Tossed Out

Little Ethiopia businesses get eviction notice

Also being evicted are Patience Okoroji (Discount Beauty Supply Plus), Benjamin Iheme (Market Grocery), Joe Onyema (Market Grocery and EasyLink Services), Victor Onyeujo (Commonwealth Travel and Shipping), Uchenna J. Orogbu (Nick's Salon), Luz Hortencia Solis (Unisex Hair Salon) and George Nwaugha (Tyme Insurance). Nwaugha, the longest leaseholder, has been there since 1989.

Okpa says that on such short notice they will not be able to find affordable commercial space in the neighborhood where their customers live.

"You can't show up and say you have 30 days to get out of here," Okpa says. "All they've been doing is using intimidating language. They wouldn't do this in Highland Park. I think they went over there and said there's a bunch of Africans and Asians and Hispanics and we can kick them around. Why can't they be fair and treat them as taxpayers?"

Dessalegn Befekadu and his wife, Amaki, are being forced out of their restaurant to make way for a school.
Mark Graham
Dessalegn Befekadu and his wife, Amaki, are being forced out of their restaurant to make way for a school.

Dickey agrees that the residents have not been treated fairly.

"It's unfortunate," Dickey says. "I wish there had been better communications on the part of everyone. The district probably could have contacted those people individually and visited with them. A lot of times it's not what you say to someone, it's how you say it. These are not sophisticated business people. Some are highly educated, but they barely understood what condemnation was. They were incensed someone could take your property."

Luz Solis, who had put money into upgrading her hair salon, says she found another location but was told in March by former manager Karen Moore that she had to pay her March rent of $1,088 as well. Solis says she didn't have the money to pay two leases as well as expenses for moving and renovation. "I was scared to break the lease," Solis says. (Moore did not return calls for comment.)

Once a telecommunications field engineer, Benjamin Iheme has been in the United States 21 years. He had only recently bought the grocery, the largest in Dallas that sells African imported food.

Now he faces starting over in a new location. "I have five kids, a car note and a mortgage," says Iheme, who seems to be holding back tears as he talks about his options. He still owes the previous owner, Joe Onyema, for the business.

All of the owners have lost income as tenants have moved out of The Villas at Vickery. They worry that they will not find retail space near their customers, who often walk to do their shopping.

"I just really feel sorry for those people," Dickey says. "They are genuinely nice, gracious people, with wonderful manners. They're just little business men and women, trying to make it work. Benjy's got a lot of money sunk into the business. For him, it's terrible, because he still owes the guy he bought the grocery from. Both of those--groceries and the hair salon--are difficult to move."

"I have to really fault the former owners more than DISD," Dickey says. "They didn't do those people right."

Only Pat Okoroji has been offered money to relocate her beauty supply business, because the terms of her lease are different from the other tenants'. Dave Sherbal, chief financial officer of Fifteen Asset Management, offered her $16,000, but Okoroji declined. "If I have to go and they don't pay me," Okoroji says, "I can't do it over."

Sherbal did not return calls for comment.

Okpa says the tenants are considering court action against the previous landlord and DISD. "They can't move in 30 days," Okpa says. "They need at least six months to a year."

Florentino Ramirez, outside attorney for DISD, says that under the terms of the other leases, no tenant was obligated to pay any rent after March 12 and that anyone who did so can request a refund.

"If she [Solis] was charged rent, she gets her money back," Ramirez says. "It's a matter of bringing it to someone's attention." But DISD is not obligated beyond that, Ramirez says. "We don't have any options but to follow the terms of the lease. The lease does not provide for relocation expenses."

This answer doesn't pass muster with Okpa. "It is wicked for a public agency to withhold information from the people who are going to be impacted. These immigrants aren't troublemakers. This is something they do in Third World countries."

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