Plenty of people took issue with the way that the Dallas Housing Authority (DHA) announced plans this spring to move formerly incarcerated and homeless residents into five Dallas apartment complexes. They argued that they were taken by surprise, and that they weren’t included in the process.
I remember reading a DMN story quoting DHA CEO MaryAnn Russ, in which Russ expressed that she wished the agency had talked to neighbors about the plans before the locations were announced. But, referring to neighbors’ responses to the news, she said, “I’m not heartened to believe it would’ve somehow been different.”
True? We may be about to find out. Neighbors in Oak Cliff and Lake Highlands have pressed the DHA and the city to evenly spread subsidized housing residents throughout Dallas and into the suburbs (previous posts in this series explained new DHA efforts in this regard as well as obstacles to the ideal), and to communicate better with impacted neighborhoods.
Russ pledged to do this at the most recent city council housing committee meeting, as reported by the DMN’s Kim Horner, stating that as the DHA seeks proposal requests for 350 more supportive housing units (starting this week), it would notify councilmen and neighborhood leaders early in the process when a program site is found.”One of the things we’re going to try to do is not take anybody by surprise,” Russ said. “At the same time, we’ve got a job to do, and we’re going to do it.”
Russ mentioned to us at last week’s Oak Cliff Chamber of Commerce quality of life committee meeting that councilmen Dave Neumann and Jerry Allen were present during the housing committee meeting, but on this occasion, no city officials were calling on Russ to hold up or pull out of housing units.
“It was all sweetness and light,” Russ quipped. The reason? Through permanent supportive housing efforts, both this spring and the 350 that will be announced in December, the DHA is providing homes for 500-plus individuals and families who are formerly incarcerated or homeless. “Everybody realized we have bailed their butts out,” Russ said. “If we didn’t do this, the city would have to, and in this fiscal year, that’s a big deal.”
After we observed Russ at the committee meeting, it became more evident why she may rub some people the wrong way. Her language is a bit spicy, and she has the tendency to append conciliatory comments with defensive statements (see above). She’s a tough cookie — one hint of this was the 25-year-old Lucchese boots she donned with her pantsuit — and she has to be. Russ was hired as CEO of the DHA in February 2009 after a series of money problems plagued the agency. She told the DMN’s Horner that her specialty is fixing broken housing problems, and that “we want the agency to be something the city can be proud of.”
Russ told us she understands that neighbors may be distrusting of the DHA, especially based on past indiscretions. But she said she has a harder time understanding why people get so upset when the agency is trying to do the right thing.
As we’ve mentioned previously in this series, the DHA does not need the city’s approval to give people a roof over their heads. But Russ is not an idiot. She knows it is in her best interest to work with city leaders and communicate with neighbors about subsidized housing projects — and if she somehow didn’t know that before this spring, she knows it now. However, from everything we’ve read and observed, it appears that Russ may be more concerned with the best interests of people who need homes than with how other people — including Dallas councilmen — perceive her.
If the city wants to pressure Russ and the DHA to spread the poor, so to speak, perhaps the best method is via the DHA board — five members who oversee the agency, each appointed by the mayor. Keep reading Back Talk for more on this topic.