How the Slumlord Beats the City Every Time

City inspectors have written Jack Topletz and his family thousands of tickets for miserable conditions in their rent-house empire. They say they've ended up paying, oh, once or twice.

"I'll bet you a dollar to a doughnut the city don't give up," says his father, Harold. "The word here is harassment more than anything else. It's like getting a tiger by the tail. But the good thing is, they're lousy at it, like Trantham told you."

Referring to Page's memo on procedures, Harold, a white-haired man with a soft voice, concludes, "Their own lawyer told them they weren't good at it. If they worded their cases good, they could put us to trial."

Harold and his son run the office side of the business. Their desks are side-by-side. They live next door to each other as well, in a couple of sprawling 5,000-plus-square-foot homes on Royal Lane. Dennis' place, the slightly more lavish of the two, has a pool, servant's quarters, and a porte cochere.

His uncle Jack has lived for more than 45 years in a mansion on Swiss Avenue, an address that made the news briefs in 1995 when Topletz shot a would-be robber to death in his driveway, plugging him in the leg and back. Dallas police filed a murder charge, but a grand jury declined to indict.

Trantham, his lawyer, tells the story like this: "Jack returns home one night and there is this guy there, and he shoots him. He goes in the house to call police and comes back out and...nobody, not a soul. They checked the hospitals, and they checked everywhere they could check, but they couldn't find him. So Jack thinks maybe this isn't the only one. He goes out and buys some of those bullets that bust up in a thousand pieces, and Jack comes home one night and a guy jumps him inside the gate. 'I'll cut your fucking head off,' the guy says. Jack spins around and shoots him, goes inside and calls the cops, and tells them, 'This one ain't going nowhere.'"

The family business, which over the years has included home mortgages and loans to black churches, was begun by Solomon Topletz, a Russian immigrant who moved his family to Dallas in 1907. He ran a shoe store on Elm Street, then started buying real estate and loaning money.

"We built a lot of these houses and have owned them ever since," says Jack. Some were acquired en masse, like the two blocks of duplexes on Hopkins Avenue near Love Field that now resemble a real-life Pottersville. There's no air conditioning or screens on the windows. Appliances and upholstered furniture litter the dirt yards.

A few of the houses have been purchased over the years by tenants on Topletz terms. Right now, that means interest rates of 10 to 14 percent, Jack Topletz says, mentioning a top rate that is double that offered by savings and loans. "We tell people, if you can get a bank loan, do it," he says.

They do some foreclosures, as one might guess, and at least five evictions a week, according to Ken Harris, who for 20 years has handled much of the Topletzes' repair work.

At the entrance of the cluttered offices on Inwood, in a tiny vestibule behind a plastic window, several Mexican men just off work and covered in cement dust waited on a recent evening to see about renting a house.

"We're at nearly 100 percent occupancy," Dennis says. "If our houses were that bad, then why do we have so many occupied?"

The answer, in simple economic terms, is the large, unmet demand for low-income housing in Dallas, where there's a two-year waiting list to get into publicly subsidized housing. That makes for good business at Topletz Investments, says Trantham, who has moved into the rent-house business himself in Denton: "There's a lot of money to be made off poor people. They pay more for everything."

There is no doubt the family has made a lot of money. They have donated millions to their temple, Congregation Shearith Israel, where an auditorium bears their name.

Their office secretary, Laferne Zauner, says they have been generous with tenants too. "I've been with them 16 years, and they have some people paying $175 a month simply because Mr. Topletz says they can't afford to pay more. He's paid utility bills for elderly people. Nobody ever mentions that."

Until a few years ago, Jack would bring cakes at Christmas to some of his long-term tenants, says Harris, who handles all their repairs in South Dallas and Oak Cliff.

The family insists that its riches aren't built on slums and that their houses are fundamentally sound.

Says Dennis Topletz: "At the Urban Rehabilitation Standards Board [which rules for the city on demolitions], they ask me, 'Would you live there?' I say, 'No, I wouldn't.' But that's what these need low-income housing. We keep on 'em, but for $250 a month they're not gonna be perfect...I'm sorry that is the condition they have to live in, but it's not that bad."

The Topletzes and Harris, who says he has invested in the Topletzes' company, all give variations of the same lament: Our houses are good. Our tenants often aren't.

Jack: "Roaches. That's a housekeeping problem. They bring 'em in. They're not there when they move in...We have some nice homes. You move a family in there, and in three months' time it looks like all hell."

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