God bless the City of Dallas for trying to develop a comprehensive approach to housing. Having worked 18-plus years as a Dallas assistant city attorney, six-plus years as general counsel for a Texas homebuilder and developer and 36-plus years as a real estate attorney, I can certify that this is extremely hard stuff.
Too often it seems that affordable housing efforts are a case of the tail wagging the dog. The discussion seems to go, we have a high number of poor people in Dallas (too high, everyone agrees); therefore, we need to ensure affordable housing for that number.
The problem with such an approach is this: If a given percentage of a city’s housing stock is available and permanently restricted to poor people only, don’t act surprised if at least that percentage of the city’s population is forever poor. The goal should be to reduce the level of poverty in Dallas, not lock it in. No one ever seems to formulate the discussion as, what level of poverty in our city is acceptable or inevitable? How do we get to that level, and how do we ensure that the hopefully fewer remaining poor have some dignity?
Yes, of course, the poor need places to live, too. And, yes, of course, it is all but impossible to hold down a job or attend school without a place to live. Efforts to lessen the misery of being poor are a laudable and necessary role for society.
But, what about reducing the overall number of our citizens living in poverty? Job opportunities in historically disadvantaged communities, convenient and affordable transportation options to areas of employment, education and job training, healthful and affordable child care and other such efforts should be our focus as well.
There are two types of anti-poverty efforts. One type seeks to reduce the misery of being poor by providing food, health care, housing, etc. The other type seeks to make the poor no longer poor, with jobs, education, transportation, etc. We should avoid housing policies that normalize and perpetuate poverty by building it into the permanent structure of our housing stock. And, we must enact anti-poverty programs that do more than just make it a little less miserable to be poor.
Dallas citizens should be heartened by the housing policy approved by City Council this past Wednesday. While not perfect (nothing ever is), it seems to be a huge step in the right direction. With a focus on middle-income housing and areas ripe for improvement, rather than just more low-income housing, the plan constitutes a healthier approach to the issue.
If Dallas can combine this housing policy with similarly comprehensive efforts to lift the poor into that middle-income level with meaningful economic opportunities, it will have done something truly historic. And, dare I say, heroic.
Art Hudman is a retried Dallas assistant city attorney and a Dallas Morning News 2018 Community Voices columnist.
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