By Sujanta Dand
Originally appeared in Dallas Free Press
The South Dallas neighborhood of Mill City, which sits just southwest of Fair Park, has approximately 1,530 parcels of land, most of them residential. However, more than a third of the lots in the historically Black neighborhood are vacant and not being kept up, according to data compiled by Dallas’ Child Poverty Action Lab.
A new city project pledges to tackle this issue, with the goal of cutting crime along with the grass in the neighborhood, but this isn’t the first time there’s been an effort to clean up Mill City.
Earlier this month, Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson announced that his task force on safe communities is giving $100,000 to Builders of Hope, an affordable housing developer, to help clean up nearly 600 vacant lots in Mill City. City Council member Adam Bazaldua, who represents Mill City and South Dallas, pledged another $50,000 of his council budget for the project.
“Our approach is going to be quite different,” explains James Armstrong, executive director of Builders of Hope. “We are proposing a block-by-block model.”
What does this mean? Armstrong says Builders of Hope will prioritize every overgrown vacant lot and abandoned building in a single block, as opposed to one-off remediations throughout the neighborhood.
This strategy worked to lower crime in Philadelphia where a 2018 study found that neighborhoods where vacant lots were cleaned up experienced a 29% reduction in gun violence, a 22% decrease in burglaries and a 30% drop in nuisances such as noise complaints and illegal dumping.
“Not only are we hoping to remediate lots and hopefully decrease crime, we know there is a deficiency in the current 311 code compliance process,” Armstrong says, referring to the City of Dallas’ 24-7 hotline to request city services. “So, this initiative is really a pilot on how the 311 process can either be reformed, or this program can be scaled to a way that organizations across the City can tackle these issues.”
Armstrong says the lots will be selected based on data collected by Zeal Development Services and Analytics. Jeremy Connally is the founder and CEO of the company. His team is charged with identifying the first 80 lots that need to be cleaned up. He says the City’s 311 program is often slow to respond because of miscommunication between people calling to complain and 311 operators. That’s why his company also is collecting data to track how long it takes for an issue to get resolved.
“And, we track the steps it took to get that issue resolved,” Connally says. “What did the nonprofit do? What did the city do?”
Zeal Analytics will work with Child Povery Action Lab to determine how those lots relate to crime in the neighborhood.
“Since this is a model and data-driven, we are all focused on taking a snapshot on the current conditions, listening to neighborhood leaders and their opinions and feedback, and taking all of that data, and creating a plan for remediation,” Armstrong says.
Once the lots are identified, Builders of Hope will enter into a property management agreement with the lot owners and take on responsibility for cleaning and maintaining the lots. This will include adding wood post fences on the properties to limit loitering and littering. The estimated cost is around $5500 per lot. The clean-up will begin in November.
“The program also is designed to help homeowners who don’t have the resources to maintain the lots or have the resources to pay code compliance fines,” Armstrong says. Typically, when a landowner can’t pay the city fines, a lien is placed on their property.
“This is something we’ve been working on for 10 years,” says Alendra Lyons, president of the Mill City Community Association. Lyons moved back to her childhood neighborhood more than a decade ago to help turn it around. It’s been a long road.
“It gets tough,” she says, but she stays focused on the vision. “What is the driving force? This is not just for me. This is for the people.”
This isn’t the first time there’s been a push to reimagine Mill City. In 2013, the landscape architectural firm MESA worked with Dallas Area Habitat for Humanity to sketch out ideas for future projects in the area. According to MESA’s website, with the help of Habitat, a grant from Lowe’s and MESA employees, Mill City’s education and community garden parks were constructed in 2014.
In 2016, Habitat for Humanity unveiled an art project along Collins Avenue. They razed an abandoned shack leaving a vacant lot. Dallas ISD students turned the newly built fence into an art project. Today, however, just a few slats remain.
Armstrong says he understands that nonprofits with good intentions come in and do amazing work and then leave, but he says Builders of Hope has a different approach.
“We are not doing this for, we are doing this with,” he says. “It’s a minimal change but makes a drastic difference.”
Builders of Hope’s goal is to focus on neighborhood preservation by ensuring that people don’t get pushed out of their homes because of rising property values, and Armstrong says the only way to do that is to grow and empower the local neighborhood association so they can protect themselves.
That being said, Armstrong says, 10, 15, 20 years ago, Mill City was among the roughest part of Dallas’ southeast sector. So, the work that’s been done by the community shouldn’t be overlooked, he says.
“Sometimes it’s moving from good to better,” he says.