Sunday, July 17, 2011

Going for the Screed; Missing the Story

In the Points section of July 10 edition of the Dallas Morning News, two columns, one by me another by editorial board writer Tod Robberson told the story of redevelopment initiatives taking place in South and East Dallas. Tod's column primarily explored the nature of those initiatives - the degree to which they had engagement by neighborhood leadership and the degree to which they were initiated by external support and vision. One of those neighborhoods was the area in which I served as a pastor for more than 20 years.

The old Bexar Street Theater, left vacant & crumbling for decades

The section of Bexar Street where the theater was located

Currently, along that major corridor in what is actually referred to as the Ideal Neighborhood, there is a $20 million redevelopment project that was conceived by the local community development corporation, the T.R. Hoover Community Development Corporation. The project now is being built by the East Dallas Community Organization (EDCO) and, for those of us who lived with the 'before' picture, the 'after' can only be described as breathtaking.
My column gave some insight into how the initiative on Bexar Street started.While the project is now fully embraced by the city of Dallas, it started with a little regarded effort on the part of those of us who were leaders in the neighborhood to replace the demolished housing stock in the area with single family housing. We asked for and received $425,000 from the city in mortgage subsidy to incentivize the purchase of about 50 new homes in the area. It was an adventurous undertaking and one of which I am particularly proud.

Jim Schutze, a columnist for the Dallas Observer read the column and offered a criticism of the effort, summarized by the headline "Sorry, Guys, But Mortgage Subsidies Aren't the Answer in Southern Dallas".
Now I have no problem with a critique or criticism. And I have no problem with Jim Schutze. It's not the first time he's taken me on about a column I've written. I like Jim. I think he's a fine writer. I have a cherished autographed copy of, what I consider to be, his classic book on the history of race in Dallas entitled 'The Accommodation'. I recommend it to anyone who wants a primer on race relations in our city. 

But Jim dropped the ball on this one and, in fact I think he was pandering to his 'anti-DMN' readership. 

For instance, Jim writes of the award of the mortgage subsidy as if it was a recent development. 

The money was awarded 15 years ago. 

Jim also failed to research how the subsidy was used. It was designed to be a 'soft-second' mortgage to stabilize a neighborhood that was losing its housing stock because of disproportionate demolition of its housing stock. If Jim had picked up the phone and called me, I would have told him that while 50 houses wouldn't redevelop the neighborhood by itself, every one of those houses was built on a vacant lot valued at no more than $3900. Taxes weren't being collected on most of those lots. Liens were piling up due to past due taxes, and fines accumulating because of overgrown weeds and litter. The T.R. Hoover CDC, transformed each one of those lots into a tax revenue producing property by building houses on them, houses which at that time sold for anywhere from $70-$90,000. 

In the column I relate an episode where the City Managers office tried to sell the neighborhood association (the CDC was formed after the city council awarded the mortgage subsidy), on a 'lease-purchase' program. The problem with that was 'lease-purchase' was essentially rental. Jim conveniently doesn't speak to the importance of the difference "The same day, Britt took the whip to the city manager's staff for trying to convert a re-development project on Bexar Street from traditional private home ownership to a lease-purchase deal, which Britt sneeringly called "rental.""

""We met with city staff," he wrote, "and demanded that they uphold the original agreement -- $425,000 for mortgage subsidies to 'seed' home ownership in the neighborhood."" 

Jim doesn't clarify what 'same day' was. But the incident I described happened in 1997. 

He also conveniently forgets to mention, that the CMO was guilty of slight of hand in which they had convinced the neighborhood association that the Enterprise Foundation (now the Enterprise Partners) would be partners in this project. It took a trip to Baltimore, Maryland, Enterprise headquarters, to discover that the Enterprise officials never heard of the deal and couldn't do it anyway, because the details amounted to a conflict of interest for them. Jim also fails to mention that in '90's the neighborhood was disproportionately made up of rental property. Between absentee landlords and renters who could not or did not maintain their property you basically had a community overpopulated with residents who had no stake in the neighborhood. Only home ownership would do that. 

If Jim had only called, I would have gladly told him that nothing about what we did was revolutionary. In fact the city, especially at that time, routinely offered tax abatements to businesses as incentives to move their operations to Dallas. The city already had a mortgage assistance program (MAP) for first time home buyers (as a matter of fact it still does). We asked for a special pot of funding (MAP money is federal money given to cities and administered for the city by the Enterprise Foundation), and money which the city routinely ran out of because it was for every area of the city. We needed a pot of money that we could depend on. Had he bothered to call, or email, I would have gladly told him that T.R. Hoover wisely built no houses on speculation. Every house was built for home buyers who were either credit worthy, or who had gone through home buyer training to learn not only how to afford to buy a home, but how to keep the home once they brought it. Had Jim called I could have told him that no home buyer got a 'sub-prime' mortgage. They all had a conventional loan and accessed the mortgage subsidy through their title company. 

As for the town homes built on Bexar Street now, Jim conflates/confuses these with public housing. They are not. They are town homes bought with a regular mortgage, for which buyers must make application and qualify, just like anyplace else in Dallas. 

T.C. Grocers, long a sight of questionable activity

T.C. Grocers now. The owner decided to stay and clean up facade and the activity outside

Jim could have actually had a much better piece than Tod or I had written...if he had just called. As a matter of fact, the last time I saw Jim, he admitted that he  had gone back and reread the last column I wrote and he critiqued and that we needed to talk more often. This piece  shows he was right. Jim went for the screed and totally missed the story. 

Don't get me wrong. I think there are a number of things that we could have done better in Ideal.  I would have been more than happy to share with Jim the mistakes we made in the '90's and the mistakes I see being made now. 

Jim just didn't call. Or email. I'm not that hard to find. And he's interviewed me several times, I don't have a problem talking with him at all.

Jim Schutze, however, doesn't have to pay attention to me. I'm not an experienced professional journalist in the same way he is. But while the screed gets people chattering, I think the story is much more interesting. I just think its too bad he missed it. 

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