Board of Scrooges

No better holiday fun than evicting the poor from their hovels

So here is how Dallas ushers in the holiday. Last week an obscure city board meeting in the bowels of City Hall stretched the meaning of available city ordinances in order to evict poor people from an East Dallas mobile home park that has existed since the 1940s.

And why would they do a thing like that?

One of several reasons cited by Delores G. Wolf, the attorney seeking the closing of the park, was that expensive renovations have been made recently to nearby Tenison Golf Course: It's a possible turn-off for golfers, she said, to look through the foliage surrounding the 9th hole and catch glimpses of poor people.

Susan Graham, a nurse, came here several years ago to live with and look after her elderly father at the Ash Creek Mobile Home Park. A nearby gated community wants the mobile homes gone.
Susan Graham, a nurse, came here several years ago to live with and look after her elderly father at the Ash Creek Mobile Home Park. A nearby gated community wants the mobile homes gone.

Please don't laugh. It's not funny.

The night before the board meeting, I strolled the Ash Creek Mobile Home Park with residents Bill Ashe and Susan Graham. Both know exactly where the pressure is coming from. Ashe pointed backward over his shoulder to the high bluff above the railroad tracks, as if unwilling to look up there himself. I did look up and saw pinched little peaks of McMansions poking above the treetops.

"Ever since they built out to that last street in the gated community up there," he said, "now they can see us. So they want us gone."

Ah, the mortification of the mini-aristocrats. What will it do to their reputations if visitors from other regions notice that by going to the very last street in the gated community, entering a house, climbing to the attic, throwing open the sash like St. Nick and craning one's neck, one can see the poor?

The "Enclave at White Rock" has been around for six years. Ash Creek Mobile Home Park has existed for 60 years on Highland Road midway between Interstate 30 and White Rock Lake, five miles northeast of downtown. It was annexed into the city as a mobile home park in 1952, when its zoning status was automatically "grandfathered"--deemed legal forever.

But never say forever when dealing with the city. Those laws are no longer operational.

The mobile home park anchors one end of a quirky little lost universe, a hobbit world of handmade cottages, miniature ranchettes and artists' studios along Barbaree Boulevard, San Cristobal and San Leandro. In the late 1950s and early '60s, people started hanging eccentric little houses on the hillsides running down to Ash Creek. A diverse ethnic mix and cycles of decay and renovation have left an artistic stamp on the area, somewhere between the Monterrey Peninsula and the alleys of Juarez.

It's an odd colony, cool in its own laissez-faire, bon-temps, idiosyncratic way, far more layered and sophisticated than anything a developer could ever dream up. But five years ago the march of the puffed-up houses began--empty boxes too big for their britches, bristling with cast rock and fake timbers, houses that blow out their cheeks and turn purple until somebody takes them seriously enough to buy.

Somebody does. Lots of people. Now the puffed-up houses peer over the bluff above the Ash Creek Mobile Home Park, and they do not like what their squinty little eyes can see.

The morning before the official hearing of the obscure board in the bowels of City Hall, I managed to clamber aboard an official city van for a tour of the mobile home park. The City of Dallas Board of Adjustment is a "quasi-judicial body," as it enjoys reminding you, and it must not under any circumstance be subjected to undue influence. I, of course, am undue. I was warned not to speak to the board aboard its official van.

They whispered amongst themselves in the front while I and others rode in silence on the back benches. I eavesdropped, of course. There was some excitement and titillation, I gathered, because the chairman of the Board of Adjustment has resigned. The members wonder if perhaps one of them might be named chairman!

When we rolled through the mobile home park, they grew grave and quiet. Most of the trailers are old and tumble-down with homemade plywood additions, missing porch steps and angles less than plumb. Or more. Most have sunk on their knees and taken a seat forever, too decrepit ever to be mobile again.

But there were holiday decorations everywhere, lawn ornaments, lattice arches, dogs on leashes. People watched us balefully from the sides of the lanes because they knew exactly what was going on. Standing between trailers was Julia Hernandez, who had told me the night before: "One thing important for me is the school. The Alex Sanger is a very good school. It has academy excellence. If I move, my children can lose good education. And I think it is not fair. It changes the opportunity for my kids."

The real appeal of the Ash Creek Mobile Home Park is simple: $192 a month. After buying one of the mobile homes for a few grand, a person or a family can live here for two bills a month. Where else can you do that? Just about nowhere, which is just about where many of these people will wind up.

Willie Ramirez, a single man, told me the night before: "A lot of people here have a low income, maybe $500 a month. They want these people to be homeless?"

Yes.

In 1984, neighborhood groups won their first major political victory in decades--maybe ever--in Dallas by pushing through a comprehensive rezoning of the city. The new law provided that so-called "nonconforming uses," even ones that have been grandfathered, can be forced to cease operation if their continued existence constitutes a danger or hardship for surrounding neighborhoods.

I was here then. What people had in mind were lead smelters and rendering plants.

The body that makes the decision on forcing a grandfathered operation to cease is the Board of Adjustment, which is appointed by the city council. Good and smart people serve on it sometimes. And so do pompous morons relishing their first taste of power.

Delores G. Wolfe told the board she represents 13 neighborhood organizations, all of whom feel the park has "deteriorated into a dilapidated eyesore that pulls a disproportionate share of this city's resources related to crime and noncompliance of code enforcement." To support her charges she presented the board with a catalog of code violations and police calls, as well as criminal background checks showing that many people in the park have criminal records.

I looked at the 911 calls. Many appear to have been made by residents of the park asking the police to do something about people outside the park firing guns in the creek bottom at night and setting off firecrackers.

My experience with criminal background checks is this: If the trailer park people could afford to do comprehensive background checks on everybody in the 13 complaining neighborhood groups, I'm sure they would come up with an impressive number of drunk-driving arrests, hot checks, nonsupport warrants, peace bonds and at least a couple of registered sex offenders. What separates the mortgaged middle class from the unmortgaged trailer park class is a filamentous line, which, of course, is what makes the puffed-up houses so nervous all the time.

Maralyn ("Marty") Ray, who has lived in a house on Barbaree for 34 years, made an impassioned speech in defense of the mobile home park. "I am a college art professor," she said. "I teach design. I am interested in beauty."

She described the area along Ash Creek as "a natural forest" and "a wonderland." She turned away from the board and told 60 or more mobile home residents sitting meekly in a clump at the back of the auditorium: "You do fit into the character of our unique area."

She said she had scoured back issues of newsletters put out by the complaining neighborhood groups for any mention of crime at the trailer park and had found none.

And finally Ray said that the code violations were a legitimate concern. But she said she had been working in recent months with owner Steve Crossett, who lives in Austin and inherited the park from his father, and Crossett had been entirely cooperative.

Crossett later told the board he was informed recently by city code enforcement that there are no open complaints against him.

And then the board started in on him.

Board member Samuell A. Gillespie earlier had disagreed with the city attorney when she told the board they were not required to take away anybody's "grandfathered" zoning, even if it conflicts with zoning for the rest of a neighborhood. A "nonconforming" use, the lawyer said, is not an illegal use. Only if the board finds that the nonconforming use is harming other properties nearby should it force an operation to cease.

But Gillespie was prissy about it. He said his reading of the ordinance was different. He saw in it a positive mandate to make everybody conform, no matter what.

When Crossett told the board he had been informed by a city code inspector and the inspector's supervisor that the park was in compliance, Gillespie, a part-time unpaid civilian appointee, told Crossett that he disagreed with that assessment.

Then Gillespie grilled Crossett about whether Crossett evicts tenants from his park if they don't follow the rules. Crossett said he does.

"Do you think you could extend the analogy to the greater neighborhood on that?" Gillespie asked.

"I don't understand the question," Crossett said.

"If certain parts of the neighborhood didn't comply and had a history of noncompliance, do you think they should be asked to leave?"

Asked to leave? Excuse me? The people from the gated community deem that another part of the neighborhood does not comply with their...what? Their aesthetic? And so the "noncomplying" part of the area is asked to leave? Is that like when you ask people to leave, and then you put them on cattle trains to the east?

Mr. Gillespie: Now there is a man who loves government power.

And here's a scary thought for you: A few days after the hearing, I spoke with a friend who's a member of the Board of Adjustment. He/she (I won't say which) spoke to me not for attribution in order to avoid the wrath of fellow members. But she/he told me that recent changes in the law, especially the anti-McMansion "over-lay" ordinance, are putting areas of older residential housing into legally nonconforming status in wholesale numbers.

Theoretically, when Mr. Gillespie is done eradicating all of the noncomplying poor people, he can send the bulldozers after the middle-class people who live in old houses he doesn't like.

Not to pick on him. The worst member was Taylor Brannon, who swept in late for the meeting clad in a cream-colored cape, silk scarf, diamond stickpin, huge gold watch and shoes that looked like spats. He was especially energized during the van ride by rumors that a new chairman may be appointed soon. Back at City Hall, he was eager to show his leadership acumen by sternly warning the audience, "No responding, no clapping, no loud heckling. That is a distraction to the process."

Even though they weren't. Even though he was not the chair and it was not his role. Then again, the chairwoman, Alice F. Cox, did appear to be having trouble staying awake.

Ah, democracy.

At the end of a long day, the Dallas Board of Adjustment voted unanimously to begin the process by which the mobile home park will be bulldozed.

And when the people of Ash Creek Mobile Home Park have all been evicted, when some of them are sleeping in boxes and wandering the streets of downtown Dallas, what will the view be like from the attic windows of the puffed-up houses on that very last street in the gated community? I know what I think people will see from there:

"The air will be filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they go. Every one of them will wear chains like Marley's Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) will be linked together; none will be free. Many were personally known to the Board of Adjustment in their lives. The board members are quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cries piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it sees below, upon a door-step. The misery with them all will be, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and have lost the power for ever."

(Apologies to Charles Dickens, who comes to mind more often these days.)

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