Southern Dallas Buyer’s Guide: Lessons for Buying in an ‘Up and Coming’ Neighborhood

Snapshot of some Southern Dallas neighborhoods east of the Dallas Zoo.

Recently, I wrote that buyers looking for reasonably-priced homes close to the Dallas core needed to start looking south, specifically south of I-30 from I-35E to east of Fair Park. These are the areas that particularly fell prey to redlining. Once thriving areas in the midst of renewal, they offer some fab bargains and the opportunity to be part of rebuilding some neglected areas … deals unheard of in Oak Cliff and further north these days.  My self-imposed challenge was to use the DART’s light rail stops as a guide to southern Dallas.  Part of using DART was obviously the catchiness of the hook, but also because the folks most likely to move to this area are of a generation wanting more transit options outside a personal automobile.

It’s worth noting that there is an element of political will required as areas revitalize.  Because of that, it’s equally worth noting that notes were sent to the Dallas City Council members representing these districts (Rick Callahan, Dwaine Caraway, Kevin Felder, and Tennell Atkins) seeking community contacts and perhaps a chat about the areas they represent.  Over a week later, none have responded. Thankfully, I have blundered into some neighborhood contacts to add color and educate me.

Beckley Club home wouldn’t be out of place in M Streets (although probably with a smaller lot).

Types of Housing

Before we delve into the nitty-gritty of what’s available in these areas, we have to talk.  From a housing perspective, there are three kinds of houses.  There are maintained and neglected homes that come on the market. There are flips and new builds that sell more quickly. And there are empty lots that scare buyers.

The first two types are common to most areas to varying degrees.  If you’re not a renovator, I’d suggest tooling around the areas you’re interested in and look for the evidence of a flipper at work. Have a chat about that property as well as potentially using the flipper for a renovation on another property you have your eye on.  Worst case, you can get an idea of the process and costs. Anyone who bootstrapped areas of Oak Cliff and eastern Dallas know this all too well.

Needs TLC on huge corner lot.

The bigger issue is the significant proportion of empty lots in southern Dallas.  Sure you can pick up one of the city’s $5,000 lots and build a home.  But let’s face it, building a home is a daunting task at any income level. For the buyer targeting a home in the $150,000 to $250,000 range, it’s much harder.  The budgets are tighter, the ability to absorb unexpected costs is smaller and getting a construction loan takes more time and qualifications. It’s often too risky for buyers of any stripe, but particularly in these lower price ranges.

What’s needed to combat the empty lot issue are resources that put buyers in touch with reputable builders with area experience.  Perhaps they have a few sample plans to choose from that can be built for a fixed cost with buyers negotiating any changes or upgrades before beginning. Some enterprising builders might even build “model” homes for buyers to tour.  Anything to lessen the barrier is key to in-fill housing.  I challenge the various neighborhood associations to work on connecting prospective buyers and contractors.

The only thing I caution is to be cognizant of design.  The infill housing I’ve seen from the 1980s onward consists of suburban tract home design.  That’s not right.  They’re so ill-suited to these older neighborhoods.  Given that skinning a building offers untold options, the choice to use these out of place façades is confusing and detrimental to the neighborhood. I won’t go so far to say they undo the good they accomplish by adding a new home to an empty lot, but more thought needs to be done by these builders.

Portion of Cedar Creek formerly dammed to form Lake Helen. Possible restoration?

Topography Lessons

When you look at an area in Google Maps and see curvy roads that unexpectedly dead end, you’ve probably hit the jackpot. One of the things folks love about Oak Cliff are the hills and creeks.  Well, good news.  Those hills didn’t stop at I-35E.  They continue east, past the Dallas Zoo and into some incredibly curvaceous neighborhoods.  If you want to feel like you’re living at summer camp (with AC), this is your place.

Also, because there’s a lot of water and hills, some of the lots are huge. I’m talking potential creekside and cliffy acreage … affordable creekside and cliffy acreage.

Illinois Avenue was formerly a commercial hub for the neighborhood

Commercial Changes

From a commercial perspective, the problems may be more acute than the housing.  Businesses need customers to flourish. Decades of nearby residents without the discretionary income to pop for restaurant dinners or stroll through boutique clothing stores has left a mark on once grand commercial strips.  The only way vibrancy returns is if there are customers.  As Bishop Arts prices its struggling artist and entrepreneurs out, hopefully some stay south but move a little east.

Because that’s what happens, right?  Cool areas organically evolve and then big money pours in to take advantage, winds up ruining the vibe they came for, sending the vibe elsewhere. This migration from rough and tumble to cool to plastic is nothing new.  I remember stories from my youth in Chicago back-slapping the “urban pioneers” for moving into the gay area of the city.  No, the pioneers were the gays who cleaned up the drug-infested neighborhood in the first place. Similarly, you’re no pioneer for moving into Deep Ellum, the Design District, or the Bishop Arts District now.

The Days of The Gays

Let’s talk gays.  In one of my chats with southern Dallas neighborhood folks, there was expressed interest in enticing the gays to the area to work our magic.  Considering the black community’s historic relationship with my people, this surprised me (progress indeed). Unfortunately, I had to deflate that bubble a little.

While decades ago, we did congregate in neighborhoods (and renovate the bejesus out of them), social acceptance (and the internet) has dulled the effect.  Certainly the “selfie scavenger hunt” that seems to equate hipness with (annoyingly) whooping it up in a gay bar, has had its effect.  Today, gays are comfortable living most anywhere without the need for physical proximity. So by all means, wave the rainbow flag, we still love a bargain and a renovation, but the effect won’t be what it might have been 20 or 30 years ago. More’s the pity.

“Busy” intersection of Illinois and Marsalis. Holy Ghost town of church properties in red.

The Holy Ghost Town

Another problem with downtrodden areas is the proliferation of god into former commercial spaces.  Religion is fine, but it shouldn’t anchor North Park shopping center, should it?  In Aouthern Dallas, churches have run amuck, taking over commercial space (that, granted, was likely abandoned).  The result is a different kind of blight.  Congregations hold services a few times a week and don’t promote commerce when they do.  The faithful drive in, get their fill and go.

Revitalizing these neighborhoods will require god to give way to restaurants, galleries, grocery stores and boutiques.  It’s that magic combination of commerce and foot traffic that spells vibrancy.  No hungry person has ever contemplated a meal thinking, “Gee, Saint Anthony’s has a particularly tasty artisanal Eucharist and a heavy pour.”

As you’ll read in upcoming installments, one neighborhood has an intersection dominated by nine … count ‘em … nine churches.  They’ve sucked the life out of what was a heavily-trafficked commercial area … sorta like the Museum District without the art.

Decades have passed since this was Safeway

Crime and Safety

One of the big-ticket items on most homebuyers’ checklist is safety.  Southern Dallas has a long perception of being unsafe.  But how unsafe is it?  Most of us, myself included, sorta have two settings on our personal Crime-O-Meter … womb-like safety or the black hole of Calcutta. Not a lotta grey.

I won’t gild the lily here.  In transitioning areas, it’s literally block to block.  The “best” blocks, those with the best housing stock and location, are renovated first and create their own safety bubble. That expands block by block. In one area I visited, someone was literally renovating the corner house on the block next to a “good” block, starting to expand the goodness.

Sure, it’s pretty likely the good blocks have home alarms (which are part of the crime deterrent recipe), but they’ve also removed the bars from the windows and ditched the chain-link fencing in the front yards.  Both signals of revitalization. Good blocks are also chatty, and chatty blocks keep watch.  Crime hates to be watched so between alarms and eyes, it’s less appealing to target these areas.

In the neighborhoods I’ve visited so far, it’s pretty easy to find a good block.

The other part of the crime puzzle are the aforementioned commercial areas.  Vacant or underutilized spaces attract crime. Again, it’s all about who’s watching.  There’s safety in West Village because there are people out and about.

So neighborhood crime can be minimized but there’s still work to be done on the main thoroughfares and commercial areas. And that will only be solved when there are enough feet on the street patronizing businesses to keep crime at bay.

Now that you’re primed and ready, next time we head to the neighborhoods.

 

Remember:  High-rises, HOAs and renovation are my beat. But I also appreciate modern and historical architecture balanced against the YIMBY movement.  If you’re interested in hosting a Candysdirt.com Staff Meeting event, I’m your guy. In 2016 and 2017, the National Association of Real Estate Editors has recognized my writing with two Bronze (2016, 2017) and two Silver (2016, 2017) awards.  Have a story to tell or a marriage proposal to make?  Shoot me an email sharewithjon@candysdirt.com.

 

6 Comment

  • Nearly all of the $5k lots that you mentioned are part of the city’s Land Bank program with purchase power limited to pre-qualified, low-income housing builders.

  • West Village has its crime, too. Not sure if the two man armed robberies of people walking the neighborhood have stopped since I moved away last year. People have to look up and pay attention beyond their phones. At least, the areas you mentioned aren’t full of bars like Oak Lawn, and West Village is, which brought the armed robbers targeting people walking home from the bars or just walking their dogs at night.

  • The “Land Bank” $5k lot scheme needs to be altered. The cheap suburban style crap they’re building on those lots DOES set the progress back, and quickly becomes blighted. The requirements should be adding at least 2 housing units to each lot (townhouses or condos), with some design standards congruent with “Forward Dallas,” pedestrian friendliness, and rear garages when possible (especially near DART stations). Additionally, the program needs to be extended to Middle Income buyers. There is a HUGE lack of middle income housing in this city. Everything new being built is for high incomes, or subsidized for low income residents.