How to Read the News and Not Pass Out
Always fun for me to read The Dallas Morning News on Sunday, or, as I call it, Pravda Day. That's when the big think-pieces come out in the special "Pointy Section" of the paper ... oh, 'scuse me, it's really called the "Points Section," but you get my point. It's the Sunday editorial section, and it's where they publish the week's important statements of official dogma.
Way to read it is this: 1) Put powerful lamp on floor. 2) Stand on head next to powerful lamp. 3) Hold paper upside down. 4) Read from right to left between lines while loudly reciting "How Much Wood Could a Woodchuck Chuck."
Truth shall emerge. Or you shall pass out.
Last Sunday's epistle was called "City rethinks housing approach" and it was all about a wonderful kumbaya community get-together put on last week by the city to sort of gather up people's thoughts about how the city might approach housing policy differently. So what was really going on? More truthful headlines might have been: "City prepares to get ass kicked by HUD," "City makes dramatic deathbed conversion" or "Previous pronouncements by city on HUD matter no longer operative."
In February 2013, I told you that, after a four-year investigation, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development had accused the city of collusion to promote racial segregation. Last January, KERA reporter Shelley Kofler broke a story revealing that Dallas basically had told HUD to kiss off. In a 59-page letter, Dallas City Attorney Warren M.S. Ernst went line by line through the HUD investigative report and dismissed all of it as something between willful distortion and shabby work.
Since then, the City Hall line has been a bit wobbly. Sometimes City Hall sounds as if it still thinks the HUD report got it all wrong, and at other times the city sounds as if it means to get right with the sheriff.
In the meantime and elsewhere around the country, other shoes have fallen. In Westchester County, New York -- one of the first places where HUD showed a new toughness on fair housing laws -- some county officials have based political careers on two interesting premises: 1) that HUD can't tell them what to do, and 2) that HUD has to keep giving them federal aid payments whether HUD wants to or not.
Last April 23 (see letter below), HUD sent Westchester a letter that kind of split the difference: 1) No, we can't tell you what to do, 2) but we don't have to keep giving you our money.
HUD whacked off $5.2 million in federal housing money to Westchester. Westchester County has a budget almost as big as Dallas' budget ($1.7 billion versus $2 billion), so $5 million here or there isn't going to kill them. Our losses, if HUD cut us off, would be more like $20 million, still not enough to make City Hall think about selling its lake house.
But, for one thing, the real losses are in the future, if HUD keeps the tap shut, which it intends to do with Westchester until they fess up and clean up their act on housing. The second point is political. Westchester is an extremely upscale area (think Collin County on powder cocaine), and apparently politicians there can make hay by giving the finger to federal officials accusing them of being racist.
But Dallas County is blue. Try to imagine an elected official here ... mmm, OK, let's not try to imagine that. It could happen, but suffice it to say that few politicians here would choose the route of the racial finger.
So what was the thing Sunday again? The editorial Sunday was about a community meeting the city put on as part of something it is calling "Housing Plus." A city council briefing on Housing Plus last March was salted throughout with language to convey in the plainest terms possible to even the sleepiest snooziest member of the council that, Ernst's letter notwithstanding, the new plan is to comply with HUD's requirements from the letter A to the letter Z.
The briefing materials told the council, "Impending changes in Federal policy and regulations will require different approaches to existing programs." It said, "The City may have obligations to HUD under the letter of November 22, 2013, that need to be addressed through program or policy changes."
It identified a technical document singled out by HUD in its investigative report as something the city will have to fix. The briefing even singled out poor old Jerry Killlingsworth, the recently departed head of the city's housing department, as the goat whose role now apparently is to shoulder all the blame: "The retirement of the former Housing Director," the briefing materials stated, "presents an opportunity for change."
Finally the briefing said that in doing all of this the city must "ensure a broadly inclusive public engagement process" to "ensure that the principles of affirmatively furthering fair housing are interwoven into every aspect of the planning and decision-making process."
"Affirmatively furthering fair housing" is the operative legal term taken from HUD's authorizing legislation. One of the entities suing HUD (not the city) for failing to do a better job enforcing its own laws in Dallas is Inclusive Communities Projects Inc. or ICP. I half wonder if ICP will show up as contractor to help HUD get right.
The briefing also included some language I thought was sort of hilarious to the effect that the city is going to make real sure it stays in close touch with HUD so it can find out what HUD wants it to do. The joke there is that HUD probably is only weeks away from sending Dallas a formal description of what it has to do. It will be the official butt-kicking letter that will tell City Hall, 1) We read Mr. Ernst's letter telling us to kiss off, 2) It was real funny. 3) Get real. 4) Quick.
What the Sunday editorial in the News was really saying was that the Ernst effort is over. We're in the wrong. We must bite the bullet. It will be expensive. But keep smiling. The silly kumbaya community meeting last week was a face-saving ceremony.
Whatever. It's all to the good. It means we're going to do the sane thing politically and the right thing morally. We're going to stop using federal desegregation dollars to promote segregation. It's a move way ahead. In terms of progressive thinking on pluralism, I feel like we're almost up to 1998 now.