November 25, 2008
City Hall made a wise choice in 2005 to raze the Frazier Courts public housing complex in South Dallas. It was a rodent-infested slum full of broken-down apartments, drug dealers and poor families with little hope. In its place today are scores of new townhome-style residences that advocates describe as a national model, the new face of public housing.
It might be a new face, but old problems are resurfacing. The second phase of the project, dubbed Frazier Wahoo, is not even a year old, and already there are signs of defects, shoddy workmanship and neglect by the Dallas Housing Authority and its on-site contractor, Alpha-Barnes Real Estate Management.
Residents complain of rodent infestation. Poorly maintained Dumpsters, near some residents’ back doors, create a stinking eyesore. Leaky pipes in ceilings have gone only partially repaired. Walls are so cheaply painted that residents are told not to wipe them because the paint will come off, too. Beige carpeting is so cheap that it turns black when any liquid, even tap water, is spilled on it.
On one recent afternoon, residents scurried inside when a group of young men congregated on a front porch to gamble with dice. They shouted expletives menacingly, while loud music from their car made neighbors’ windows rattle.
It took considerable time and effort to get our questions answered by Alpha-Barnes managers. They seemed adept at passing the blame. Rodents are the result of residents living uncleanly, they said, or because of construction around Frazier Wahoo.
Shoddy workmanship is the builder’s problem, they added. If residents don’t want black carpet stains, they shouldn’t spill stuff. If youths are gambling or selling drugs, it’s the residents’ responsibility to report it to the police.
Michael Gerber, executive director of the Texas Housing and Community Affairs Department, said he would seek more thorough answers from DHA, which already is under federal scrutiny after audits last year exposed serious accounting and mismanagement issues.
Mr. Gerber dispatched his top compliance chief, Patricia Murphy, from Austin for a personal inspection after our newspaper contacted his office. Mr. Gerber warned that he takes a “dim view” of poorly maintained properties and warned that DHA could face fines of up to $1,000 per day, per violation.
Overall, Ms. Murphy said she was impressed by Frazier Wahoo’s condition – as are we. But she cited the carpeting problem as a red flag. “The carpet would definitely not pass inspection. They can spend a [little] money on cheap carpet, or they can spend a lot of money on something better.” Either way, the existing carpet will have to be replaced.
Several low-income residents also complained that Alpha-Barnes issues informal bills for “excess utilities” that can be twice the amount of the rent. When residents asked Alpha-Barnes staff to explain the charges, they were told to go away. One resident, Zonia Draught, said she was told she could not see her own utility bill because it was “discretionary information.”
Alpha-Barnes officials said they would correct the billing problem by January.
We continue to have high hopes for Frazier Wahoo. Its amenities are top-notch: central heat and air conditioning, dishwashers and washer-dryer combos. Architectural innovation and eye-pleasing neighborhood layouts could help shatter negative images of public housing.
If Frazier succeeds, it can help DHA break a long cycle of degradation that made old tenements such as Frazier Courts and Turner Courts synonymous with urban decay.
There’s every reason for residents to take pride in their homes and share responsibility to keep the Frazier Wahoo complex looking nice. But the project cannot be managed on auto-pilot by DHA and Alpha-Barnes.
Pride is key to success. Pride makes people care about themselves, their families and their neighbors. The many blighted areas of South Dallas got that way, in large part, because residents stopped caring. Southern Dallas cannot hope to attract much-needed business investment unless residents – along with DHA – make a concerted effort to uplift their neighborhoods’ appearance.
So we point out Frazier Wahoo’s problems in order to serve warning: Don’t allow the same old patterns of neglect to turn this gem into just another public-housing tenement. If Frazier Wahoo goes bad, it will drag the surrounding neighborhood with it – along with southern Dallas’ dreams of revitalization.