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.

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.

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.

"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.

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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