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."

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."

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.

Burkleo found his niche as a member of the URSB, on which he served for about six years. He learned exactly what constituted a code violation, and how homeowners could be forced to satisfy city codes through the dual threats of civil penalties and demolition. Even then, he wasn't shy about pushing for demolition. He still isn't.

Last year, when Burkleo advocated demolition of numerous shabby properties that came before the URSB, the city tore down a record number of homes, garnering several claims for damages and accusations of constitutional rights abuses.

Earlier this year, The Dallas Morning News reported that the city had torn down more than 1,000 homes in the last three years, mostly in poor and minority neighborhoods. Burkleo, like most folks associated with the city's demolition program, defends it as beneficial to declining neighborhoods.

Demolitions, he says, are the most effective way to deal with substandard housing when the owners can't or won't fix up the property. "I'm saying a vacant lot would be preferable to a substandard structure sitting there for many years...where people could come and make them crack houses," he said during the 1994 deposition. "Sometimes," he added, "it is the only solution."

When Burkleo's URSB term expired in 1989, he continued his involvement in code enforcement on an unofficial level. He says he has no need to serve on the board again, because he's just as happy--and just as effective--working from the outside. If he were appointed to the board in the future, however, he might run into problems because the criminal background check required by the city for URSB applicants would turn up his 1989 conviction for public lewdness.

Burkleo explains that, as part of a plea bargain with the Dallas County District Attorney's Office, he pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor charge. He says the case resulted from an unfortunate encounter with a stranger in the dry sauna of a Dallas health club. The man accused Burkleo of sexually assaulting him. "My attorney didn't want to take it to court, and I agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor," Burkleo said in the 1994 deposition.

The court fined him $1,000 and placed him on probation for one year. Burkleo successfully completed his probation, but his conviction means he'd probably have trouble getting back on the board.

No matter. Burkleo rebounded marvelously, aggressively scouting the city's neighborhoods, carrying out his own personal urban rehab program.

Because he knew the system, Burkleo was able to finagle periodic driving tours of the city with Code Enforcement inspectors and URSB members. He'd also occasionally sit in on staff briefings to the board members, which are generally closed to the public.

At other times, Burkleo rode by himself. His daily forays into tattered neighborhoods yielded a bounty of code violations. At one point, he accidentally turned in Dallas city council member Craig McDaniel's home, even though he'd supported McDaniel's campaign. People in Code Enforcement gossiped about that for weeks.

"He had no reason to be there in the first place," one neighborhood activist complains. "He ties up city staff stuff on bogus, petty issues when they are not getting the big picture done. He needs to get a job. He just needs to get a job."

Despite the influence he wields, Joe Burkleo will tell you himself that he has "low self-esteem"--sometimes in the same breath that he'll say he has less than a year to live.

"I'm very unhealthy," he says, even while looking robust in his starched white shorts and white shirt.

On a Sunday afternoon in July, Burkleo took the bus to a stop just south of Interstate 30 on Beckley Street. There, in 95-degree weather, dressed in his customary white short set, his prominent belly straining under a T-shirt, he began clipping the branches of a tree and placing the cuttings in a pile by the curb.

I stumbled across him there as he worked tirelessly, occasionally brushing beads of sweat from his forehead. For some odd reason, Burkleo dropped a bunch of leafy branches over the long-handled tree clipper just as I walked up, so the branches hid the clippers.

"I'm just cleaning up this lot," he explained to me, seeming surprised--and slightly displeased--that I'd come by.

"Is this your property?" I asked.
"No," he said. "But I do this all the time. I'm always cleaning up property downtown. I can't stand to see trashy properties like this. Do you see all this?" he asked, pointing to the branches he'd just clipped and piled up. "The city just leaves it."

Burkleo carried on briefly about the unsightliness of tree branches being piled on the curb, even though he was the one who put them there.

Ignoring the clippers, he then ambled about, picking up stray pieces of paper, until I left.

Joe Burkleo is eccentric. Many of his motivations are hard to figure out, and that, he says, is why he is so often misunderstood. Some of his critics even say he's dangerous, although his demeanor is placid and unthreatening. For a man who describes himself as having little self-esteem, he has managed to weather all kinds of criticisms, and has even fought back with a few jabs of his own.

He says the former URSB assistant director, Althea Gulley, dislikes him because he complained so vociferously about her performance that she was ultimately removed from her position. "She simply was not responsive to my concerns," Burkleo stated in the deposition.

He also accuses former board chairman Darwin Gaines, who developed a public reputation for being unbending and abrasive, of having "a very soft approach to code enforcement. I believe that people should maintain their properties, and I don't believe he shares that same philosophy." (Gaines stepped down as board chairman in September when his term expired.)

Burkleo also says he filed a police report earlier this year on a man who walked up into his parents' driveway and punched him out. He says he'd never met the man, but thinks the attack had something to do with his work in code enforcement. He says he's certain the attacker is a Dallas police officer, because police have done nothing about the incident. Jim Chandler, spokesman for the Dallas Police Department, says police have no record of it.

Last year, the criticisms against Burkleo took an ugly turn. The activist became the target of a Dallas Fire Department arson investigation. It seems that someone-- department officials refuse to say who--called the department and gave them a list of homes under review by the URSB. The source noted that at least three houses Joe Burkleo was complaining about had mysteriously caught fire. "They found it all very strange," says Dallas fire captain Randy Sanders.

Fire department officials began conducting an investigation. They found that the houses weren't located in any one neighborhood; the fires had been started in vacant houses all over town. The arsonist or arsonists used the same method for starting all the fires: just piling up junk lying around and lighting it somehow. No lighting agent of any kind was used, Sanders says.

After investigating, arson detectives called the activist downtown.
"It was based on false allegations," Burkleo says. Fire detectives gave him two lie detector tests; he flubbed one question on the first test, but passed the second test without a problem, he recalls. Still, the detectives were not convinced.

"They took me in the room and interrogated me for seven hours," Burkleo says. "They told me I would spend the rest of my life in prison if I'm found guilty of arson."

At times crying through the ordeal, Burkleo maintained his innocence. Finally, fire officials released him. He hasn't heard anything about the investigation since.

It was nothing more than harassment, he says. "They tried to frame me, because I am speaking out for African-Americans and Hispanics. They are a bunch of good 'ol boys against a white liberal. They tried to break me down. The city is very prejudiced."

After turning up no further leads, and failing to wrest a confession from him, the fire department dropped its investigation.

Burkleo does sometimes speak out for minorities. When the Dallas Park Board was thinking about changing the name of the Red Bird Park and Recreation Center to the Thurgood Marshall Center, Burkleo spoke out in favor of it. "The African-American and Hispanic people need to have role models," he argued. "And if it's something as simple as changing the name of a school or recreation center, the [white] people should accept that."

When parts of Oak Cliff were threatening to secede from Dallas, Burkleo criticized the area's white residents, who led the secession effort, saying they were trying to avoid dealing with the growing minority population in the area. "All they are trying to do is control the black population, as they've always done," he said.

Yet minority activists have also criticized Burkleo, because most of the victims of the city's aggressive demolition program, which he has avidly supported, are minorities. Of all the criticism he gets, the notion that his code enforcement efforts have victimized black and Hispanic residents hurts the most, he says.

These days, Burkleo says he saves his energy for "wealthy white slumlords, who suck the community dry and then walk away." Burkleo's latest campaign is aimed at the Southern Oaks Apartments in East Oak Cliff, owned by Southern Oaks Enterprises of Washington, D.C., and a ratty apartment complex on Diceman and Birdsong in South Oak Cliff, owned by General Rental Properties of Dallas.

The Southern Oaks Apartments, located at 3152 Southern Oaks, are indeed an eyesore. And the General Rental Properties apartments, owned in part by a Dallas man named James "Skip" Bailey, are dilapidated and unpleasant. Both complexes have unsecured, vacant, and crumbling buildings swallowed up in high weeds. Both companies have filed lawsuits to keep the city from demolishing their properties.

Representatives of the two companies did not return calls from the Observer.
"These are the people who are responsible for the deteriorating neighborhoods--the wealthy landlords," Burkleo says. "The city has to be able to fight them."

He has testified in several housing-related court hearings for the city. But his opponents say the city relies too much on a man who is not a trained inspector, or even a troubled neighbor.

Landlord Christina Swann, involved in a bitter and protracted fight with the city over her apartment complex on Haskell in East Dallas, says Burkleo is lazy. "He drives by and sees the overhang on my apartment," she states, "so he says it's not level. But it is supposed to be doing that to drain the water out. Anybody with a sound mind would know right away that the building is architecturally done that way. It also shows you that he did not get out of the car. He just went by to have something negative to say. If he was real serious about it, he would have got out, walked around, and found some other things."

Burkleo even testified in Swann's criminal trial for burglary, claiming she'd broken into the apartment of one of her tenants. (She is appealing the burglary conviction.)

Swann, who calls Burkleo the city's "informer," says she was shocked to see him in the courtroom, since her criminal case had nothing to do with code enforcement, and he does not live in her neighborhood.

"He goes on the stand to say, 'She has the worst reputation in the neighborhood,'" Swann recalls bitterly. "Am I a hooker? Am I a shoplifter? What was he talking about? That guy is trash to me."

Poor Joe. So misunderstood, so hated. Still, every day, Burkleo continues his fight against urban blight. He gets on that bus, travels all over Dallas, and looks for the code violations that betray some culprit who doesn't share his philosophy about substandard housing.

And when he finds them, the city finds them. It is this process that, in large measure, drives code enforcement and urban rehabilitation in the city of Dallas.

"I just want people to know," he says, convinced of the need for his quest, "that Joe Burkleo has fought all his life for the underdog.

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