In Dallas, housing vouchers and hope

THE BALTIMORE SUN

IRVING, Texas -- The squat, three-bedroom brick rancher in this suburban town best known as the home of the Dallas Cowboys is hardly palatial. But to Todae Charles, the rental property, with ample space for her four children and its own back yard, seems like paradise.

"It's a situation I never dreamed I would get," said Charles, 27, who works for a nearby bank and is raising her children as a single mother. "I always looked forward to having my mailbox out front. To me, that's a sign I'm going in the right direction."

Charles and her children are among thousands of black Dallas public housing residents who have been given the opportunity to live outside impoverished, segregated city neighborhoods under the settlement of a civil rights lawsuit similar to one going on in Baltimore for a decade.

While the Dallas case is regarded as a model in Baltimore and elsewhere for achieving significant desegregation of public housing, progress has not come easily. Some of the initiatives to disperse residents drew strong community opposition. And the more than 2,500 docket entries in the 19-year-old court file indicate the complexity and contentiousness of the legal battle.

The federal judge overseeing the Dallas case approved a final settlement in late December -- two weeks before another ruled that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development violated federal fair housing law by failing to take a regional approach to the desegregation of public housing in Baltimore.

In announcing his decision in the Baltimore case Jan. 6, District Judge Marvin J. Garbis said District Judge Jerry Buchmeyer, who presided over the Dallas litigation, "gave me a lot of guidance" in how to proceed.

There are differences between the two cases. The most pronounced is that in Dallas, the city and its housing authority were found liable for discrimination along with HUD; in Baltimore, the city and its housing authority were absolved of wrongdoing, leaving only the federal housing agency liable.

But the theory driving both decisions is the same: that governmental policies helped create and maintain poor, segregated urban areas. And the remedies -- what occurred in Dallas and what Garbis says he is seeking for Baltimore -- involve a regional approach that would enable more public housing residents to live outside the city.

Specifically, the remedies in Dallas -- the issuance of thousands of subsidized housing certificates to be used to rent private apartments in mostly white areas, supplemented by the construction and rehabilitation of a few hundred other housing units -- are along the lines of those that have been suggested as possibilities in Baltimore.

Yet the length of the Dallas case -- nearly two decades, or twice as long as Baltimore's legal struggle -- indicates the difficulty of complying with court mandates. And although unprecedented numbers of public housing residents have been given more choice in where to live, the great majority continue to reside in areas with high concentrations of the poor and minorities.

'Lived this litigation'

"It's been extremely challenging," said Ann Lott, president and chief executive of the Dallas Housing Authority and a 19-year veteran of the agency, who says she has "lived this litigation."

There has been little opposition to the housing certificates. But one planned housing complex in the far northern part of Dallas had to overcome widespread community resistance before opening and another is being contested before a federal appeals court, she said.

"The opposition that you face when you try to build public housing cannot be overstated," she said.

After nearly 20 years of litigation, differences over the case are not hard to find.

"It's given a lot of people a lot more choice of good, decent housing for themselves and their families," said Mike Daniel, the lawyer who filed the lawsuit on behalf of black Dallas public housing residents.

But Thomas Pauken, a Dallas attorney and former chairman of the Texas Republican Party, said the case -- known as the Walker case after lead plaintiff Debra Walker -- had little impact beyond enriching lawyers.

"Judge Buchmeyer took the authority of a federal judge and extended it far beyond the intent of the framers of the Constitution," he said. "It was most inappropriate."

Apart from similarities in theory and remedies, another reason the Walker case is of significance to Baltimore is that HUD Secretary Alphonso R. Jackson oversaw the Dallas Housing Authority from 1989 to 1996 when the agency began to comply with a federal court order to dismantle its segregated public housing system. The attitude of HUD under Jackson is thought to be a key to whether the Baltimore case will be settled in the next few months or proceed to a separate remedy phase of the trial, scheduled to begin in July.

During his Dallas tenure, Jackson, the first African-American to head the city Housing Authority, often expressed support for the idea of breaking up concentrations of minority poor.

"We are going to give opportunities to low-income people to integrate both socially and economically -- opportunities that were denied before," he said. In an interview at the end of the case in December, Jackson praised the progress and told The Dallas Morning News: "I don't see the Housing Authority ever regressing to the point it was at when I walked in, in 1989."

Monument to neglect

What he walked into was an agency defined by its West Dallas housing complex, a dense collection of 3,500 low-rise units in barracks-like buildings constructed in the early 1950s. They were infested with rats and roaches, contaminated by lead and trash, and frequented by squatters and drug dealers.

Two years earlier, Buchmeyer had pronounced the complex a "gigantic monument to segregation and neglect." He ordered that it be demolished and rebuilt with far fewer units, later mandating that thousands of new and rehabilitated housing units and rental vouchers be provided to give black public housing residents the chance to move into predominantly white areas of the city and its suburbs.

Today, the 460-acre West Dallas site has 775 public housing units in five developments built since the mid-1990s, a multipurpose center and youth ballpark, and the Housing Authority's headquarters.

'A compromise'

The first effort to comply with the court's order to build 474 new or renovated public housing units in white areas of the city and suburbs began in 1995, with the purchase of a tract in affluent North Dallas. The plan for a relatively small public housing development drew the ire of local residents -- and their opposition in turn drew national attention.

Lott, the Housing Authority's chief executive, said the site could have held 150 units. "We could have built so much more there," she said. "We didn't. We made a compromise."

The 75-unit Frankford Townhomes opened in 1998, a development nearly indistinguishable from many of the toney market-rate rental properties nearby. It consists of two-story, red brick townhouses in groups of four, with a playground and a community building.

The size of the development was not the only concession. The Housing Authority also agreed to have an on-site property manager and to require residents to be employed or in school.

More than six years later, even some of those most stridently opposed initially acknowledge that their worst fears did not come to pass.

"Everything they said they would do -- I have to give them credit for this -- they did," said Dick Prewitt, head of a nearby homeowners group. "I've never noticed any crime. I've never noticed any drug addiction or fights."

Sandra Collier, Frankford's property manager, said prospective renters are often surprised to learn that it's public housing. "They say, 'It doesn't look like public housing.'"

In the past five years, about 30 residents have moved from Frankford into home ownership, she said.

Among the current residents is Debbie Cushingberry, 37, a single woman who left a public housing development in South Dallas, from which she commuted three hours to her job at an assisted-living facility in Plano. She now has a car and a new job as a home health care nurse.

"I have a better outlook on life," she said. "I can see myself doing better things."

Besides rebuilding Frankford, the Housing Authority has built a smaller complex nearby and converted an apartment complex in northeast Dallas to public housing. But a plan to build 40 units of public housing at another North Dallas site has been held up for years by legal challenges by homeowners groups.

Mike Lynn, an attorney who represents the homeowners, says greater use of vouchers would be a better and more race-neutral way of accomplishing court-ordered goals than building in predominantly white areas. The homeowners' challenge is before a federal appeals court for the third time.

"Vouchers present greater choice, they are more efficient, and they get the government out of the business of being a landlord," Lynn said.

Remedies and choice

In fact, vouchers have been the principal remedy for providing greater choice in where to live to come out of the Dallas case.

Four years ago, HUD agreed to fund 3,205 vouchers at up to 125 percent of what it considered fair-market rentals to enable Dallas public housing residents to move into predominantly white, middle-class areas. The federal agency has provided 2,100 of the vouchers and has until 2007 to provide the rest. HUD also agreed to provide nearly $10 million for counseling and other services to residents, and bonuses to encourage landlords to join the program.

Of the nearly 15,000 black Dallas-area families that receive Section 8 housing certificates, about 4,800, or nearly one-third, live in predominantly white areas, according to Housing Authority figures. That is nearly twice the percentage of 10 years ago and up from a few dozen families in the late 1980s.

Of those 4,800, about 1,600 live in white areas of Dallas, a city of about 1.2 million. Most of the rest live in about two dozen suburban communities, the vast majority in Garland, Mesquite, Irving, Plano and Carrollton.

As part of the final judgment, the Housing Authority must monitor crime for the next two years at all apartment complexes where more than 10 Section 8 voucher holders live and reject additional contracts for complexes where crime is high.

Baltimore keeps no statistics of the racial makeup of areas in which its housing vouchers are used. But housing officials say of Baltimore's 10,852 active vouchers, well over 90 percent are used by black families, and more than 90 percent are used to rent in the city, which is two-thirds African-American. According to an analysis in federal court records of city data of voucher users in June 2003, about 6 percent of black voucher holders in Baltimore lived in areas that were predominantly white.

Key is resources

Daniel, the plaintiffs' attorney in the Dallas case, said the key to the success of such remedies is "whether HUD provides the resources for the effort."

"You've got to have resources to pay bonuses to landlords to get new units in," he said. "You've got to have rents high enough to attract the landlords. You have to have resources to assist the tenants with things like security deposits. It takes money to get all that."

Gerry Henigsman, executive vice president of the Apartment Association of Greater Dallas, says higher rents and one-time bonuses equal to half the first month's rent have been important in attracting new landlords, along with more careful screening of voucher holders and the Housing Authority's regular informational meetings with landlords. But he says the Dallas rental market was also an important factor.

"The market is much softer than back in 1995," he said. "A lot of landlords see the Section 8 program as a way to lease apartments."

A better life

For many public housing residents, the vouchers provided as a result of the Walker case have been a way to a better life.

In Todae Charles' neighborhood on the south side of this community of 191,000 -- where two out of three are white and one in 10 are black -- several houses have RVs in the drive and American flags out front.

"If you want to throw a football in the street, it's really, really safe," said her eldest child, Felicia McGehee, 14. "I feel like the Cosbys."

Charles and her family spent 18 months on a waiting list before moving into their house in July 2003. She said the program was appealing not because it enabled her to live in a nonblack community, but because it provided help with application fees and security deposits, and housing in a neighborhood with a good school.

Now she has a new goal.

"I have a five-year plan," she said. "I want to own my own house."

Two cities, similar lawsuits over public housing

BALTIMORE

1995: Black public housing residents file suit against HUD, the Housing Authority of Baltimore City and the city, alleging discrimination in the public housing system.

1996: A partial settlement allows the HOPE VI redevelopments and provides 2,200 opportunities for public housing residents to live in mostly white, middle-class areas of the city and suburbs.

2000: The city abandons plans to buy and renovate 10 vacant houses in Northeast Baltimore for public housing amid community opposition. It later funds the purchase and renovation of 30 widely scattered units.

2003: After an effort to settle the remainder of the case fails, a three-week federal trial is held in December.

2005: U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis rules that HUD violated fair housing laws by failing to take a regional approach to the desegregation of public housing in Baltimore but absolves the city and its housing authority of wrongdoing. A July trial is set to determine a remedy if a settlement is not reached before then.DALLAS

1985: Black public housing residents sue HUD and the Dallas Housing Authority, alleging that their civil rights were violated in programs run and funded by the agencies. The city of Dallas is later added to the lawsuit.

1987: Agreeing with the plaintiffs, U.S. District Judge Jerry Buchmeyer calls a decayed 3,500-unit housing complex a "gigantic monument to segregation and neglect." He signs the first of several orders mandating sweeping changes.

1998: Despite objections by nearby homeowners, the 75-unit Frankford Townhomes public housing development opens in North Dallas, the first effort by the city Housing Authority to build or renovate public housing in white areas.

2001: HUD agrees to fund 3,205 special rental certificates for black public housing residents in mostly white areas of the city and its suburbs, and to provide nearly $10 million to help recruit landlords and assist residents in moving.

2004: Buchmeyer approves a final settlement in the case.

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