By DEMETRIA McCAIN
Inclusive Communities Project
It is as if Rejane Frederick and Guillermo Ortiz specifically flew into Dallas and captured the challenges our city has while passionate mission-driven nonprofits work to revitalize Dallas communities of color. Frederick’s and Ortiz’ article, “Promise and Opportunity Deferred: Why the United States Has Failed to Achieve Equitable and Inclusive Communities,” highlights key issues that need to be addressed if neighborhood equity is to ever come to fruition. After having scanned the country, the authors conclude what many of us suspected; the Opportunity Zone tax incentive has not lived up to its promise. In short, the 2017 federal tax incentive’s stated goal included driving private sector investment dollars into select neighborhoods, neighborhoods chosen by governors. In Dallas several census tracts were recommended by then Mayor Mike Rawlings with 15 ultimately selected.
In their critique of OZs, the authors walk readers through the history of place-based attempts towards equitable economic development and point out that reaching equity calls for much more than just an infusion of money. Their observation that a traditional approach to place-based efforts “never confronts the long-standing polices and practices that made the communities of color distress in the first place.” We see this play out in Dallas. The article’s national observation that “these communities are often disproportionally exposed to the highest levels of toxic pollution” can easily be seen when we consider the multi-story high pile of recycled shingles, aptly known as “Shingle Mountain”, which seeps waste in the backyards of Ms. Marsha Jackson and her southern Dallas neighbors near Interstate 45. We see it as Highland Hills residents circle the wagons to protect themselves from the Lane Plating EPA super fund site located in their midst next to a public park. For Frederick and Ortiz to recognize that “places of concentrated poverty, distress, and environmental injustice are not ‘natural’ but rather the product of inequitable public and private policies and practices,” validates the clarion bell that so many Dallas residents and advocates have been and continue to ring today in hopes of getting decision makers to act equitably and with all deliberate speed.
Nothing could be more stinging than the authors’ observations that “[u]ntil policymakers acknowledge that placemaking has always been political and continues to be profoundly racialized – as a place is inextricably tied to its residents – the community development field is doomed to repeat the same lackluster and harmful approaches that neither revitalize communities nor alleviate inequity.” There have been bright moments in Dallas when it comes to community development, but it can be argued that these herculean efforts have not yet been transformative for all of southern Dallas. Until full transformation takes place low-income residents, particularly renters wait, and wait, and wait. And they do so while hoping transformation will not mean displacement.
In the meantime, we must support low-wage moms with children who have a housing choice voucher subsidy and can no longer wait. We must not feel betrayed if she seeks to move to new surroundings that need little if any transformation, a place where she may find herself the racial “other.” We must not try to contain her as a political pawn. Paternalism must not work to contain her while assuming she will flounder if she leaves the familiar blocks of her childhood where challenges of the unknown take precedent over her known challenges.
With people-based strategies gaining momentum, it would be unfortunate if those who have been committed to the decades long use of place-based strategies engage in “Oppression Olympics” by standing in the way of new approaches. Transformation of long neglected and abused Black and Brown neighborhoods is critical. But for some low-wage families, personal transformation calls for policies that give them access to well-resourced, low-poverty communities now. We should support people-based policies and practices as the place-based work continues and leave the Olympics to the athletes.
Demetria McCain is president of the Inclusive Communities Project, a local affordable fair housing nonprofit advocacy organization that provides housing mobility counseling to housing choice voucher holders. She can be reached through http://www.inclusivecommunities.net.