By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"The majority of the properties have outlived their usefulness," says David Lewis, director of the West Dallas Development Corporation, a non-profit organization. "Most of them are marginally capable of undergoing rehabilitation."
Still, Lewis' organization is looking into buying some of Wheeler's properties.
"They are valuable for one fundamental reason," Lewis says. "They are affordable in a way that no others are. They represent housing that, at $135 a month, cannot be replaced."
In all, Tom Wheeler manages about 400 of his family's 600 properties. A city code inspector, at the behest of the Observer, toured the outsides of dozens of these homes, and found the vast majority to show at least one serious code violation, from rotted wood and bad foundations to unstable porches.
As Dallas housing attorney Mike Daniel puts it: "Some of it looks like the stuff they cleared out of the Mississippi Delta 10 years ago."
Even so, Code Enforcement has been uncommonly gentle to the Wheelers in West Dallas.
Inspectors have issued only 55 violation notices on the entire stock of 400 houses in the past three years, and fined Wheeler only twice. Those numbers are surprising because about two-thirds of the Wheeler houses sit in a Walker Target area, designated as such through a housing discrimination lawsuit the city settled in 1990. The plaintiffs alleged that the city discriminated against blacks by segregating them in substandard public housing. As part of the Walker Consent Decree, the city was to carry out "proactive housing code enforcement" to root out code violations in certain problem neighborhoods.
In other words, inspectors were not to rely on citizen complaints to drive the enforcement process, as they generally do in other parts of town. The court required them to search for the violations themselves.
And sometimes they did. Take the case of Carlos and Dana Jackson (described in a June 1, 1995 Observer news story, "Can't go home again"). The young West Dallas couple has been battling city inspectors for months.
In the past six months, the city has issued 80 notices of violations on six properties the Jacksons have been trying to renovate, and the young couple has gone to municipal court and the URSB numerous times to fight civil penalties.
And all around them are Wheeler properties, some of which have persistent and serious code violations. But no tags signifying they've been cited.
Daniel, who represented plaintiffs in the landmark Walker discrimination case, says the inequities in code enforcement are "astounding. The differences are inexplicable unless you take into account the differences of race and wealth between the Wheelers and the Jacksons."
What makes the situation even more curious, Daniel adds, is that the agreement requires the inspectors to concentrate on commercial and rental properties like those held by the Wheelers, not residences like the Jacksons'.
"Given the agreement," Daniel asks, "How can the Wheelers have been missed?"
The civil rights lawyer sent a letter to city attorney Sam Lindsey pointing out the inequities. "The best we have gotten to date is, 'We are looking at it,'" Daniel says.
But the request apparently has not trickled down to Code Enforcement. Ramiro Lopez says he had not heard of the Wheeler properties, but the department will investigate the matter.
"It does raise a question I think we need to look at," Lopez says. "Were cases not worked properly when they are the ones held by that individual? I hope the cases are closed because they complied. If they didn't comply, then it is very serious. We need to do a review of some of those cases."
Wheeler maintains the city has acted fairly in West Dallas and in its dealings with his family. "I can show you the fines I have paid," he says. "We don't get special treatment."
The Wheeler dynasty started in the 1940s when Tom Wheeler's 97-year-old-dad, Thomas Wheeler Sr., began renting his low-end properties to poor white folks. The junior Wheeler inherited the majority of his family's huge stock of crumbling shotgun homes. And he is the first to tell you he is a "slumlord," because that is the title he says he inherited.
Wheeler says he and his mother and sister now control about 400 properties, and his father controls the remainder. Tom Wheeler says he's trying to do better than his father. He says he's devoted to revitalizing West Dallas, and is active in a number of programs to do just that.
He is working with Vecinos Unidos, a non-profit neighborhood development group, on a project on Winnetka Avenue, helping to construct new single-family homes. Seven are already built. He has also had a hand in other developments and constantly tries to improve his own properties, he says--but not through fixing code violations.
"Over the last 10 years, we have been in the process of upgrading the property we own in the area," he says. "My part in it is that I have been upgrading our own properties in terms of the families who live there, looking for families who would take care of it."
In other words, it's the people, not the homes, who pose the problems.
"The bottom line for me is that if I make any money, it will be by upgrading the community," he says.