As cities increasingly become enclaves for the rich and reservations for the poor, the debate rages on how to create inclusive urban growth to make cities less economically segregated and more vibrant. In Dallas, the Trinity River gives a geographic definition to the high income and low-income neighborhoods, dividing the historically prosperous northern half of the city from the historically downtrodden southern half of the city. The middle income families in Dallas continue to dwindle.
The prevailing ideological strategy of progressives, politicians and planners is to increase apartment zoning to add density and provide subsidies for new low-income housing that would insert low-income families into high, middle or mixed income neighborhoods.
Dallas political and civic leadership find this “dilute the good” strategy attractive, because it is much easier to dilute a good neighborhood than it is to fortify and improve a bad neighborhood. Inserting affordable housing into emerging or stable middle- and high-income neighborhoods immediately puts low-income persons closer to jobs in North Dallas and makes Dallas appear to be more inclusive and economically diverse.
The alternative inclusive urban growth strategy of improving the bad neighborhoods is looked upon more favorably by economists and those with more firsthand experience with the evolution of neighborhoods. The goal of this strategy is to protect the strong, subtle, and recovering neighborhoods and enhance the weak and declining neighborhoods. The focus is on encouraging quality development, renovation and revitalization in the devastated and down trodden neighborhoods.
Improving and encouraging development in bad neighborhoods is more difficult in the short-term, but more sustainable in the long run. This approach builds on Dallas’ victories rather than assaulting successful neighborhoods. A leading Dallas housing expert recently said in a presentation to the Dallas Breakfast Group there was a severe shortage of affordable homes in Dallas. When it was suggested that Dallas had thousands of affordable homes, the expert responded that Dallas only had affordable homes in areas where no one wanted to live. The message being conveyed is these neighborhoods are not nice enough for low-income families. Then for whom is the neighborhood good for?
Dallas should be looking at distressed neighborhoods in South Dallas that have a concentration of incredibly inexpensive vacant lots and dilapidated houses as a wonderful opportunity for inclusive urban growth. The inexpensive land and homes are its greatest asset. Developing a strategy and devoting resources to revitalize a neighborhood will create a neighborhood in which low-income people want to live, attract companies desiring the local labor supply, and begin to attract middle income homeowners because of the improving trend of the neighborhood and the good value it represents.
While revitalizing a neighborhood is an involved process, we know it can be done. The Old East Dallas neighborhoods are a good example of what were once the worst neighborhoods in the city with the most transience, crime, disease, and dilapidation, but which have steadily improved over four decades as a result of the city’s commitment to their revitalization. Similarly, we also see towns, cities, and regions across the country wiped out by floods, fires, hurricanes, and then rebuilt. Further, we see the urban blight of cities like Detroit where the entire city, once populated with vacant houses and vacant lots, is now beginning to enjoy a resurgence. If devastated areas like these can be rebuilt and revitalized, it should not be that difficult to create inclusive urban growth development and revitalization in the topographically beautiful half of the city with skyline views of downtown Dallas.
Despite the obvious challenges of revitalizing a distressed area and creating inclusive urban growth, the bigger challenge is the political preoccupation with relocating low-income people and low-income housing to high-income neighborhoods. Inserting low-income housing into stable neighborhoods in the short-term will win applause for city leaders and their efforts towards inclusive urban growth. New, shiny, high-income apartments and low-income housing when first built do not appear egregiously intrusive or disruptive. However, inserting high-income apartments and low-income housing in high-income neighborhoods and stable single-family zoned neighborhoods is a temporary gloss to the problem in the short-term and exacerbates urban problems in the long run. Increasing zoning density with either expensive or affordable apartments weakens and destabilizes a neighborhood. It also personifies the result of gentrification. Relocating low income families across town removes them farther away from their lifelong neighborhood and leaves an even greater void in their place. Traditional gentrification as a result of revitalization is gentle. It happens gradually and allows residents to move near the next area of economic affordability.
Cities appear tough, but are incredibly fragile and can decline rapidly. For example, Detroit was considered the most successful city in the country in the 1950s and 1960s, with booming industry, banking, music, and philanthropy. In just ten years of decline, the Detroit business and political leadership had given up on the city growing and by the 1970s was only trying to slow the decline. A successful urban neighborhood is a triumph and should not be jeopardized by increasing density or artificially inserting affordable housing.
Land in some North Dallas neighborhoods can cost 10 or 20 times as much as land in the dilapidated neighborhoods. In South Dallas, on the same budget, many more affordable homes could be built, with money left over for neighborhood improvements such as new curbs, sidewalks, trees planted in the parkways, new street lights, and vacant lots groomed. These investments will continue to attract more investments, development, residents and business.
New or renovated affordable housing hurts high-income neighborhoods, but done right, boosts dilapidated neighborhoods. New affordable housing along with improved infrastructure will encourage churches and nonprofits to help existing homeowners improve their homes and help coordinate absentee owners to finance their homes to existing tenants or other low income families. As a neighborhood begins to look better visually, middle income homes will begin to be built and a positive trend will be recognized and will continue. Retail and businesses will be attracted to this resurgence. These once distressed neighborhoods will become a natural mix of different income groups, adding to the appeal of the neighborhood. School systems like DISD will benefit from the increased stability of the neighborhood. Charter schools will open in these more attractive neighborhoods and lenders will increasingly make home loans in these areas.
The southern half of Dallas has the opportunity to become a mosaic of economically diverse and mixed income neighborhoods. Just as homeowners and builders are attracted to the inexpensive land, businesses and companies will also be attracted to the less expensive land and the rich source of labor. Eventually, the south side of the river could be viewed as geographically and topographically the most attractive and a desirable destination, rather than a place that’s not even suited for low income residents. Southern Dallas can be the foundation for the 21st century success of the city.
Southern Dallas is the greatest untapped urban resource in the country. It has all of the geographic and economic characteristics for vibrant development, inclusive growth and fabulous neighborhoods in which to live.
Inclusive urban growth in the short term can be artificially engineered by redistributing low-income people to high-income neighborhoods. Or inclusive urban growth can be realized by taking advantage of the vast resources of southern Dallas and its abundant inexpensive vacant land, cheap housing and vast labor supply. Building up a neighborhood is always a more favorable approach to inclusive urban growth than diluting a good neighborhood. The prospect for inclusive urban growth in southern Dallas is strong and should be pursued and realized.