“City of Dallas putting a homeless shelter 2-3 blocks from our community” read the email subject line. The email went on to encourage residents to attend an upcoming meeting to voice concerns. The meeting, held two days later at a public library in the middle-class neighborhood of Lake Highlands, was so packed that attendees lined the lobby outside the room. The presentation got off to a shaky start with a series of technical issues: The mic didn’t work, and the informational video about homelessness wouldn’t play. Monica Hardman, director of the Office for Homeless Solutions (OHS), finally resorted to yelling her presentation, and was almost immediately beset by audience objections — fears of declining property values and increasing crime, “Send them to Highland Park!” was one comment, another bemoaned the city’s lack of innovation. Some accused the city of of trying to sneak the “projects” in under residents’ noses. A week later, T.C. Broadnax, the city manager, announced that the office would put things on hold to reassess its approach.
Dallas, like many cities, has experienced an uptick in rates of homelessness. In January 2019, Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance’s point-in-time count showed a nine-percent increase in individuals experiencing homelessness in Dallas County and an 11 percent increase in those considered chronically homeless. Of the 4,538 individuals counted, 1,452 were living on the street, with the remainder in shelters or transitional housing facilities.
Advocates agree that the solution to homelessness is homes, but despite significant population growth in Dallas, home prices continue to rise while affordable housing options remain stagnant. Dallas has been criticized for having a disjointed strategy on homelessness. Indeed, homeless services were spread across several departments with little communication until OHS was established in 2017. The same year, voters approved a $20-million bond package (Prop J) to support services for the homeless. Many hoped the time had finally come for a visionary strategic plan.
OHS, with a multi-faceted approach to homelessness, brought about the Lake Highlands meeting. It states four goals — Prevent, Protect, Promote, and Partner. Of these, two are short-term efforts to increase the number of beds in existing shelters and clear zoning hurdles so emergency inclement weather shelters can be more easily established. Two are long-term strategies: One will implement a rental subsidy program focused on women and children. The other — the Prop J-funded track that resulted in the Lake Highlands community meeting — aims to create 1,000 supportive housing units over the next three to five years.
The idea is to disperse the units throughout Dallas to avoid concentrating a vulnerable population in one place. Land already owned by the city — 409 sites total — was prioritized, though most of these locations were removed from consideration immediately because they are in floodplains or are slated for future parks or fire stations. Sites were also evaluated for proximity to important services and mass transportation. This is how the city arrived at the 12-acre site in Lake Highlands and two smaller plots in Old East Dallas.
Spreading affordable housing throughout the city has been — and will certainly continue to be — difficult in Dallas, as it requires buy-in from each affected neighborhood. If the Lake Highlands meeting is an indication, it will be a long slog for OHS, unless they can first overhaul public sentiment, which is exactly what they hope to do. Their charge is to dispel myths about homelessness in hopes of combatting the all-too-common “not in our backyard” mentality. Stereotypes of the homeless abound, but far from being due to laziness, mental illness, or addiction, homelessness often ensues when, for example, people can’t afford rising housing costs. Health problems, sexual orientation issues, and domestic violence assaults can leave those affected without housing. While national statistics show the homeless population to consist primarily of male individuals, 33 percent are families with children, seven percent are youth, and seven percent are veterans.
Even assuming a fundamental shift in public opinion, the city would still need to educate citizens about preferred urban strategies. Terms like “permanent supportive housing” and “rapid rehousing” are too often misunderstood to mean “shelter.” At the Lake Highlands meeting, people repeatedly referred to city-proposed housing as “the projects,” and questions about rezoning reinforced residents’ limited understanding of those regulations. Groundwork needs to be laid so community input is productive — and, since housing is at issue, why are architects missing from Dallas’ process? In the early stages, architects can consult on site selection and programming; furthermore, they are valuable in gaining public support.
OHS has identified the need for partnerships to make their initiatives work; they are on a tight budget. Dallas may not be known for its examples of progressive affordable housing, but several examples exist, many built by CitySquare Housing. The nonprofit has constructed almost 1,000 units through its Housing First initiative. The Cottages at Hickory Crossing, a 2017 development designed by bcWORKSHOP, consists of 50 420-sf houses for the chronically homeless. An on-site community center offers wrap-around support services to residents. The nonprofit is responsible for several other buildings — a renovated high rise in downtown with 200 affordable units and commercial lease space, and a senior living facility in Oak Cliff. Another noteworthy project designed by bcWORKSHOP for Jubilee Park — Gurley Place — consists of 24 affordable housing units for the neighborhood’s 55+ population, which had been declining due to lack of affordable housing stock. These groundbreaking contemporary case studies illustrate the result of public-private partnerships, innovative funding, and architect-designed spaces that challenge stereotypes.
A comprehensive strategic plan to combat homelessness is long overdue in Dallas. With the establishment of OHS and taxpayer-approved funding in place, the city has taken early steps to bring new focus to the issue. As the wage gap widens, homelessness will continue to increase without action. Residents cannot afford to ignore the issue and should instead seize the opportunity to become partners in the process, changing the rhetoric from “them” to “us.”
Audrey Maxwell, AIA, is a principal at Malone Maxwell Borson Architects in Dallas.