Razing Hopes (Part I)

Thousands of people in Dallas need a cheap place to live. So why is the city destroying homes that could be saved?

The church ladies fell in love with the old church house the minute they laid eyes on it.

The Lord had blessed them yet again, this time with a home on South Dallas' Dryden Avenue for their fledgling ministry, which they intended to call Church of the Living God Youth Outreach Community Center.

Prayers had been answered, they thought. And look--the little haven sat right on a street corner.

"We decided we wanted that, because a lot of young people usually be standing around on the corner," says Maye Jefferson, one of the elders of the church and its unofficial spokeswoman. "We thought it would be a welcoming place for them--where everybody is somebody."

The property's owner, the Reverend Clifford Frazier of Calvary Temple Pentecostal Church, wouldn't donate the church building, which is what the ladies really wanted. But he promised them, "I'll sell it so cheap, you would think it was donated."

There was one catch. The old church was under a demolition order imposed by Dallas' Urban Rehabilitation Standards Board because board member Roetta Barrett-White, who lives in the neighborhood, thought it unsightly.

Undeterred, the church ladies paid Frazier $2,000 for the property last summer. The city--several people told them--rescinded demolition orders all the time for good causes. The ladies already had lined up a contractor and several volunteers to fix the place.

Just wait till the board heard what they planned for this ministry. The ladies practically bounced off one another, they were so excited.

Finally--an opportunity for the city to be part of an urban rehabilitation success story, an example of citizens and city government working together to revitalize the inner city. Urban rehab boards revel in these kinds of cases--public-relations manna from heaven. The headlines could have read: "Women renovate church in struggling neighborhood. Urban rehab board pleased with progress."

But it didn't happen that way, and here's why.
Dallas' Urban Rehabilitation Standards Board, which decides the fates of homes and other buildings whose owners fail to bring them up to city code, refused to give the women a chance. The refusal is one example of what critics say are often capricious, arbitrary decisions made by the board at its code enforcement hearings.

The city's Code Enforcement department, which, through its inspectors, generates the cases the board will hear, boasts that 80 percent of the properties it targets get fixed. And city officials say both the board and Code Enforcement staff work daily alongside the Public Works, Streets and Sanitation, and Housing departments to make sure neighborhoods are clean and safe.

But critics contend that the city is running a deeply flawed code-enforcement program--a system set up merely to react to citizens' complaints, with no vision, no leadership, and very little communication among the departments responsible for acting on the URSB's rulings.

Far too often, when faced with decaying homes in low-income neighborhoods, the city employs the most unimaginative approach possible to urban rehab: tear it down.

Harvey Giddens, a Los Angeles developer who has won praise for renovating two old apartment complexes on South Dallas' Dixon Avenue, says he's frustrated with city officials' attitudes toward urban rehabilitation. "It seems to me that the opinion [in Dallas] is 'Let's demolish it, then look for funds and start all over again,'" Giddens says. "Often you will have a sincere contractor who wants to halt the demolition process and build up the property, but often he will be talking to deaf ears. It is difficult to get [a property] off the demolition list--it is nearly impossible. And at the same time, the City of Dallas is having a hard time providing low-income housing."

The city's lack of vision also leaves room for individuals to influence the process--such as activist Joe Burkleo, who has lodged thousands of citizen complaints against Dallas properties (see previous story, "Demolition man"). And the lack of departmental coordination leaves room for others to escape scrutiny, such as West Dallas slumlord Tom Wheeler, whose dilapidated rental homes seldom get cited for code violations. (Only 55 code violation notices have been issued during the last three years, against Wheeler's 400 rental homes, most of which are in poor condition.)

City and court records show that Dallas' urban rehab efforts are, in fact, rife with inequities. This is a city where poor homeowners and small-time landlords often get run over and powerful landlords are coddled. It is a city where Urban Rehabilitation Standards Board hearings deteriorate into cheap theater, its members handing down rulings seemingly based on whim. Citizens' rights are often overlooked and sometimes plain ignored, and inadequacies in the system have resulted in improper demolitions of homes.

Code Enforcement officials admit their department has its problems. But urban rehab is an evolving industry, they say, and Dallas is doing a good job of it, despite its unavoidably controversial aspects.

"Some people will say we are harassing them, and their neighbors might say we are not doing enough," says Ramiro Lopez, assistant director of Dallas' Code Enforcement department. "We walk a fine line in code enforcement, and you know what? I think we walk it pretty good."

Maye Jefferson and her sisters had been holding church in their homes ever since Jefferson's son Charles received the call to the ministry. "We decided we wanted our own church," she says. "We wanted an outreach center for young people and lost people. All the people nobody wants, we want them."

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