By DIANE XAVIER
The Dallas Examiner
America is often known as a nation of immigrants seeking the American Dream. That dream has included working hard and moving up the ladder to achieve career and financial success. But for some, that dream has been a distant fantasy. But recently, the dream may seem more out of reach than ever.
The phrase, ‘The American Dream’ was first coined in 1931, and it was described as a phrase that meant a dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone.
With inflation rising in housing, food, gas and education, the American Dream might not become a reality for many, especially for people of color who have often experienced racism and discrimination.
In order to find a solution for providing equal opportunity for those in underserved communities, the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance hosted a series of conversations focused on the topic: Who Deserves a Shot at the American Dream? The conversation, focused on Hard Conversations about Racial Equity in Housing and Homelessness, was held as a zoom webinar on April 12.
The webinar featured panel moderator Joli Angel Robinson, MDHA president and CEO; Marc Dones, CEO of The King County Regional Homelessness Authority and co-author of the Dallas SPARC Report; Casey Thomas, Dallas City Council member for District 3; and Dr. J.H. Cullum Clark, director of the Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute.
The seminar examined how people are being left out of the dream and solutions to fix the problem.
The city of Dallas is one region where this topic has been examined through its Comprehensive Housing Policy Racial Equity Assessment.
Robinson opened the forum by examining the American Dream today.
“First of all, we’re doing some tremendous work within Dallas and Collin County to make the experience of homelessness rare, brief and non- recurring,” Robinson said. “There’s a dynamic team that works behind the scenes to make the hard conversations happen. Today, we’re really going to interrogate who deserves a shot at the American Dream. When we hear the phrase American Dream, what does that mean to us? What does that mean to the panelists? Is it true? Is it attainable?”
“As we all know, Dr. MLK, in his most famous speech, I Have a Dream, evokes the phrase,” Robinson said. “And two years later, he devoted an entire speech to that American dream and by that very name, many of us understand that housing is a prerequisite for that better, richer and fuller life as we’ve been told. It is hard to imagine within the space that we work in and what we continue to tell everyone is that homelessness is not a part of that dream for many individuals.”
Robison said this conversation series would look at housing and homelessness through the lens of racial equity.
Thomas said the housing policy assessment examined this topic.
“The Comprehensive Housing Policy is the city’s housing policy for how we provide housing comprehensively and single family and multifamily homes for the city of Dallas,” Thomas said, chair of the Housing Committee.
He said during his conversations with fellow staff employees, it occurred to him that there was no racial equity audit done when they voted and approved the Comprehensive Housing Policy.
“Based upon those conversations at the first meeting, the chair and I requested a racial equity audit of our comprehensive housing policy,” Thomas said. “So, we can begin to look at from a racial equity duration with the lands, how our programs and procedures and policies impacted communities of color indirectly or directly. I can simply say the findings show that our policy really was just a collection of programs. So one recommendation was that we talk about in our statement, an executive summary, that Dallas has historically discriminated against Black and Brown people and we then began to look at how these programs and these collection of programs, how inadequate in adequately addressing the housing gap, when we talk about providing affordable housing, the number that we’ve been told, and this was years ago, we have a 20,000 unit gap in terms of providing housing here in the city of Dallas, and we want to make sure in this policy in the programs that we do, that we don’t continue to discriminate against people from communities of color.”
Robinson then asked Clark what he said to people who downplay the discrimination and racism experienced by minorities in the past.
“I would push back and say there is no question on America’s broad history around race and housing that could possibly be a softball,” Clark said. “But here’s I guess the main thing I would say on it. In Dallas and in cities all over America, we have a tragic and very painful history of unjust policies around housing. In addition to unjust policies, around all kinds of issues that essentially were part of Jim Crow, and of our whole very difficult history of racial injustice. In starting with the Civil Rights Act, and the Fair Housing Act, we are under much of that edifice of unjust policies. However, the unjust policies of the past gave rise to realities that are still with us. The past is certainly not the past. One major reason why that is because of a century plus of legally enforced racial segregation gave rise to the whole economic geography of our cities today. Who lives where and in which areas are well off and well resourced? Which ones are under invested? That remains very much with us today. And it is the map of today’s economic geography, and our cities directly reflect the maps of Jim Crow.”
He said that even though Jim Crow segregation and redlining happened in the past, in many ways, people are still experiencing the effects from that today.
“It’s also the case that our unjust policies of the past essentially blocked millions of Americans who were predominantly people of color from accessing what has been the principal mode of generating generational wealth, which has been homeownership,” Clark said. “So those realities are very much still with us. The one area that is certainly not past is that even today, we have any number of policies, many of which are getting, I would say the situation is getting worse, that are bad for people in general, but are disproportionately bad for lower income people and for Black and Hispanic people in Dallas and other cities.”
He offered examples, such as current housing policies, delays with supplies that push housing prices to very high levels.
“In a world of income inequality that lands on lower income people especially hard and it is the fact that Black and Hispanic people in Dallas and in other American cities are overrepresented among lower income families, especially impacted by these failures,” Clark said.
Robinson later asked Dones why it was important to not forget the racial factors affecting people who experience homelessness.
“I’ll say very straightforwardly, the reason that race belongs in the conversation about homelessness is that homelessness is disproportionately a problem that affects folks of color,” Dones said. “What does it mean that a population is 13% of the general population in the United States and its somehow 40% of the population experiencing homelessness. And one of the things that is quite remarkable is that when we look at those numbers, poverty and homelessness don’t correlate in their demography, right? Like poverty is majority White in the country, but when you stack Black folks, native indigenous folks, Latin folks and some of the other multiracial categories, which are poorly defined as a data and that’s their conversation, you see a very different picture in homelessness, right, which then suddenly skews dramatically to be majority folks of color. And so the idea that homelessness in this country is simply a function of poverty doesn’t have face value. It doesn’t pass a basic web test on statistical correlation and causality. And so to that end, right, like it becomes impossible to have a conversation about ending homelessness without having a conversation about the racialized dimension that produced homelessness in this country.”
Afterwards, Robinson asked the panel what they thought was the role of government in addressing the inequities seen today in the housing market and for people of color.
“When I think about the role of government and local government, I think the government’s job is to provide and we say this provides opportunity for everyone,” Thomas said. “Well, if the playing field has been leveled, and if we don’t begin looking at things from a racial equity lens, and I’m proud to say in the city of Dallas, we passed twice, twice a resolution on racial equity, both passed 15-0, unanimously, and the second time that resolution laid the foundation for the city-wide racial equity plan that we’re in the process of developing now. It also said that every policy procedure and program going forward will be done through a racial equity lens. Government has to play a role in leveling this playing field.”
Clark provided context on the role of the government in providing equitable housing for all.
“We need considerably more new housing production in our city,” Clark said. “This is common around American cities. It’s especially so in Dallas. If you looked at the hand that we’re dealt in Dallas compared to most other big core cities in America, you wouldn’t trade her hand away for all that many other ones out there. We have a lot of people and capital coming into the metropolitan area. They want to be here. We have more than the usable amount of buildable land. We really have a better hand than most other places. But we have to play it well. So let me give you a couple of thoughts that give me some hope.”
Clark said he had looked at some numbers that examine the amount of permitting on new building activity as a percentage of the population to the city.
“If you just compare us to the other big cities of our state and we compare ourselves with Austin, it is even worse than us,” Clark said. But if you compare us to Houston or San Antonio or Fort Worth, Dallas has a long way to go to be creating new housing units at the same scale that even most cities aren’t. So, if we simply can reach the level that say Fort Worth or Houston or San Antonio does, I don’t know what that would do to the total pricing throughout the market, but it would be a lot of units. We need more market right housing; we need the market to function well. On the other hand, we also need a very active intelligent government role in using that affordable housing toolkit to essentially create subsidized housing of a wide variety of kinds in all parts of our city, and that is more about intelligent government action.”