Demolition Man

How lone crusader Joe Burkleo keeps the city's wrecking ball swinging

Virtually every day, a guy named Joe Bob Burkleo climbs onto a DART bus, rides into neighborhoods he doesn't live in, and pokes around in vacant houses and shabby properties that belong to people he doesn't know.

After cruising Dallas' residential streets most of the day, he'll end his journey at City Hall, where he'll bounce into the city's Code Enforcement department and unload on inspectors his endless reports of peeling paint, loose shingles, and high weeds, among other homeowners' transgressions.

The inspectors, in turn, know they're expected to react. They take notes, file reports, and later drive out to confront homeowners with code violation notices based on Burkleo's complaints, all the while muttering about their pudgy, pink-faced tormentor behind his back.

Reports on some of the houses Burkleo complains about will eventually get forwarded to the city's Urban Rehabilitation Standards Board, which has the power to pronounce a death sentence on a substandard home. And when the case reaches the board, with the possibility of swift demolition hanging in the balance, chances are Burkleo will be there to testify against the beleaguered homeowner.

Burkleo, 43, says his one-man crusade against substandard housing and his tireless neighborhood wanderings are an obsession--"like a bingo addiction." He stated in a sworn deposition in 1994 that he'd lodged some 35,000 complaints with the city concerning people's homes, apartment complexes, and commercial buildings in a six-year period beginning in 1989--a mind-boggling average of 5,833 complaints a year.

In an interview with the Observer later, Burkleo would backpedal on that figure, explaining he'd drunk two bottles of wine before testifying under oath for a lawsuit involving General Rental Properties, a collection of badly deteriorated apartment buildings in East Oak Cliff. But several folks who have worked with the URSB and Burkleo reckon that figure is pretty close to the truth.

Whatever the case, there's a good chance that, if someone complained about the condition of your Dallas home--and the city recorded some 18,200 code-violation complaints in fiscal year 1994--that someone was Joe Burkleo.

Most people in Dallas would be surprised to find out that one of the most powerful men behind Dallas' urban rehabilitation efforts doesn't even work for the city, and, in fact, doesn't work at all.

Joe Burkleo--whom one angry landowner calls the city's "informer"--conducts most of his personal crusade without any public scrutiny. He does sit on the DART board--having been elected in a neighborhood meeting. He's also a member of the city's multifamily housing task force, and because of this, generally has the run of the city's housing departments. He meets occasionally with City Manager John Ware, and this association ensures that city officials and members of the Urban Rehabilitation Standards Board treat him with respect.

Burkleo attends nearly all of the weekly URSB hearings, testifying against the property owners he's complained about. The board affords him uncommon courtesy, and generally follows his recommendations. It has been known to reverse its own decisions simply because Joe Burkleo says it should.

However, he denies that he wields much influence over the city's efforts at urban rehabilitation. "I don't have any power at all," he says. "The truth of the matter is that there are complaints I have turned in that are three years old, and they have never issued [code violation] notices against them."

Burkleo portrays himself as the Robin Hood of substandard housing--combating the rich, fat-cat landowners and slumlords who flout city codes, and nobly looking the other way at decrepit--but occupied--single-family homes in poorer parts of town. "I haven't turned in anything in South Dallas," he claims. "What I want are the wealthy people to maintain their properties.

"Code enforcement is all about money," he adds. "If you challenge the [URSB] board and you have enough money to take it to court, you will win. That is the difference between poor homeowners and rich landlords."

Burkleo's quest has made him a number of friends.
"He has been a big help to us," says Marian Gibson, a member of the East Dallas Neighborhood Association. "I tell them over at the city that they should have a Joe Burkleo Appreciation Day."

When Gibson's neighborhood association wanted help getting rid of a seedy, crime-infested apartment complex in its part of town several years ago, it turned to Joe Burkleo. He relentlessly pushed the city to shut down the complex. And he personally battled the landlady, a woman named Citra Rajan, until the day she died. At her wake, he says, he even demanded to see her body.

But not everyone is thrilled with Burkleo. One neighborhood activist, who requested anonymity, groused about his "meddling."

"We have devastatingly bad neighborhoods," the activist said. "We have neighborhoods that are almost beyond repair. We have some that need a lot of attention right now. Those are not getting the attention they need, because [city] staff is running around chasing peeling paint, and we are not using our resources and time effectively.

"We do not need some little vigilante cruising around our neighborhoods," the activist added. "People have a right to police themselves. Someone from across town needs to spend time in their own neighborhoods and stay out of everyone else's. He needs to just get a life and stay out of our lives."

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