Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Editorial: City Hall rethinks housing approach

Dallas City Council members joined city staffers and scores of community leaders Thursday in an unusual problem-solving exercise aimed at improving the way distressed neighborhoods get help. What made this meeting noteworthy was the way it engaged participants in devising realistic solutions and finding ways to make City Hall more responsive.

Traditionally, such processes have been laden with dysfunction and poor communication. Neighborhood leaders complain about their worst problems, then demand unworkable, expensive and often utopian solutions. City officials, anxious to stop the complaining, come up with piecemeal responses that address symptoms but rarely cure the underlying cause of the problems.

A patina of progress gets washed over everything. Nothing really gets solved. High levels of dissatisfaction remain. Thursday’s exercise was designed to get everyone at the same table and weigh neighborhood priorities against budgetary and logistical realities.

Interim Assistant City Manager Theresa O’Donnell dubbed the meeting “Housing Plus” as a way of focusing participants on the primary goal of revamping the broken housing department she oversees. The “plus” involves finding alternatives to housing projects as the engine of change.

For decades, the housing department has served as a cash cow for small groups of developers who reaped profits on city-financed affordable multifamily housing projects. Constituents in largely poor communities cheered when these shiny new buildings went up, but once they deteriorated, dissatisfaction returned. So the developers returned to build again.

Then there’s the tendency of the city’s Office of Economic Development to throw gobs of money into commercial projects designed to invigorate business and stimulate employment in blighted areas. Too many of these projects have flopped, adding to local frustration and disappointment.

At City Hall, “everybody’s kind of comfortable doing their own jobs right now. … But it’s not really working,” O’Donnell says. Minimal coordination among the housing department, economic development and other agencies has boosted inefficiency.

“You never make an impact. The market never takes over” to generate economic activity independent of government largesse, she adds. O’Donnell envisions creating a new Department of Neighborhood Investment to help unite disparate and uncommunicative agencies.

On Thursday, at each of roughly a dozen tables at the central library sat a City Council member, a City Hall coordinator and participants representing neighborhood activist groups, nonprofits and community development corporations. They identified blighted and underserved areas — including several in northern Dallas — and came up with recommendation lists of city services and business investments that each neighborhood needs.
The exercise was an excellent first step toward eliminating departmental silos and building productive relationships. Let’s hope this makeover attempt survives special-interest pushback and bureaucratic inertia. What we saw Thursday represented a refreshing step away from the tired same ol’ same ol’ approach to public administration.

Dallas News Editorial