black and Latino neighborhoods. That will also require significant investment of public funds.

“The City of Dallas has incorporated equity into its budgeting process, but only a significant financial commitment will redress the historic disinvestment in southern Dallas and accelerate the strategic and equitable production of affordable housing at scale,” the audit states.

Thomas said the audit is one step in a larger process of re-aligning the city’s operations and policies with the goal of furthering racial equity in the city of Dallas.

“Now that we know where the gaps are, will we move forward with the recommendations that will close those gaps?” Thomas said.

The council passed a racial equity resolution earlier this year, doubling down on a commitment to “promote equity through all policies of the city.” It used racial equity as a lens throughout the budget process and is currently developing a citywide racial equity plan. The city launched its Office of Equity three years ago.

Inequity by design

The report details how the geography of Dallas was fundamentally shaped by a history of racist policies and institutional barriers that “excluded Black and Brown residents from safe, quality, affordable housing,” and other opportunities to build wealth.

Neighborhoods where people of color lived and owned homes were devalued by federal housing policies, and restrictive covenants barred the sale of homes in white neighborhoods to non-white residents.

The city directed far less in infrastructure, funding, and services to neighborhoods where people of color lived than it sent to whiter, wealthier neighborhoods.

Toxic industrial sites were built in communities of color. Federal highways created major barriers between neighborhoods, reenforcing racial segregation.

These and other policies and practices “relegated [people of color] to living in areas with substandard infrastructure and environmental hazards,” the audit states. It helped white families build generational wealth while depriving Black and Latino families of basic services.

Even decades after Congress banned segregation and discriminatory housing practices, the inequities of that system have largely continued because the city has made insufficient effort and committed insufficient funding to reducing the disparities, according to the report.

“The present-day deficit has resulted from decades and decades of under-investment and the inequitable distribution of public funds,” the report states.

City leaders have acknowledged that history and those harms, but “that acknowledgment has not resulted in substantial budget allocations to level the playing field for historically neglected parts of the city.”

The result is a gaping chasm between predominantly white areas in the north of the city, and neighborhoods in the south and west that are predominantly non-white.

Black and Brown Dallasites have significantly lower homeownership rates, lower home values and higher rates of rent-burdening and homelessness. Southern Dallas, which is home to 64% of city residents, accounts for just 10% of the city’s property tax values, the report states.

The Comprehensive Housing Plan, the audit concludes, “represents a better guide to compliance with federal, state, and local regulations than it does an outline of strategies for changing the affordable housing status quo.”

Throttling development?

The plan was ambitious in its goal of adding 20,000 affordable housing units in the city when it was passed in 2018, even if it wasn’t terribly specific about how that would happen, said Cullum Clark, who directs the George W. Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative.

But the plan also limited the incentives for affordable housing development to “high-opportunity” neighborhoods in Dallas. The city had recently been sued for concentrating poverty by subsidizing affordable housing development mostly in low-income neighborhoods, he said.

And those limits made it difficult to develop affordable housing in the neighborhoods where most of the city’s lower-income households lived.

“The idea of the comprehensive housing policy was that we would take scarce public sector dollars and deploy them in relatively resource-rich, ‘high opportunity’ areas, which today would be areas that tend to have white majorities and are relatively prosperous with relatively high land values,” Clark said.

The restrictions may have also throttled the development of affordable housing in general, he said.

“[Building affordable housing] is a really hard thing to do for many, many reasons,” Clark said. “And when you heavily restrict where in the city you’re going to do it, the net result is that you just might end up creating fewer new units than you were creating before.”

What to do?

The audit calls for moving away from this model. It lists nearly a dozen “critical choices [city] leaders must make if they are authentically committed to tackling its daunting array of housing disparities.”

Fundamentally, it asks whether city leaders will commit to “hold themselves accountable for leveling the playing field that has been tilted in favor of predominantly White areas to the North by making significant investments in Southern Dallas.”

To do that, the city needs to create a comprehensive roadmap for equalizing access to affordable housing, and build tools to measure progress.

The recommendations also call for the city to use infrastructure improvements, economic revitalization funds and city planning to help build generational wealth in historically Black and Brown communities.

Gentrification and NIMBYism are addressed, as well. The audit calls for building affordable housing in every council district, not just in poorer areas of the city. And it says the city needs to develop a “comprehensive, integrated strategy for preventing displacement during neighborhood revitalization.”

The city will also need to spend a lot more money if it’s serious about equity. Compared to peer cities like Atlanta, Seattle, and Austin, Dallas devotes significantly less of its budget to addressing affordable housing and investing in infrastructure improvements in historically disadvantaged neighborhoods.

The audit specifies that a dedicated source of revenue to fund these efforts is needed.

These are big steps, Thomas acknowledged.

“I think it’s a matter of whether the council has the political will,” he said.

Thomas said he expects to launch a series of community town hall meetings in the coming weeks to gather input from residents about what they want and need from a racial equity-focused housing policy in Dallas.