By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Until a couple of weeks ago, this particularly dismal frame home in West Dallas was a two-bedroom place. Valued on county tax rolls at little more than the price of a decent chicken coop--$8,020 total for the 768-square-foot house and the lot--it's worth far more to its owners and managers, Jack, Harold, and Dennis Topletz, among the most notorious slumlords in Dallas.
After the Topletzes made some jury-rigged renovations last month--moving a hot-water heater out of a back closet and into a plywood lean-to, then running the plastic pipes back through the house about six inches off the floor--they found a tenant willing to pay the $400 a month they wanted for the reborn "three-bedroom."
"My nephew got in a little trouble at our other place, and they gave us five days to move," says John Sanders, who had begun renting the house three weeks earlier, paying a month's rent and $200 deposit. "It's not too good, but this is what we could get."
Walking over floors so warped they induce mild seasickness, Sanders points to the pipes, a hole in the ceiling, and some breakers in an old electrical box. "That's a hazard," he says. "We've been asking them to come out and fix things ever since we got here.
"It was real dirty," he adds, pointing out how the landlord had tossed down some cheap carpet to try to disguise the filth.
A few miles south, on Alabama Street in Oak Cliff, it was easy to spot which one of the little frame houses belongs in the Topletz family of homes.
It was painted the same dreary shade of gray as the West Dallas one--a color produced by buying surplus paints at bargain prices and mixing them together, according to the landlords' longtime contractor.
The tenant's grim story matched too.
"I fixed this screen here myself," says Juanita Garcia, pointing to a spot in the double screen--hog wire over regular screen--where a square hole had been cut.
The hole was the service window for the drug-dealing former tenant, and a few people still come around late at night trying to buy crack, she explains. She's locked a side gate with a piece of chain and a bicycle tire to slow them down.
Garcia, who pays $400 for the three-bedroom place, showed some of the other problems she's wanted fixed: an empty plastic shell where the smoke detector should be and a drain pipe under the bathroom sink held together with knotted rags.
"They paint inside, but it was nasty. There were bugs. Ooooooh!" she says, shuddering. "We start to clean it up."
Such squalid conditions are hardly news to Dallas code inspectors. A special unit that takes aim at nuisance properties has written the Topletz family more than 300 tickets for various fire, code, and safety violations in just the past two months, a supervisor says. But they don't appear to have the Topletzes overly worried.
This isn't the first crackdown on the Topletz properties, not by a long shot.
For decades, despite various blasts of publicity and city-led ticket blitzes, the Topletzes have managed to outwit, outmaneuver, and outlast Dallas' code-enforcement machinery.
Rather than shrink, their empire of substandard housing has grown through the generations. Dennis Topletz--who, along with his octogenarian father, Harold, and uncle Jack, manages the family business--says the family owns about 500 properties.
The Topletzes' longtime attorney says he's handled about 9,000 code citations written against their houses over the past 20 years, each a class C misdemeanor currently punishable by a maximum $2,000 fine. That's piles of tickets, many coming after unheeded warnings to make repairs on broken railings, holes in roofs, bad wiring, high weeds, unsafe locks (like their "Mexican lock," a two-by-four across the door that saves on the cost of hardware), junked cars, bad floors, and on and on.
The Topletzes say they have contested each and every one. When the dust cleared and the cases completed their slow trudge through the municipal courts, only "one or two" resulted in fines, attorney Bill Trantham and his clients say.
The Dallas Observer could not confirm Trantham's numbers. And he's known to boast. But a review of court records from the late 1970s, the late '80s, and from 1996 through 1998 turned up a sample of 235 Topletz tickets. Of those, 233 were dismissed or otherwise thrown out in various courts under the direction of prosecutors and judges. The reasons varied from want of prosecution to insufficient evidence to unavailability of witnesses to no recorded reason at all. In the stack were two guilty verdicts in 1995, for which the Topletzes were assessed $1,300 in fines. They got around to paying those just last fall. "Our lawyer missed them; we didn't make it to court," says Jack Topletz, who at 86 still makes his rounds through South Dallas collecting overdue rents.
"It's a complete train wreck down there," says attorney Trantham of the stumbling march of city code inspectors, city prosecutors, and, in the 1990s, Dallas police. Working for separate, uncoordinated, and at times warring departments, they are batting just over zero against the Topletzes.
"They make me look like Samson at the temple," says Trantham, a 55-year-old solo practitioner who has been hanging around city courts since the '60s, when he was a clerk working his way through SMU law school. "I've beat them up every way you can dream of. The ball over there isn't even in play. It's out in the bushes somewhere. It's like a Fellini movie down there."