Demolition Man

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

Burkleo knows some inspectors can't stand him, and he says he doesn't care. "They would like to just draw the $30,000 salary with benefits without having to work," he says. "The majority of the inspectors who are critical of me are inspectors who do not believe in code enforcement. These are lazy people who do not want to do their jobs. And if you can't clean up your own backyard, then you shouldn't complain about other people."

Burkleo's greatest impact on Dallas' urban rehabilitation efforts, next to the lists of complaints he regularly submits to inspectors, is his participation in the URSB hearings. It is here that he testifies against the owners of the many properties he complains about.

At many of the hearings, Burkleo will see the homeowners for the first time. And they will get a first glimpse of their accuser.

He is so active and vocal in the hearings that most visitors assume he works for the city. He wanders about at will, talking to people in the audience and making gestures to the members of the board. If the board members are unsure of something, they often look to him for guidance.

Sometimes it looks as if Joe Burkleo is running the entire show.
Attorney Daniel, who's attended numerous URSB hearings, says, "There would be some poor homeowner up there trying to talk, and Burkleo would come in and interrupt and say what he would have to say, which is always 'Tear it down, it's a nuisance.' He will jump up and push them away, break their train of thought, and on a practical level, make it very hard for them to present their cases.

"When they get there, they have no idea that he is going to testify against them," Daniel adds. "So he's got the poor homeowner thinking, 'Who is this guy? How does he know about my house?' Then, they never get to cross-examine him, because [former board chairman Darwin] Gaines doesn't tell them they can."

Still, city officials defend Burkleo's unofficial contributions. After all, they say, the cases he turns in are indeed code violations, and are not just about peeling paint.

"His complaints cover the full spectrum," Lopez says. "He is very thorough, and his complaints often come in the form of lists specified by violation. One day he might turn in a list of junk motor vehicles, and another time, he may turn in a list of illegal signs, and another list might be substandard structures.

"He is turning in legitimate complaints. If there are legitimate complaints, we need to work them."

Joe Burkleo knows that a lot of folks talk behind his back, and he's endured it for years.

His critics constantly malign him, alleging that he is an agent for some unseen power with an economic stake in certain properties or neighborhoods.

Burkleo, however, insists that his obsession with substandard housing is just that--a gripping compulsion to clean up the neighborhoods and make sure the city is doing its job.

"He's a diehard," says his mother, who sits ill in her Southeast Dallas home. Burkleo makes a point of telling folks that he's living with his aging parents. But his mother says he's rarely at her home when she needs him, and the two argue quite a bit these days.

"We had several thousand words on the phone today," his mother complained one day, coughing over the phone. "I'm an invalid. He knows his father is working. I thought he'd stay around.

"He's out in the streets all the time," she added. "Even when he had a job, he was out all the time. He's my problem child."

Even so, Burkleo says he has no plans to slow down his mission on behalf of Dallas neighborhoods; there is too much to be done. It's what he thinks about from the moment he wakes up in the morning. He couldn't give it up, he says, even if he wanted to.

His unusual interest in substandard housing began long before the city had even decided what that meant, he says. He was about 15 years old in the early 1960s when a fire broke out in an unoccupied house in his neighborhood.

"The house was open and some kids playing inside caught it on fire," he recalls. The fire quickly spread to the house next door, where two little boys were sleeping. The children were trapped inside amid the flames, and died. Fire officials later determined the fire was indeed an arson.

"It started because that house was open," Burkleo says. "I vowed then there would never be another substandard house in the city of Dallas, if I could help it. Even though I really didn't know what substandard housing was."

Over the years, he became an expert on city ordinances governing acceptable housing conditions. When he was 23, he ran for the city council. He lost, but several years later, in 1983, he was appointed to the Urban Rehabilitation Standards Board by then-councilman Wes Wise. At the time, he managed a construction company that he says made more than a million dollars. ("But I've spent most of it," he says. "Pretty soon, I may be homeless.") He lost his livelihood in 1989 when the company, L&M Surco, went under, and he says he hasn't held a job since.

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