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?

Wheeler has been pushing these notions for years: that urban rehab is profitable, that the neighborhood needs good renters, that revitalization is the best thing for West Dallas and himself. Yet much of his housing is still in poor shape, and some is in terrible shape. And the city evidently does not see cause for concern.

"We have always worked with the city," Wheeler says. "They have been quite reasonable in the requests that they make."

Ironically, Wheeler serves on the city's multi-family housing task force, which seeks to find ways to enforce city codes. Joe Burkleo sits on the same board, although he says he does not know Wheeler and isn't familiar with the man's hundreds of properties.

Wheeler has already asked the task force to consider lowering its fines when a landlord finally gets around to fixing code violations. But he says his membership on the task force has nothing to do with Code Enforcement's gentle treatment. Last March, he pointed out, one of his storefronts on Westmoreland made it all the way to the URSB, and the board voted to demolish it.

Wheeler responded by offering the property to a neighborhood cafe owner, Willie Matthews. Matthews says he's trying to repair the building and turn it into a thrift store and marketplace, but is struggling financially. "I started some things, but I don't have enough money," he says. "That old boy [Wheeler] was supposed to help me fix it up, but I haven't heard from him. He has money."

Matthews has great plans for the place. "I know I can restore it and make it look like something," he says. "I just wish I could get some help. The city hasn't told me about any grants or programs. All they want to do is come here and tear up stuff."

Normally--as the church ladies found out--the URSB has the power to rescind a demolition order if the property is sold to someone who wants to fix it up.

In Matthews' case, the board rescinded the demolition. Coincidentally, the deed was still in Tom Wheeler's name.

The truth is that, 12 years ago, nobody paid much attention to code enforcement. Occasionally, the city's "nuisance" inspector would come out to white areas and force a messy neighbor to clean up his yard. Code enforcement in black neighborhoods was close to non-existent.

White flight used to be the answer to what people perceived as deteriorating neighborhoods. If the neighborhood started to decline, if neighbors didn't keep up their houses, if people with undesirable complexions moved in next door, folks up and moved to the suburbs.

That was then. Now, for many low-income Dallas residents, there is no place to go. And as cities come to realize the economic importance of luring citizens and businesses back to the inner city, code enforcement has become a critical aspect of neighborhood revitalization.

Long-neglected South Dallas, West Dallas, and East Oak Cliff are now of great interest to city planners and developers. Some neighborhoods could become sites for new development if they could only be cleaned up. Code enforcement has become the tool for doing just that.

But the city was not prepared. Code Enforcement and other departments charged with urban rehabilitation couldn't adhere to any overall design or purpose, amid the aggressiveness with which the city council chose to enforce housing codes. Ramiro Lopez says the issues that beset Code Enforcement are growing pains, not unusual for an evolving discipline.

"Who ever heard of code enforcement being a viable city service 10 to 12 years ago?" he asks. "There wasn't any kind of state organization for code enforcement until the last 10 years."

In Dallas, this difficult task has been tagged on to different departments over the years. It is now a duty of the Streets and Sanitation Code Enforcement Department, having recently been moved from Housing and Neighborhood Services as part of the city's reorganization under city manager John Ware.

Officials are now touting several programs aimed at helping people in bad housing situations. And several corporations are also working to assist people stuck in substandard housing.

Meanwhile, Dallas' low-income housing continues to grow older, with many homes and apartments deteriorated beyond redemption. And neighbors want relief.

"The majority of the people in Dallas do want code enforcement," Lopez says.
The challenge, he concludes, is to ensure that code enforcement activity works to benefit the city--that the city carries out a thoughtful urban rehabilitation plan designed to build up, not tear down.

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