Tanking a Home for Foster Children May Help Enrich One County Commissioner's Kid

Commissioner Maurine Dickey tanked a land deal to house foster kids, and now her son is brokering the land's sale.

There's a reason I like Annie, but I don't like to watch it. I can never remember what the reason is, so I keep making the mistake of watching it again, because I like it so much. I'm sitting here alone in my half-darkened office with the shades drawn, having just watched the opening scene. OK, now I remember.

It makes me cry.

It makes everybody cry. You don't have to be a blubberer. The little kid with the red hair is sitting on a cold stone windowsill in an orphanage, gazing up at the moon and singing about having parents. C'mon. Who doesn't cry for orphans?

But I wonder sometimes.

Two years ago Dallas had a shot to do something really useful and important for orphans and those who were for all practical purposes orphaned because the state had removed them from their parents. We had a chance to build a transitional home for young people who "age out" of the state foster care system but are not ready to go out into the world. It was intended to be entirely self-supporting and cost-free to taxpayers.

We didn't do it. The plan fell through the cracks. Dallas County Commissioner Maurine Dickey, in whose district the home would have been built, said at the time, "That is not the highest and best use of that property."

I always wonder about that phrase, "highest and best use," as applied to land. Highest and best according to what? It's hard to imagine a piece of land having ideals. It's dirt. We're not trying to send it to seminary.

The reason I'm writing about this two years after the fact is that the parcel of land in question—the one on which we decided not to build the place to help orphans—came on the market recently. The broker offering it for sale is one Cullen Dickey, son of Maurine Dickey.

The property is at the corner of Carroll Street and the North Central Expressway Service Drive, just north of the Haskell exit on the east side of Central. The address is 4030 N. Central Expressway. It's four acres of bare dirt surrounded by a battered steel fence.

The Dallas County Appraisal District has it on the rolls at 15 bucks a square foot—exactly what all the nearby equivalent properties are appraised at. If Cullen Dickey sells it at that price, his commission will be somewhere around 5 percent or about $138,000. He might have to split with his partners and a buyer's broker, but his take won't be peanuts.

Is that the meaning of highest and best use?

Originally the county was to buy the land from the state and then partner with Bank of America to build an apartment tower. Eighty percent of the building would have been "market-rate" apartments, which, in that area, means high-dollar. The other 20 percent would have been used to house youths 18 and older, former wards of the state foster care system. They would have been able to stay there for varying periods of time, under a variety of arrangements, depending on their needs.

These are kids who didn't have stable homes or parents to teach them how to shake hands in a job interview, show up for work on time, pay bills, wear non-disturbing clothes and so on. The idea was to give them help and a little breathing space until they could get out on their own.

This is an especially tragic population, according to people who work in this area. Evy Kay Ritzen, director of a private social agency that works with young adults, says foster kids aging out of the system are the fastest growing segment of the Dallas homeless population. Larry James, president of Central Dallas Ministries, says 40 percent of those kids wind up on the street or in jail.

As Ritzen said, "They have been failed twice, once by their parents and once again by the system."

The point is, it's a very tough life for a kid. As Miss Hannigan says in Annie, "Why any kid would wanna be an orphan is beyond me."

The rents from the apartment tower, according to the deal, would have paid for the transitional home at no cost to taxpayers. After seven years the project would have thrown off an additional million bucks a year that the county would have invested in homeless care.

The project died at the county level in large part because of Maurine Dickey's opposition, based on her stated philosophy of best and highest use. When Central Dallas Ministries, which was to have been the developer and operator, saw that it was dead at the county level, it took it to the city for Round 2, James told me.

At the city, the project died again for the reasons everything dies there. City Hall dragged its feet and threw up a fog of red tape.

So it died twice—first at the county, then again at City Hall. Now it's Maurine Dickey's son who stands to pick up a sweet piece of change from the sale.

There are some things I need to stipulate. There is nothing illegal about any of this. The property belongs to the State of Texas. The Texas General Land Office told me the deal meets all of its legal requirements.

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