By Aaron Greenberg
Special to the TJP
DALLAS — What is the role of city government in tackling poverty and its causes, and how can it work with volunteers and local organizations to improve ongoing efforts?
That was the big question panelists from city government addressed during the Anti-Poverty Coalition of Greater Dallas’ town hall forum Jan. 26 at First Presbyterian Church of Dallas.
“It’s very hard to go into a neighborhood and say ‘Be patient, we have a 10-year strategy,’” said Peer Chacko, chief planning officer for the city.
The APC includes a number of Jewish groups, and the Jewish Community Relations Council’s executive director, Anita Zusman Eddy, served as moderator for the event. The featured speakers were Dallas City Councilman Mark Clayton, Vana Hammond of the mayor’s office, Theresa O’Donnell of Resilient Dallas, and Chacko.
About 300 people, largely volunteers and activists, packed the hall.
Each panelist took about 10 minutes to provide an update on the initiatives they are part of, and then Zusman Eddy offered questions to the group based on those written on index cards by the audience. Regina Montoya, of the Mayor’s Taskforce on Poverty, answered questions as well, taking Clayton’s place after he left to catch a flight.
Two common themes arose from the panelists: that the challenges are very serious, in some cases, near tipping points; and that there has been a great deal of work and careful thought put into the city’s initiatives.
Among the issues the city is dealing with are the loss of the middle class and its resources to the suburbs, a 38 percent child poverty rate (worst among cities of 1 million people or more), and 10,000 people without homes.
Clayton, who represents District 9, said he sees the city council’s job as a facilitator of public policy, and determining short-term, medium-range and long-term solutions.
“You’re the experts,” he told the community leaders, “but you need a voice for public policy.”
When the city has public input and the right information, Clayton believes it can act in a dynamic capacity.
“It’s not looking out the window and seeing somebody on the sidewalk and doing things. We’re looking at root causes,” he said.
Hammond heads GrowSouth, which is focused on improving South Dallas, and Neighbor Up, which works on building up neighborhoods. She said South Dallas doesn’t need to be looked at as a charity case, but an investment opportunity.
“It’s about empowerment and development. You have to empower the people there, so that they know they are worth the investment so that they are not dependent on others,” Hammond said.
She pointed out how the area, which is larger than Atlanta, has seen property values rise by 25 percent since 2012, and gained $1.5 billion in tax base over the last five years. There is also a project development fund, Impact Dallas Capital, working to erase the gap between funding for projects in North Dallas and South Dallas.Her team is using four accelerators, including an advisory council, a focus on three key locations (an Education Corridor, the Redbird Corridor and the Parkdale/Urbandale Corridor), an initiative to work with landlords of unsound properties, and a single-family housing initiative. Six of the eight targeted landlords (those with 40 or more houses, 50 percent or more unsound) have signed onto a commitment.
O’Donnell, the former chief planning officer, is now the chief resiliency officer for Resilient Dallas. The program is based on a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation and works in 100 selected cities, including London, Paris and Singapore.
The grant is designed to help cities deal with stresses and chronic shocks. O’Donnell said the Dallas program is focused on poverty, blight and educational reform. She noted that many of the cities have similar issues.
Resilient Dallas is starting its second year, and after making assessments, is now turning to the top few challenges identified. Among those O’Donnell cited are the rapid change in technology, which has brought great benefits but also upheaval to the city. She also addressed the city’s history of race relations, which have left it with tremendous problems of economic inequality and segregation.
She’s troubled by the number of people left behind the robust local economy, and is looking for ways to include them.
“How can we do that? What’s keeping people out of it?” O’Donnell asked.
Chacko has overseen the Neighborhood Plus program for a little more than a year, creating new policies for housing. Alleviating poverty is only part of the focus, which also looks at blight, attracting the middle class, and enhancing retail options.
He pointed out that while incomes between $50,000 and $100,000 are down 2 percent in Texas and the region between 2000 and 2013, Dallas is down 5 percent. And while the four-county area is up 5 percent on incomes over $100,000, Dallas is down 2 percent there.
“We’ve lost our middle class to our suburbs,” he said.
He also pointed to numbers he said indicated that housing troubles don’t always align with public expectations. Nearly a third of homeowners and about half of renters are in unaffordable housing, Chacko said, and many middle-class residents are choosing to rent instead of own.
While advocating for long-term solutions, he also said it was vital to have rapid response plans. He touted some early accomplishments for Neighborhood Plus, from data assessments and home improvement rebate programs to partnerships with Habitat for Humanity (home repair), JPMorgan Chase (workforce development), and SMU (blight assessment).
One area panelists agreed on was the need for continued cooperation and dialogue between government and activists.
“We can look at big data, but until you meet people where they are, you really don’t know the barriers,” O’Donnell said.
Montoya noted another issue she learned when speaking to different neighborhood groups.
“We discovered how few of you talk to each other. How can we listen to you better, and how can you listen to your colleagues better?” she asked.
Inequality was another common theme. O’Donnell said corporations look for educated populations when relocating, and the city could lose out because of that. She was also concerned about public health.
“For a city like Dallas, with the riches we have in health care, we can do better,” O’Donnell said.
Montoya noted that the shrinking middle class has created additional strain on those who remain.
“At a certain point, can you ask 15 percent to be the tax base for the other 85 percent? The old way hasn’t worked well enough and fast enough. We’ve got to ensure this community stays as vibrant as it was,” she said.
Despite the challenges, Zusman Eddy was pleased with the strong turnout and recognition of the issue by the Jewish community.
“It’s very gratifying that a lot of our Jewish leadership has come to these town hall forums and circle back to JCRC to say the Jewish community must do something about this,” she said.
“How can there be a strong Jewish community if the city in which we live is not vibrant?”