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Dallas Reconsiders Rule That Hurts Historic Black Neighborhoods

The City Council abandoned an ordinance that allows the demolition of homes smaller than 3,000 square feet within a Landmark District to “address substandard structures.” The rule disproportionately impacted Black, brown and low-income neighborhoods.

Several homes are seen in Dallas' Tenth Street Historic District
Several homes are seen in the Tenth Street Historic District, Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024, in Dallas.
Elías Valverde II/TNS
Dallas City Council decided Wednesday, Feb. 28, to abandon a rule that makes it easier for the city to demolish historic homes in predominantly Black neighborhoods.

Residents in Dallas’ historic Tenth Street have been fighting for the city to abandon a rule in the Dallas development code that permits the demolition of homes smaller than 3,000 square feet within a Landmark District, a geographic area with preservation guidelines and protections for structures that have historical significance.

Over the past decade, the “3,000-square-foot rule” has led to the demolition of dozens of the area’s 260 homes, according to a 2019 lawsuit filed against the city by the Tenth Street Residential Association. The city says at least 30 homes have been demolished under this code.

Here are five things to know about the city rule and its impact on Tenth Street:

What rule allows Dallas to demolish homes more easily in predominantly Black neighborhoods?

Dallas City Council in 2010 adopted an ordinance that allowed the court-ordered demolition of homes less than 3,000 square feet in historic districts to “address substandard structures that were considered urban nuisances and to prevent blight and safeguard the public health, safety, and welfare,” wrote Dallas Assistant City Manager Majed Al-Ghafry in a Feb. 2, 2024, memo.

The ordinance disproportionately impacted predominantly Black and brown and lower-income historic districts because those areas have many homes declared substandard, according to Al-Ghafry.

“The default for these homes became demolition, rather than consideration for rehabilitation,” Al-Ghafry wrote.

In September, the Landmark Commission, a citizen advisory group, requested that the City Plan Commission rescind the subsection of the city’s development code, which the commission did at its January meeting.

What is significant about Dallas’ Tenth Street Historic District?

In southeast Oak Cliff, the Tenth Street Historic District is one of the few remaining intact freedmen’s towns in the nation, founded when freed slaves settled there after the Civil War, according to the residents’ lawsuit.

The mostly Black neighborhood, with late 19th- and early 20th-century homes, has experienced decades of underinvestment and aging structures.

Families and businesses that once called Oak Cliff home moved to the suburbs after World War II, leading to a slow decline of neighborhoods that languished under a historical, discriminatory housing policy, according to the city of Dallas’ Office of Historical Preservation.

Once Interstate Highway 35E was built, it cut off Tenth Street from the rest of Oak Cliff, which led to more vacancies and the potential for homes to be demolished, according to the city.

In 1993, the City of Dallas made the Tenth Street neighborhood a Historic District in an effort to stabilize the neighborhood’s decaying structures. In 2019, the district landed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in the country because of the demolitions of homes.

How have residents fought to preserve their homes?

The Tenth Street Residential Association, a group of longtime homeowners determined to preserve their neighborhood, sued the city of Dallas in 2019.

Residents claimed that the rule had a disparate impact on predominantly Black neighborhoods like Tenth Street, where all the homes are less than 3,000 square feet.

Laura Beshara and Michael Daniel, longtime civil rights attorneys and lawyers for the Tenth Street residents, say the rule harmed a historic neighborhood and put financial pressure on residents.

“The effect of that ordinance during that nine-year period is it just decimated a huge section of Tenth Street,” Beshara said.

During the same period, no homes in Landmark Districts in predominantly white neighborhoods had court-ordered demolitions, Beshara said.

When the square-footage rule was enacted, it created a two-tier system where small homes like the ones in Tenth Street lost the full benefits that larger homes received, Daniel said.

“They didn’t have to go through that historic preservation process at the historic preservation board,” Daniel said. “And they didn’t get those protections.”

Although the case was ultimately dismissed, Beshara said the city agreed to stop enforcing the rule following the residents’ lawsuit in 2019.

What issues are impacting residents of Tenth Street?

Rosa Medrano, a member of the Tenth Street Residential Association, has lived with her family in a small yellow house in the neighborhood for 17 years.

The mother of five says if the City Council votes to repeal the rule, she’ll be glad to see it go. She’s watched over the years as home after home was torn down following court-ordered demolitions or house fires.

“I don’t know why they even passed it in the first place,” Medrano said, adding that the neighborhood has been fighting the impact of the rule for a decade.

The perennial fight for Tenth Street area residents is one to preserve their aging homes during a time when housing is becoming unaffordable and a rise in property taxes threatens to push out longtime residents.

“Our taxes have gone up,” Medrano said. “Two or three years ago, we used to pay about $600 or $700. Now we’re [at] $2,000.”

Her nearly 100-year-old home needs investment to preserve its historic features, she said. She’s applied for the city’s home preservation program, which gives grants to eligible homeowners to help curb the costs of maintenance.

Jesse Salazar, a wife and mother of four, has lived in a small home in the Tenth Street neighborhood for 20 years, slowly growing closer to her neighbors, who she says are invested in seeing the historic corner of Dallas thrive.

“There’s a lot of elderly people and we’re always watching out for them,” Salazar said. “Little by little, they started passing away. So we were just worried about them getting taken advantage of.”

Investors call and visit homeowners frequently in the Tenth Street area, offering residents money to sell their homes, Salazar said. The longtime resident said she’s staying put and working with her husband to try to preserve their 100-year-old craftsman home as long as they can.

She and her family plan to stick to the quiet neighborhood, where most people know each other, even if the homes are in dire need of restoration.

“We can’t afford to move,” Salazar said. Even if a buyer offered her $100,000 today for her home, Salazar said it would be impossible to find another affordable home in Dallas.

Why did it take so long to repeal the rule?

Kate Singleton, Dallas’ chief preservation planner, said at a January City Plan Commission meeting that the rule has been under scrutiny from the preservationist community, Landmark Commission and city staff since its passage in 2010.

The process to remove the ordinance from the city’s development code didn’t start until 2018, when the Landmark Commission appointed a task force to find solutions to the demolition’s harm to the historic character of Tenth Street.

In August 2019, the City Council passed a resolution requiring no city funds or resources be used in demolishing structures within the district unless a fire marshal found the structure too hazardous.

Singleton said the city staff recommends the City Council repeal the rule, which Singletonsays goes against preservation best practices.

“There is no opportunity again to address the historic significance and integrity or conduct a condition assessment,” Singleton said. “And it encourages demolition of houses that could be rehabilitated. … Once you start demolishing [homes] in a neighborhood, the only thing that happens is more demolitions.”

Singleton said the city staff is recommending repealing the rule also because of the decline of housing availability, especially homes that are affordable for low- to moderate-income households.

About 90 percent of houses in the 21 historic districts are 3,000 square feet or less and are impacted by the code, Singleton said.

©2024 The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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