By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Two weeks ago the mayor and the city council held a news conference slapping themselves on the back for a new law to fight apartment crime. They passed an ordinance putting more of the responsibility for crime-fighting on the backs of apartment owners.
I wonder if it occurred to the mayor and the council that fighting crime is actually their job. Apartment owners, last time I checked, are in the business of renting apartments. If you don't think fighting crime and renting apartments are two different deals, listen to this unpleasant little tale:
Russell Fish is a guy I've known for years. It's fair to say he's a reigning expert on public access to government information. But that's not what this story is about. This story is about the mayor and city council's great plan to put apartment owners and managers in charge of crime-fighting through owner-sponsored "Crime Watch" programs.
Fish lives in the Celery Stalk Apartments at 5426 Meadowcreek Drive near Hillcrest and Arapaho in North Dallas. On February 24 he attended the Crime Watch meeting at his apartment complex, as advertised in a calendar of events distributed by on-site agents of the owners. Celery Stalk is owned by Mid-America Apartment Communities Inc. of Memphis, Tennessee.
Meeting starts. Two guys talking. They're telling the residents that crime problems they may have suffered recently probably have to do with criminals coming up from South Dallas to commit crimes against North Dallasites.
Sound of large Chinese gong ringing inside Fish's head: South Dallas theory rings false. He raises hand.
Fish, as I said, is Mr. Public Information. He tells Crime Watch guys he happens to know that several of the recent crimes at the complex were committed by residents. He also says it doesn't help that owners have allowed three registered sex offenders to take up residence at Celery Stalk (double entendre?) in recent months. (When I checked, I found two registered sex offenders in the state database living at Celery Stalk. Fish says the third one doesn't show up in the database at that address because the state has lost track of him.)
Fish was one of three founders of the Open Records Project, which sued the state of Texas several years ago for access to its registered sex offender database. He does know this stuff.
The guys doing the talking--Steve Reed and Russ McNeil--don't want to talk about resident sex offenders. Reed and McNeil want to talk about identity theft. For a small monthly bank draft, they say, residents of Celery Stalk can be protected from identity theft. Oh, and for a somewhat larger monthly bank draft--which residents can sign up for right here tonight at the Crime Watch meeting--they can get prepaid legal services.
Fish is back on his feet. He says something to the effect of: You guys aren't really from the police department, are you? You're salesmen, right?
They say sure. They're not hiding that. That's exactly what Reed said to me when I called him and asked him about it later.
"I'm an independent insurance agent," he said. "I am contracting with Prepaid Legal Services of Ada, Oklahoma. One of the products we sell is prepaid legal services. The other product we sell is basically a service designed to notify you if you are affected by identity theft."
I say OK, fair enough. You were pitching your wares that night.
"Well, more than that," he says. "I do a comprehensive seminar."
All right, then. Here is my personal two-bit analysis of things so far. And remember, this is only my opinion. I think the February 24 Crime Watch meeting was a bogus county carnival midway magic-show hoodoo act designed to sell insurance. I could be overstating it. Maybe there was no actual hoodoo.
Anyway, Fish gets up, waves his hand, says this is all a waste of time or something to that effect and leaves. By the way, he is not the only person to express this sentiment. Another resident, Charlie Haney, who has been an active Crime Watch volunteer, tells the insurance salesmen the same thing.
The next morning, a letter is hand-delivered to Fish by apartment management informing him that his lease, which runs out at the end of March, will not be renewed. This, in spite of the fact the same management had sent him a letter weeks before begging him to renew: "Your residency is very important to us, and we hope you will continue to call our community home," that letter said.
The second letter says: "We are writing this letter to give you sufficient notice of our request for possession of your dwelling unit on March 31, 2004."
I left messages for half a dozen local and regional officials of Mid-America here and in Memphis. None called me back, but I was contacted by Jennifer Owen, an attorney for Mid-America. She said she could not discuss Fish's case for confidentiality reasons. But she said: "Mr. Fish was not given a non-renewal notice for attending a Crime Watch meeting or having an opinion or being critical, if he was."
Unfortunately for Mid-America, their managers aren't as legal-smart as their lawyer. I talked with Fish's lawyer, who told me the Celery Stalk apartment manager had already told him Fish was being bounced because of his "belligerence."
I think Fish is being bounced for speaking up at the company Crime Watch meeting. What do you think? I mean, if you had a 75-cent bet riding on it?
In fact, Fish's non-renewal seems to have been part of a general anti-Crime Watch crackdown at Celery Stalk. Two weeks after Fish got his non-renewal letter, Charlie Haney, the other guy who spoke up at the meeting, received a letter from Jessica Flynn, a manager at Celery Stalk, saying, "If you would like, you may move, and we will release you from your lease contract."
Flynn's letter to Haney ordered him to stop walking around the complex at night with a flashlight and to stop contacting Mid-America personnel about problems after hours. "We have been told that you plan to distribute a flyer to all the residents regarding crime," the letter said. "Do not distribute flyers of any sort on the property. If a flyer is found, this would be considered solicitation, which we do not allow and could result in fines and eviction."
Otherwise, great work on the Crime Watch, Charlie!
OK, let's pause here and breathe deeply. Obviously I think Fish and Haney are being treated shabbily and that the effort of Mid-America to support a Crime Watch at the Celery Stalk Apartments is a big fat joke.
But we might also reflect on some other realities: Jim Schutze is not now nor has he ever been in the apartment business. Jim Schutze has little idea what business realities Mid-America may be dealing with at Celery Stalk, especially how desperately Mid-America may need to fill apartments with warm bodies, however glued and tattooed those bodies may be at the moment of lease signature.
I did call Gerald Henigsman, executive vice president of the Apartment Association of Greater Dallas, who told me that this is one of the toughest Dallas apartment markets that owners have faced in a long time, maybe ever.
"This is probably the worst we've had," Henigsman said. "For sure it's the worst since '89, '90. And it may be even worse than that. You don't have the same issues you had back then with overbuilding in the Sunbelt. Now it's pure occupancy, with all the loss of jobs and everything. This is a real tough market."
So along come the mayor and the city council with a plan to fob off their own law enforcement responsibilities on apartment owners. Great idea. I looked up the briefing documents the council was given on this plan, and I noticed a note at the end: "Estimated Revenue: $530,969."
Revenue? Half a million bucks from Crime Watch? No, the half-million smackers is what our hungry City Hall hopes to glean for itself from another part of the ordinance greatly increasing fines on apartment complex owners for failing more than 15 percent of a sweeping code compliance examination. And, of course, this piece of public good works will be handled by that department of city government most recently in the news because it got caught with its employees off drinking in saloons or getting laid or whatever and then forging fake code citations to cover their time.
We're sic'ing Code Compliance on the apartment owners? I could just as easily see us paying the apartment owners a consulting fee to tell us how to non-renew the whole Code Enforcement Department. I wish we could send Code Enforcement a letter saying, "If you would like, you may move."
Henigsman said the apartment industry in Dallas has worked successfully with Dallas police in the past on addressing crime problems. But he was offended by some of the language used to justify the new ordinance. "They made a lot of hay over these statistics," Henigsman said. "Twenty-five percent of crime occurs in apartments. If you look at what they laid out, if 60 percent of people live in rental housing, and only 25 percent of crime occurs there, where does the other 75 percent happen?
"Look at residential break-ins. If 36 percent occur in apartments, you know what that says? The rest of them are occurring in single-family homes. But all you saw was apartments, apartments, apartments."
I told Henigsman that in the last couple of years I have sniffed a certain sentiment on the council to the effect that apartments are evil.
He didn't disagree. "Certainly there is a feeling out there that is being fueled, that apartments are causing a great deal of the crime."
If somewhere between half and 60 percent of the people in this city live in apartments and suffer from crime problems, why would we demonize them for it? And what are we doing trying to suck half a million bucks out of an industry that's already on the financial razor's edge, especially with fines levied by the Municipal Department of Whoopee? Here's an idea: Why doesn't City Hall do something to actually help?
Go back to Russell Fish for a minute. He has a simple suggestion. Forget about trying to force apartment owners to fight crime. "It's not possible to mandate stuff like that," he says.
Instead, make sure that any citizen can get complete recent crime statistics for a given apartment complex before signing a lease.
"I'm a believer in providing the information to the people who are actually consuming the services, and letting essentially the marketplace decide."
Thinking of renting a unit at Celery Stalk? What if you could go to a Web page or a recorded message first and find out what crimes have occurred there in the past month? That would sure give Celery Stalk a big motivation not to rent any units to predictable bad guys.
By the way, the police department already gathers that information every month and provides it to apartment owners. But they won't give the same information to tenants.
I asked officer Angela Pardue at the North Central Operations Division, who is the department's liaison with the Crime Watch at Celery Stalk, if she would consider giving the same crime data to a resident-run Crime Watch that she already provides to the owners.
"No, I'm not allowed to do that, and I won't."
OK. I didn't want to get into the fact that she is breaking the law by giving public information to one part of the public and withholding it from another. I asked instead if she doesn't worry that apartment managers will hide the crime information she gives them from their tenants.
I think she agreed with me. She defended the managers. But she said it's the managers' bosses who are the problem. "We try to set up a Crime Watch group at the managers' locations, and we have management companies that end up firing them over it."
Yeah. Let's not belabor this until it turns into butter. I think by now the underlying truth here should be plain. It is not the job of apartment owners...it is not really in their interest...it is not reality to expect them to take over law enforcement or political organizing duties from the city.
That's the city's job. That's Mayor Miller's job. That's the city council's responsibility.
There are ways to fix what's wrong. You could take Fish's idea and apply it to residential neighborhoods as well. Want to sell your house at a good price? Better form a good Crime Watch and help get those crime stats down for your block.
Russell Fish will be able to take care of himself, by the way. I worry about Haney, a freelance paralegal. He told me it will be pretty tough financially if they make him move.
Here's the big reality: What the mayor and the council are doing is a kind of social class-baiting. And the bottom line is that it's not going to work. It's stupid. And it will not work.