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?

The mow/clean division cuts grass and picks up litter on unoccupied properties that have come before the board, then attaches a lien for its costs to the home's title.

But the mow/clean office never got the request. And five months later, the house was gone. Throughout the process, the city sent certified mail to a house its employees knew to be vacant, and the URSB ignored information and recommendations provided by the inspector.

Elizabeth Fernandez says the city hopes that by sending certified mail to empty homes, the owner will come by and see the notice indicating the letter is waiting at the post office.

But all that's beside the point, Hollins says. "I never had anything against my house," she points out. "All it ever was was the weeds and the garage. It was a solid, clean house. I had furniture, clothes, and everything in there. This really, really hurt me." Hollins is still paying her $183 monthly mortgage payments on the home today, even though it is no longer there.

City officials have shown great reluctance to talk about individual demolition claims. Assistant city manager Ramon Miguez, who oversees the Code Enforcement office, says he has not been made aware of any of the dozens of cases, and knows of none that has merit. City manager John Ware says Miguez has not discussed with him any problems regarding the city's notification process.

A city's rights and responsibilities for demolishing a person's home have been addressed many times in court, including a 1975 Washington, D.C. decision which stated that "A municipality, in the exercise of its police power, may, without compensation, destroy a building or structure that is a menace to the public's safety or health. However, that municipality must, before destroying a building, give the owner sufficient notice, a hearing, an ample opportunity to demolish the building himself or to do what suffices to make it safe or healthy; such a procedure is the essence of the governmental responsibility to accord due process of law."

Dallas city attorney Sam Lindsay says his office is looking into some of the questions raised by the Observer.

"If there is something going to the board, if they are going to issue a demolition order, everybody who is in the chain of ownership needs to be notified. I mean everybody," Lindsay says. "Folks on the Urban Rehab board know that, people in the city departments know that. That is basic."

One city official, who requested anonymity, added: "We are going to be settling cases if [Code Enforcement and related departments] don't get their act together."

That remark was made several months ago. Yet even as city officials deny knowledge of the claims and defend their demolition procedures, the city has begun settling some claims for wrongful demolitions.

City records show that Code Enforcement officials have recommended that the city pay the owner of one house for personal items lost because of "premature demolition." Fernandez blamed poor communication with Public Works for the mishap.

And in an executive session with city council members on October 18, Code Enforcement officials asked the city to settle a claim for $11,000 for the wrongful demolition of 2214 Cooper Street.

According to city records, Code Enforcement staff had sent notices of demolition to the wrong address, even though the department had successfully contacted the owner, Daisy Trimble Brown, in the past and had her correct address on file. (The council approved the settlement last week.)

And while some homeowners suffer from drawing the attention of the URSB, others seem to avoid the board's scrutiny almost completely.

The woman stepping out of her West Dallas house looks like the mistress of her domain. In this poor, mostly Hispanic neighborhood, she is the proud owner of a home. It's slightly bigger than the ones on her block, and has a little history to it. Bonnie and Clyde slept there, she says, although many homeowners in West Dallas make that claim.

Her house is painted, the potted plants are thriving, and the porch is decked out with charming wrought-iron furniture and cacti.

She puts work into her house, she says, because it's hers. Most of the neighbors are renters.

Their houses, renting for as little as $150 a month, are small and mean. Shotgun. Some are crumbling, some leaning. Most have visible code violations. The city has torn down better houses than these.

With few exceptions, the neighbors all rent from one family, the Wheelers. Tom Wheeler Jr., 46, manages the rental homes for his family. The neighbors talk a lot about Wheeler.

"They say he won't fix the houses up," the homeowner says. "The people across the street had to fix their own porch, 'cause he wouldn't do nothing.

"I used to rent from him myself, and the house was falling down. Me and my husband said we needed to buy our own house. When we moved out, the city knocked it down. All they had to do was blow."

Across the street, tenants point out the porch they say they replaced themselves, after spending months trying to get the Wheelers to fix it. The commode leaks, they say. Another Wheeler house has a falling porch; another, cracked windows; another, a bad foundation. Several need painting and some have several levels of roof. There is hardly a street in this area of inner West Dallas without a Wheeler house having visible, uncited code violations.

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