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?

Then--even though the city hadn't sent a single demolition notice--it mailed, to his residence, a $2,000 bill. To make matters worse, he says, he later received a letter from city attorneys threatening to ruin his credit if he did not pay for the demolition.

That notice also went directly to Lisle's home. "I thought, 'That's lovely,'" he says.

Lisle learned that the house had been slated for demolition a month before he bought it, but neither the county nor the city informed him during or after the sheriff's sale.

Aquila Allen, the URSB's administrator, says the Code Enforcement department uses property tax records and deeds to find owners, and in Lisle's case, the city filed the demolition order with the county deed record. The buyer, she says, is obligated to search the county records himself.

Yet she later admitted the city had identified Mymbs as the owner of 2511 Idaho based on the deed in the house's URSB file. That deed was two years old.

(Last week, Allen told the Observer that Code Enforcement has now begun requesting updates on the deeds it uses if the deed information in files is more than six months old.)

Lisle filed a claim against the city, demanding reimbursement for the cost of the house and taxes he paid on it during the brief period before it was destroyed.

"If I am not required to pay for demolition costs," he wrote, "my claim will be for $4,800." He added that his interest was in "the quaint, 3 bedroom, 2 bath 1,500 square foot home that used to be at 2511 Idaho Avenue. If you will reimburse me for my costs, the city may keep the lot."

In a letter to Human Resources, the department overseeing claims against the city, Code Enforcement official Elizabeth Fernandez rebutted Lisle's claim, saying the city acted "in good faith" in trying to notify him. She did not explain how the city managed to find Lisle when it came time to pay for demolition costs, but couldn't find him to let him know the property would be torn down.

Also, she noted, Code Enforcement had advertised the pending demolition in the newspaper. What she didn't say, however, is that the newspaper is the Daily Commercial Record--an obscure local publication with a circulation of 3,200 that can be found in boxes at some government offices and various DART Park-and-Rides.

Lisle says he no longer plans to invest in inner-city properties, despite the potential rewards. "It certainly would have been a nice addition to the neighborhood and would have provided a low-cost place to live," he says sadly. "It's just an economic waste...I certainly wouldn't buy another one."

Lisle's situation is not unique. The city attorney's office continues to face claims and lawsuits from citizens who charge the city has illegally demolished their homes. The Observer has isolated more than 20 open cases since 1992 in which citizens claim they weren't notified that the city planned demolitions.

Lopez responds that "We should look at other ways of getting out and locating the owner, making more of an effort, knocking on doors. It may lengthen the process, but we need to be doing it."

About the city's chosen vehicle for publicly warning homeowners about pending demolitions, Allen says, "It is the paper the city council has chosen for this purpose."

Poor communication among city departments plays a big role in the city's demolition disasters. But some cases are simply beyond explanation.

Take 2117 East Overton, for instance. Sixty-eight-year-old Martha Bernice Hollins had only one more year of paying her $183 monthly mortgage payment before she'd obtain title free and clear to her solid frame home. She'd been living with her ill mother in Henderson, Texas, but on a visit home to Dallas on February 2, 1994, she discovered a code-violation tag on her garage. The free-standing garage was leaning, its wood was rotted, and it really did need to come down, she knew, so she began looking for someone to demolish it cheaply. A city inspector also called to tell her the grass was too high, so she cut it, and traveled back to Henderson.

A month later, at a URSB hearing on March 1, 1994, board member Mattie Nash asked fellow board members to declare the house an urban nuisance, even though the inspector hadn't deemed it so. Photos of the house in city files revealed only one code violation: two missing shingles under a window, and about an arm's-length area of water-damaged wood where the protective shingles used to be. The rest of the house was painted, secure, and sound.

Although board members are supposed to use the photos to help determine whether a home is substandard, and tour the home whenever possible, they all agreed with Nash.

Three months later, after the city sent a default notice to the unoccupied house because Hollins hadn't torn down her garage and the weeds had grown high again, Aquila Allen began making arrangements for demolition.

In the meantime, unaware of the URSB hearing, Hollins paid someone $200 to demolish her garage.

Ironically, while Allen prepared for the home's demolition, a city inspector was preparing to forward the case to Code Enforcement's mow/clean division, since the garage was already gone and the only problem remaining was high grass.

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