TOPICS > Politics

The Standard of Living

July 1, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


TOM BEARDEN: All over America, the old government vision of public housing is coming down. The enormous, high density post-war federal projects are being demolished. The new vision is one of dispersal. A new approach to public housing policy will send people to live in smaller units sprinkled into middle class suburban neighborhoods, replacing the acres and acres of concrete high-rises in poor inner-city neighborhoods. Many suburbanites object to that policy. One of them is North Dallas resident Rod Dixon.

ROD DIXON: Every night on the evening news you see shots of, you know, drug busts and drive-by shootings and things like that, that have taken place in public housing areas in the poorer regions of Dallas, and we just don’t want that coming to our neighborhoods.

MR. BEARDEN: But regardless of homeowner objections, the mostly white affluent suburb where Dixon lives may eventually be forced to accept public housing. That’s because in Dallas it goes even further than a new policy. It’s a court order. The roots of the case began here in the largest low-rise public housing project ever constructed. The city built this 3500 unit complex known as West Dallas next to a large lead smelter. It would later be declared a Superfund site. Eleven years ago, a handful of African-American women who lived here sued the Department of Housing & Urban Development and the Dallas Housing Authority. They said those agencies had deliberately forced thousands of black people to live in substandard, segregated housing. They demanded the opportunity to live in other parts of the city. Mike Daniels is the attorney who represented them in the suit.

MIKE DANIEL, Civil Rights Lawyer: Imagine what it took to set up a system where you have 3500 units of public housing in a neighborhood that is the lowest income, poorest, most environmentally plagued neighborhood across the street from a lead smelter and that you require black people to go there.

MR. BEARDEN: In a series of rulings over the next decade, the court noted that public housing for low-income whites had amenities such as air conditioning, laundry rooms, and access to decent public schools, while projects for African-Americans did not. The judge found that the agencies had engaged in purposeful racial segregation. In what is considered the most sweeping series of housing orders in U.S. history, the court ordered officials to tear down most of the West Dallas units and to resettle people in largely white North Dallas. The Authority was ordered to build 474 new public housing units in predominantly-white neighborhoods like these and to provide some 3200 additional people with rent subsidies. Kale Williams has studied several cities that have moved residents out of highly concentrated inner-city public housing to dispersed units in middle class surroundings. He says some of the biggest changes can be seen in the families who’ve moved.

MR. BEARDEN: These kinds of efforts have been tried elsewhere. What’s the success or failure rate of them?

KALE WILLIAMS, Loyola University: There’s some research that shows that the families do better, that the adults do better in finding jobs, and one study in Chicago, a longitudinal study that covered about 10 years, shows that the young people coming through the schools did substantially better than the people who remained in the city.

MR. BEARDEN: Thirty-four-year-old Veradee Smith thinks dispersal would be good for her family. She and her six children have lived in the West Dallas projects for nearly a year.

VERADEE SMITH: You want to move up a step, so you want to change your standard of living from bein’ at this level to a higher step. That’s, that’s basically why we want to move out there, because it would give me something to strive for, because I’m seeing my surroundings. I’m seeing people doing, helping themselves, and that gives you a lift. It’s like, you know, I can do this.

MR. BEARDEN: She also thinks it would be easier to find a good-paying job in the suburbs.

VERADEE SMITH: It’s a lot of businesses, restaurants, and it’s like jobs are everywhere, but it seems to give you a bit more opportunity. Opportunity is a bit more there than over in this particular area.

MR. BEARDEN: But Smith’s potential North Dallas neighbors see all the old problems of the projects–violent crime, broken glass, graffiti. They’re afraid it will follow residents to new developments.

ROD DIXON: People that live here have worked way too hard to, to all of a sudden sacrifice everything they’ve worked for to that type of tyranny.

MR. BEARDEN: Dixon and others say they’ve already sacrificed potential gains in property values just on the threat of public housing nearby. This is where the first 75 units are scheduled to be built–a grassy field not far from Dixon’s house. Homes in the immediate area range from one hundred fifty to two hundred fifty thousand dollars–even higher a few blocks away.

ROD DIXON: In the first two years I lived here, the house appreciated in value about two to three thousand dollars a year over what I paid for it, and then in the third year, coincidental with the announcement of public housing, it’s dropped about $10,000 this year.

MR. BEARDEN: Twenty years ago, the city of Charlotte was facing the same dilemma that Dallas is facing today. This North Carolina city’s public housing residents were concentrated in dilapidated projects in poor, minority neighborhoods. Like Dallas, Charlotte was under pressure from the courts to desegregate its public housing. Charlotte homeowners had exactly the same fears as those in Dallas. But Charlotte’s leaders decided not to fight, settled out of court, and built more than 800 public housing units. They’re in small groups tucked away on the tree-lined streets of white, middle class neighborhoods. There has been no impact on either property values or crime according to studies by the University of North Carolina in conjunction with the Charlotte Housing Authority. But Charlotte officials say dispersal by itself isn’t enough. They say residents need intensive counseling to get off the poverty treadmill. Charlotte requires most residents of dispersed housing to be in some kind of self-sufficiency program. Seven hundred people have enrolled in the last eight years, and half are now out of public housing.

VELVA WOOLLEN, Charlotte Housing Authority: We’ve worked a lot closer this year with the city because we’ve been working together in a coalition with all the housing providers.

MR. BEARDEN: Velva Woollen says dispersed housing will fail without the accompanying programs. She was a Republican city council member when Charlotte decided to build in the suburbs and was opposed to the idea. She’s a supporter now and sits on the Charlotte Housing Authority Board.

VELVA WOOLLEN: In the 1980s, we adopted a housing policy that said if we put any dollars into bricks and mortar, it would be linked with a self-sufficiency component, which simply says that people would try to get jobs or skills to get jobs and that they would begin working. Our sense is that people should be in housing as a weigh station. It shouldn’t be permanent housing.

MR. BEARDEN: Back in Dallas, Alfonso Jackson agrees.

ALPHONSO JACKSON, President, Dallas Housing Authority: Too often, we have seen our residents believe that they are residents for life in our public housing development.

MR. BEARDEN: Jackson heads the Dallas Housing Authority. He also believes merely moving people to the suburbs isn’t enough. Every resident of the proposed North Dallas units will either have to have a job or be making progress in an educational program designed to get a job.

ALPHONSO JACKSON: We’re just not talking about people who will be coming out into a community sitting on their duffs. We’re talking about persons who are trying to change the quality of their lives.

MR. BEARDEN: You’re going to select for success, in other words?

ALPHONSO JACKSON: That’s what our self-sufficiency program is–Select for Success. I think people who want to do something with their lives should be rewarded.

MR. BEARDEN: But Mark Wilkinson says the Authority is either unable or unwilling to be specific about its plans. Wilkinson heads a group of 14 homeowners associations who have filed suit against the Authority to try to prevent construction.

MARK WILKINSON, The Public Housing Steering Committee: We don’t want to be just another one of the failures in the past. We want some assurance that if things fail, if we need to re-orientate the map, if we have to fine tune, that the DHA is committed to come back into our neighborhood and fix what is broken.

MR. BEARDEN: Experiments with dispersed housing haven’t been a universal success. Philadelphia has 26,000 units that are now deteriorating. HUD concedes it’s a failure and attributes that to bad management. North Dallas residents Cathy and Lee White say another failure is likely in Dallas because even the new smaller developments would still be projects, glaringly inconsistent with up-scale homes and will still be segregated.

CATHY WHITE: The people in the project lose because they are labeled as project people. They can’t integrate into society and, uh, they are singled out. When the school bus comes by to pick up these kids, everybody in the neighborhood is going to know that they’re project kids.

LEE WHITE: I’ve heard people say that they’re going to be a part of, you know, the neighborhood, they’re going to blend in. That’s just not going to happen. They’re going to be labeled. It’s not a good situation for them either.

MR. BEARDEN: Homeowners say a suburban location actually puts barriers in the way of public housing residents–lack of public transportation, for example. The nearest bus stop to this site is a mile away, so is the nearest shopping center. Sonja Ormond says the South Dallas Project she moved from had one grocery store which was five miles away. Now she lives in a tiny project in North Dallas that was built several years ago in the early stages of the suit. There’s a shopping center with a wide variety of stores a mile away. Although the Housing Authority and surrounding homeowners alike consider this development a failure because it doesn’t fit in architecturally, Ormond credits the move here with getting her off welfare and giving her access to a job as a crossing guard. Ormond says her four kids now go to a much better school and that she and her daughter, Shiranda, don’t miss the drive-by shootings in South Dallas.

SONJA ORMOND: I can lay in here with my door open and I know I ain’t got to worry about nobody comin’ in here or nothin’ like that. I have good feelings about this place. I like it.

SHIRANDA ORMOND: We ain’t gotta worry about nobody ridin’ through here and shootin’ at our house–

MR. BEARDEN: Alfonso Jackson says the Housing Authority plans to build units in North Dallas that look like this–designs they’ve worked on with a committee of North Dallas residents to assure the units blend in with the surroundings. Jackson thinks the fears of homeowners will eventually fade away, but the judge has also ordered the Department of Housing & Urban Development to upgrade the existing public housing by installing air conditioning, ensuring that the schools are comparable with the suburbs, and that security patrols be instituted. Housing & Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros says although he heartily agrees with the dispersal philosophy behind the decision, he can’t comply with the current court order.

HENRY CISNEROS, Secretary, HUD: The judge went beyond our remediation plan and ordered us to do some things that frankly go beyond what our policies will allow or our money will allow, such as those that require us to change the formula for funding Housing Authorities, or to provide air condition for every development in Dallas, when we don’t do that anywhere in the country, or to require 24-hour security, 59 new officers, which we don’t do for any other development in the country, and don’t have the money to do.

MR. BEARDEN: The public housing battle in Dallas could end up back in court. HUD recently filed an intent to appeal the judge’s decision.