By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
In 2003 the Legislature tacked new language onto an existing nuisance abatement law, making it easier for cities to sue owners of troublesome properties. But the Legislature omitted a requirement that the property owners actually take part in or deliberately profit from a criminal activity on their property.
Even given that omission, people of good faith aren't going to sue the owner of an apartment building because one of his tenants was caught selling drugs, especially if that property owner has been trying to get the drug dealer arrested, evicted or otherwise removed from the place.
But there is the catch: people of good faith. That doesn't include Dallas City Hall or Dallas city government. The city used Jamal-Eddine's own 911 calls against him when they came after him with a nuisance abatement lawsuit.
Wait. Stop. You don't get the whole picture yet. Sam Jamal-Eddine is ferocious about defending his property. The more the police piss him off, the more he calls 911. So, eventually, you see, Jamal-Eddine starts generating some bad numbers for the police commanders in his area. Someone has to explain why there are all these 911 calls coming from Jamal-Eddine's building, and with such terrible response times.
That's when the police department's "Nuisance Abatement" or "Safe Team" comes calling. They lay it out. Look at all these 911 calls, Sam. All from your building. You know what? Your building is turning into a nuisance abatement problem. We may have to turn you over to the city attorney for a nuisance abatement lawsuit. Then you're going to have to hire a lawyer, run up a lot of bills. I don't know, these 911 calls are really starting to look like a problem, aren't they?
Wait. Stop. That's not the punch line yet. Here's the punch line--a line I have heard now from several property owners, a line that was repeated again and again in the hearings in Austin. You know what the real punch line is? I have it on my desk.
The rate sheet.
The next thing they hand the owner of a car wash on MLK, or the owner of a major hotel chain, or the owner of refurbished apartment buildings, is the rate sheet for what it costs to hire Dallas police officers to work as security. Off-duty.
Get it? You call 911 too much. You're making us look bad. We're going to have to sue you and put you out of business if this keeps up. But, hey. There is a way out of your dilemma. Hire us off-duty. Now you're not a nuisance anymore. Now you're our buddy.
The rates vary, but we're talking about a basic fee of $35 an hour per cop and another small fee for the car. They want property owners to hire two cops at a time to work through the night. Jamal-Eddine is down to 11 tenants. At the current rental rates, the off-duty cops would cost him approximately three times his gross.
So instead, the city keeps hitting property owners with inspection fees and fines. Even if they find nothing wrong, the inspections cost $30 per unit, though they only "spot-check" a few units. Jamal-Eddine says the inspectors hand out business cards to the tenants. He says if he gets into a dispute with a tenant, the inspector will come the next day (way faster than 911), go straight to that tenant's unit and find, lo and behold, a battery missing from a smoke detector, which can mean a fine of many hundreds of dollars.
Half the units in Jamal-Eddine's complex are boarded up. He says the Safe Team requires him to board up any apartment that is not occupied.
I spoke at some length with acting City Attorney Tom Perkins about how the Safe Team decides what properties to focus on. Perkins said there is no written policy and more or less steered me to the police department.
The police department did provide me with a very general description of how the Safe Team works, based mainly on community complaints, the number of incident reports from a certain property and so on. The problem is that the company line on how the system works is in conflict with a lot of the testimony by city officials before the committee in Austin. I will explain more of that in future columns.
But the bottom line is that there is no written policy or set of criteria to determine why they pick one guy to pounce on and not another. The day-to-day reality is that the Safe Team is sort of like alligators: They only go after you if you look like prey.
At the end of last week, I found myself sitting in the un-air-conditioned "office" that Jamal-Eddine maintains in an empty unit on the second floor of his apartment building. Repeated break-ins and vandalism, mostly by Bozo, Jamal-Eddine says, have left his office looking like a hiding place beneath a bombed-out hulk in a war zone--a jumble of plumbing parts, smashed furniture and ruined office equipment. I looked around nervously for severed limbs but found none.
By the way, before I ever met Jamal-Eddine, when I was going to the building looking for him, I entered a couple of apartments. They were clean and neat and appeared to be in good repair. Those must have been non-Bozo units.