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.

Harold: "Vandalism is a big problem. People say these are slums, but they're not. They are in good condition. The city provides welfare and builds these projects, and then people tear them up, and the people move someplace else."

Ken Harris: "If you build these people a new house down here, what do you think it looks like in six months? They break toilets. They break windows. If you put in new faucets, they steal them out when they leave. I promise you."

And before long, that kind of talk turns into something nastier.
Jack: "The inspectors don't pay any attention to the lifestyle of the people of the house. A lot of 'em just don't clean up things. They pile 'em on the floor. That's their lifestyle. They don't know any different. Just like with the coloreds and the cuss language they use...Every once in a while, they take one of these big carts you get down at the store and take it all to the washateria."

Harris: "I can show you houses we fix, and they vandalize them again. They keep 'em filthy. I don't know why they live like that. It's their nature, I guess."

The Topletzes assigned Harris, who commutes every day to Dallas from his farm in Hillsboro, the job of spending a day showing the Observer their houses. Some Harris picked. Others the Observer chose.

There was a consistent difference between the two. In the half-dozen, mostly vacant houses Harris stopped at, there were bugs, and holes in the roofs, and doors that barely shut. But he said these things would soon be repaired. At the three occupied houses selected by the Observer, the tenants said this stuff hadn't been fixed.

Even Harris had a hard time explaining away all the problems at one of the homes he chose: a little purple-gray shotgun house at 420 N. Denley St. in Oak Cliff.

Judging by the color of the walls, it already had received the treatment many Topletz houses get between tenants: a blast of paint sprayed over everything, including the dirt. As Harris opened the door, at least a dozen roaches rained down on his shoulders. "You can see why I keep my pants like this," he said, pointing out how he keeps them tucked into his boots.

One could see daylight out the back door, which lacked any sort of weatherstripping. The roof, which had been redone over the back half of the house, had a hole in the section the landlords had obviously stretched past its prime.

From back to front, the house was so askew on its foundation that it felt as if one were on a jacked-up treadmill. "What do you want for $175 a month?" Harris said, then corrected himself by saying it probably rented for $225.

Harold and Jack say that when they think of city codes, they think of keeping the exteriors of their houses looking decent so neighbors won't complain. They don't believe the city has any business inspecting inside. For that reason, they contend, they instruct their tenants not to let inspectors in. But most do. "They think they're gonna get a free ride then," says Dennis.

Responding to the TV reports and the Page suspension, Harold Topletz talks at length about how he tries to keep drug dealers from renting his houses. They are read stern warnings. They sign a no-dealing pledge on their application. Phone calls are made to employers listed on rental applications. With the damage done by SWAT teams--broken doors, smashed windows, walls destroyed in searches--and the cost of evictions, $203 for filing and set-outs, and the general destruction the drug trade does to his houses, there is no sane business reason why he would want to rent to dopers, he says.

Still, he laments, "We're talking about low-income tenants. We don't know who's doing what out there." It's not unusual for one person to rent a house as a front and let someone else use it, he says.

Tenant screening and scrutiny of who is actually using the house are things the S.A.F.E. team will typically review with landlords, says Sgt. Tracy Hearn, one of the unit's supervisors.

The unit claims that 97 percent of the landlords it approaches about drugs or prostitutes on their properties will cooperate with police. They are asked to sign an agreement "as to what abatement strategies will be employed and the mutual support expected," according to the team's information pamphlet.

The Topletzes and Trantham agreed to attend one meeting with the S.A.F.E. team several years ago, with the police running a video camera from one end of the room. "Trantham told us, you are going to be on videotape with them telling you, showing you what they want you to do. He said, don't stay here."

Adds Dennis, "They weren't there to work with us. They were there to tell us this is the way things are going to be."

The Topletzes haven't made another meeting since.
Instead, they found themselves in a paper war, a battle of tickets fought via certified mail. Thus far, the Topletzes have held the high ground, but a new city offensive is clearly under way.

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