Understanding the public housing situation and how it impacts Lake Highlands

MaryAnn Russ has been head of the Dallas Housing Authority for about three years. After spending more than an hour with Russ at a Citizen Action Team (CAT) meeting held at the Lake Highlands Public Improvement District office, attendees were dazzled by her encyclopedic knowledge of public housing and her no-nonsense approach to making sure everyone follows the rules — DHA employees, people receiving assistance, landlords, everyone.

We were surprised to learn that 60 percent of homeless people are veterans. “Post-traumatic stress disorder didn’t originate with Iraq and Afghanistan,” Russ says. As homeless Vietnam veterans age, behavioral issues such as alcohol and substance abuse create roadblocks to public assistance. “That’s why we work so closely with the Bridge [a central Dallas shelter], because they help people get stabilized, and they refer them to us when they’re housing-ready.”

On the other end of the spectrum are foster children who become homeless when they turn 18. “They are the youngest people we serve,” Russ says. “In some cases they’ve never lived on their own. We try to set them up in a roommate situation, so they can help each other.”

Families with children present a different set of problems. “A lot of homeless families are doing their best to conceal their status from the state, because they don’t want their kids to be put in foster care,” Russ says. “They’re couch surfing from one place to the next. We have had to create a safe place for them where it’s OK for them to say, ‘Yeah, I’m actually homeless.’” Examples of safe places are the Housing Crisis Center, Family Gateway, Nexus and the Bridge. Russ says that with referrals from these agencies, DHA has a retention rate of more than 87 percent.

That retention rate is key. “We really want people to succeed in housing,” Russ says.

DHA briefly considered permanent supportive housing in units on Forest Lane west of Abrams, but high crime statistics in the area eliminated that possibility. Ultimately the DHA approved permanent supportive housing for families with children in Trinity Palms apartments, now re-named Jackson Branch. “We assist about 20 percent of the units there,” Russ says. The supportive services are provided on-site by the Housing Crisis Center.

“Awarding project-based vouchers is a competitive process,” Russ says. “You’re not going to get to the stage of us talking to you seriously until the property passes an inspection. The last time we went out, we had 600-plus apartments applying, but we only awarded 370.”

Russ delivered good news concerning Hidden Ridge, located at Whitehurst and Ferris Branch. “It’s an ugly multi-family property that [DHA] acquired,” she says. “In this case the ugliness is compounded by actual deterioration. We’re about to begin a half-million-dollar project for exterior improvements there, including taking care of erosion along that stream.”

Many attendees of that night’s meeting live near the Skillman-LBJ intersection. They were concerned about crime and other perceived problems connected with public housing. Ultimately, resident Dormand Long was impressed with Russ’ presentation. “What I had thought was a liability to our society I found to actually be a valuable asset, serving to help those who have stumbled in life bootstrap themselves and re-enter the mainstream.”

Steve Wakefield, a neighbor who serves on the DHA advisory board, says, “We’ve made some strides in Lake Highlands, especially when you think about where we were ten years ago.” But he also thinks it’s important to remain vigilant and continue to voice concerns, and that’s why he attended the meeting. “I think there was initially distrust between the DHA and neighborhoods in general,” Wakefield says. “But I think with MaryAnn [Russ], there’s more confidence that the DHA properties and programs won’t be looked upon as a detriment, and in some cases could even be positive.”

Author’s note: Since the above-mentioned meeting, federal sequestration cuts went into effect. Regarding said cuts’ impact on DHA, Russ notes via e-mail that the organization has “been able to secure additional funding that will take us through the year without cutting rents to landlords or increasing tenant rents. We will finish the year with very low reserves, but we will not have to drop any compliant families from the program.” However, she added, DHA will not be able to admit new families from the existing waiting list. Unless Congress funds the program in 2014, it will shrink.

FOR INFORMATION ON FUTURE CAT MEETINGS, watch for announcements on lakehighlands.advocatemag.com, or contact organizer Patrick Sanders, Northeast Division community prosecutor, patrick.sanders@dallascityhall.com