By JOLI ANGEL ROBINSON
Dallas City Council campaign season is heating up. By now, you have seen yard signs popping up in front yards, candidate forums, block walkers, and perhaps even mailers delivered to your doorstep. Unlike elected officials at the state and federal level, local city council members have the unique ability and massive responsibility to put forth policies and ordinances that are felt in various aspects of our everyday lives.
It has now been a year of tremendous trauma with COVID-19 amplifying already present cracks in Dallas’ economic, education, and health care systems. Compounded with the rising cost of living in Dallas, one of the biggest issues on the 2021 municipal ballot is housing affordability.
Affordable housing is a complex social issue. There tends to be three different terms used to discuss housing – affordable housing, workforce housing and equitable access to housing. The term affordable housing tends to bring up strong, and often negative, feelings about rental units and Section 8 vouchers. Workforce housing is typically known as housing for those we consider our essential workers, such as nurses, police officers and teachers who generally earn anywhere from $65,000 to $80,000 annually. My preference is the broader term, known as ‘equitable access to housing’.
This particular term can provide a greater context to the entire home affordability conversation and usually starts with the analysis of access, and most often the lack of, to credit. The conversation of equitable access to housing also tells the complete and accurate story about the history of redlining and racist policies and practices that have sought to keep Black and Hispanic people out of the housing market.
In order to transcend terminology, and not get bogged down by which word fits which situation, we must agree on the necessity for affordable housing options across the income spectrum, for individuals and families throughout our city.
Conventional wisdom tells us that housing costs should be around 30% of a household’s income. This is becoming more and more unrealistic for many families because sadly, wages and job growth are not keeping up with the actual cost of living. This reality is leaving many households cost burdened by the price of either renting or owning a suitable and decent place to live. Dallas is seeing those at low to moderate-income levels increasingly experiencing this crushing cost of home. Consequently, families are forced to choose between paying for basic necessities like transportation, groceries, child care and medicine or paying their mortgages or rent each month.
If we are not careful, the lack of housing affordability in our community has the very real potential of threatening the economic viability and sustainability of our city. When families are forced to move out of Dallas in search for more affordable homes in surrounding areas, our city misses out on the economic and cultural impact of these valued neighbors. Because of this, many residents who have called Dallas home for generations are continuing to be pushed out.
So this campaign season, as you engage with the candidates running for city council in your district, I urge you to have the conversation about home affordability. Ask about the candidates’ efforts to create and preserve housing that is affordable for individuals and families across income spectrums.
It is true that not all families have suffered equally during the COVID-19 crisis, and our mid and upper housing markets are thriving. But until all of our neighbors have equitable access to a safe, affordable home; our city will never live up to its full potential.
Joli Angel Robinson is the vice president of Government Affairs and Public Policy for Dallas Area Habitat for Humanity. She also serves as the co-chair of Dallas Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation Organization and volunteers as a Court-Appointed Special Advocate for Dallas CASA.