Demolition Man

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

Some folks maintain that there is no such thing as urban rehabilitation in Dallas--that the city is more interested in tearing down than building up. There is no leadership, they say, no vision.

Joe Burkleo--and the city's response to his sheaves of complaints--neatly illustrates Dallas' wrongheaded approach to urban rehab, according to Mike Daniel, a Dallas attorney who successfully sued the city in a landmark housing discrimination lawsuit. (A federal district judge ruled that the city had discriminated against blacks by segregating them in poor-quality public housing.)

Both the URSB and Burkleo benefit from their unusual, unofficial relationship, but Dallas' minority residents don't, Daniel says.

"He serves as a symbol of what the white citizenry wants," Daniel says. "And they provide him with, you know, 'Atta boy--good job!"

Dallas has several departments charged with the task of urban rehabilitation: Planning and Development, Public Works, Streets and Sanitation, Code Enforcement, and the Urban Rehabilitation Standards Board. To some extent, all of the departments interact with each other. But the average owner of a problem property will interact only with the URSB and Code Enforcement. And often that encounter will not be positive.

The system works like this: a citizen complains to Code Enforcement about a property--either a home, a vacant lot, or a commercial building. Maybe the paint is peeling off a neighbor's house, exposing rotten wood underneath. Maybe the local tire shop has gotten out of control, stacking bald treads next to the sidewalk. Maybe one old house has become an eyesore, bringing down property values in the whole neighborhood.

Fortunately, the city has laws that govern those kinds of messes. It adheres to something called the Minimum Urban Rehabilitation Standards--generally known as "city codes"--in place so the city can control "urban nuisances," structures whose "existence...will create slum and blighted areas requiring large scale clearance if not remedied."

After a citizen has made a complaint, a Code Enforcement inspector will visit the property and order the owner to make repairs. If the owner complies, the matter is resolved. But if repairs are not made in a timely fashion, the matter will be forwarded to the Urban Rehabilitation Standards Board. During the city's 1994-'95 fiscal year, 2,390 of the 18,200 structures cited for code violations went before the board.

The board consists of four panels, each of which meets once a month. The members are Dallas residents appointed by city council members.

At URSB hearings, almost all of the properties that come up for consideration are declared urban nuisances--and the board will order them either repaired immediately or demolished. To ensure compliance, the board has the power to assess fines of up to $1,000 a day. In rare cases, it will award the house to a non-profit organization that agrees to fix up the property.

If the board issues a demolition order, Code Enforcement staff members forward the case to Public Works, which contracts with several private demolition companies. The city charges the property owner for the demolition, and if the owner doesn't pay up, the city seizes the property.

Dallas' attempts at urban rehabilitation, as demonstrated by the URSB and Code Enforcement, are deeply flawed--filled with communication gaps, poor planning, and sometimes outright incompetence (see following story, "Razing hopes"). And it is here, among city departments that seem to lack any overall strategy for carrying out urban rehab, that Joe Burkleo has found his niche.

Burkleo wields enormous power in this troubled arena. So it's not surprising that, when people talk about code enforcement in Dallas, his name often comes up.

"He is the kind of citizen who gives an inspector a nightmare," says one Code Enforcement official, who asked to remain anonymous. "He would walk into the office and look over inspectors' shoulders as they tried to work. He used to be so disruptive that we had to put up a sign that only city employees were allowed [in the office]. He acted like he was a city official." (Burkleo, however, denies that he ever barged into the inspectors' offices.)

Code Enforcement's higher officials, the inspector claims, kowtow to Burkleo. If he was unhappy with the department's progress cleaning up a particular property, inspectors complain, it wouldn't be long before supervisors would come scurrying back to the office with a memo from John Ware.

Ware would want to know why the houses hadn't been moved on to the URSB. Often, inspectors say, these houses may have had some code violations, but generally weren't considered urban nuisances and therefore, in the inspectors' opinions, should not be forwarded to the board. Some inspectors say, however, that they are often compelled by their supervisors to push the case to the board, even if they don't think it deserves to go that far. "Sometimes they'll [supervisors] ask, 'What did you do with Burkleo's report? Why isn't this case at the board?'" one inspector said. "Is this guy the city manager? We don't know how he gets his power."

Ramiro Lopez, assistant director of Code Enforcement, shrugs off the inspectors' complaints. "If Joe turns in 100 complaints, there are violations out there, and maybe we need to work them, maybe we need to be more proactive. I'd like to one day get ahead of Joe."

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