Razing Hopes (Part II)

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

On July 20, 1994, former Dallas resident Roosevelt Lampkin learned the city had bulldozed his rental house at 2330 Britton Street in Oak Cliff.

The news came as quite a shock to Lampkin, who had retired in Milton, Florida. He had been in constant contact with city officials ever since fire damaged the house in 1992. Two rooms were burned, Lampkin says, but he could not afford to repair them as well as make the mortgage payments. So he talked to the Fire Department and Code Enforcement about what he needed to do to secure the house until he could fix it.

Officials advised him to board up the windows so people could not see inside, and keep the grass cut. Lampkin complied. He says, in fact, that he cut the grass on July 13, 1995, a week before the city demolished the house. And he had just obtained the permits needed to repair the home.

When a neighbor called with the bad news about the demolition, Lampkin was distraught. He'd invested a lot of money in the house; at 62, he planned to rent it out as a source of retirement income. Now, the house was gone.

"I just couldn't believe it," Lampkin says. "My insurance had just settled with me. I did everything the city asked of me, and now I still ain't got my house."

He called Code Enforcement, and after getting the runaround, ended up talking to a clerk in Public Works, which contracts demolitions for the URSB.

The bored clerk told Lampkin the city had indeed tried to contact him to warn him that his house was slated for demolition, but the certified letter they'd sent to the unoccupied house came back. The city moved along with the demolition, anyway.

"I asked him why he would send a certified letter to a house that nobody lived in," Lampkin recalls. The clerk told him that Public Works had merely acted on information provided by Code Enforcement.

To make matters worse, Code Enforcement possessed, in its file on the house, Lampkin's home address in Florida, but never bothered to use it. Lampkin says city officials apologized to him in private, hinting they might be able to make it up to him. He filed a claim against the city earlier this year, hoping to recoup the value of the house the city had mistakenly torn down.

He'll have to stand in line.
Dozens of citizens have made claims against the city, complaining that their homes were demolished without due process.

The cases date back to 1992, when the city began pursuing its aggressive demolition program to eliminate a backlog of homes ordered demolished, but never actually destroyed.

Publicly, Code Enforcement officials and URSB members defend the city's demolition program. The program is saturated with constitutional protections, they say, for well-meaning homeowners who comply with city code. The only homes demolished in Dallas, they insist, belong to people who've ignored repeated warnings to clean up their act.

But that's not necessarily true.
One of the greatest flaws in the city's demolition program is Code Enforcement's notification process, run by inexperienced clerks using outdated records.

When the board orders a demolition, the city is required to do two things: advertise the order in a newspaper, and attempt to reach the owner by mail. In Doug Lisle's case, the city says it did both.

The house at 2511 Idaho in East Oak Cliff had been in disrepair for some time when it reached the board in 1992. The code violations were relatively minor, pertaining to problems with paint, windows, and roofing; the URSB estimated it would cost $6,000 to get the property up to code.

The house's owner, Gerald Mymbs, hadn't responded to any of the city's notices, but he wasn't paying his taxes, either. So the county seized the house and sold it at a sheriff's sale in December 1992. A Dallas psychologist, Douglas J. Lisle, bought it for the amount owed in taxes: $3,500.

"My intent was to fix it up and rent it out," Lisle says. "It was an older house and large, around 1,500 square feet. The ceilings were nine foot high, so it was really neat."

On advice from his attorney, Lisle decided to wait two years before renovating, because Texas law allows the former owner to redeem a seized property if he's able to make good on the money owed to the city or county within that time. The lawyer wasn't sure whether the law would allow Lisle to recoup his rehab money if Mymbs decided he wanted the house back.

Lisle figured the two-year wait wouldn't pose a problem, because the house was boarded up and the grass was cut.

In fall 1994, as the two-year redemption period came to a close, the psychologist went to check out the house to assess whatever work needed to be done. But there was no house.

"I thought I was on the wrong street," Lisle recalls. "I drove by again and recognized the other properties, so I knew where I was. Then I looked at the number on the curb and I thought, 'I'll be darned.'"

The city had razed the house without Lisle's knowledge. A placid, even-tempered man, Lisle wondered whether he'd done something wrong. Was he supposed to register the house with someone? He was baffled.

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