Rich and poor to live side by side when housing project opens soon

A Dallas Housing Authority project once stuck in the mud for 12 years by construction delays and a court battle with neighbors is finally getting spruced up for a grand opening in about two weeks.

Some of the affected parties gathered yesterday under a big tent – symbolic, perhaps, of the new spirit of cooperation – to dedicate the Villas at Hillcrest, a $4.5 million project in the last stages of development.

Can you believe what's now worrying some of the folks once staunchly opposed to a public housing development being plopped down in the midst of their expensive homes?

Landscaping – or, specifically, whether the DHA will plant lush grass and install sprinklers for the 40 townhomes designed for low-income black residents in Far North Dallas.

Gone is all the strident, loose talk about whether the tenants will drive up crime and drive down property values.That hullabaloo has given way to heated debates about zeroscaping, which could help the DHA keep its water bills and construction costs in check but also may give neighbors a license to say, "See, told you so."

"I'm extremely opposed to zeroscaping," said John Trick, whose Highland Creek home backs up to the townhomes.

Mr. Trick, president of the Highland Creek Homeowners Association, said he and some of his neighbors can't help but wonder if a scaled-back landscaping design is a harbinger.

"The only real anxiety is the issue of a longtime commitment on the part of the DHA, whether it's an issue of landscaping or the condition of the buildings," he said. "Are they going to hold up their end of the bargain and make sure it's properly maintained?"

Before I get to the real crux of this matter – the question of how poor families in one closely watched project will alter the fabric of the neighborhood – let's allow the DHA to explain its landscaping choices.

"There's a big push" to adopt more water conservation efforts such as zeroscaping, which involves using native plants, succulents, rocks and gravel, said Michelle Raglon, an agency spokeswoman. "We're going with landscaping and zeroscaping."

What this boils down to, of course, is that agency heads don't want to spend scarce money installing 40 separate irrigation systems for each unit.

Then again, if you're going to move to an upscale neighborhood where neighbors pay close attention to one another's lawns, you ought to think twice about bucking the trend.

Before we get too bogged down in the fuss over St. Augustine and small rocks, let's be clear about what's important here – the poor black families moving into the Villas at Hillcrest and the richer white families already living nearby.

Working together, they can help ensure that the townhome development lives up to its promise of becoming a pristine model for future housing projects in Dallas and beyond.

Some neighbors already are doing their part by volunteering to help out any way they can.

That's a good start, and it's the way public housing ought to be built – blended in solid middle-class or affluent neighborhoods with viable social and political networks that help stave off neglect of any kind.

The bottom line is that these poor black tenants want the same things as their affluent white neighbors: a decent and safe place to live, challenging schools and good neighbors.

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