The new Margaret Hunt Hill faux suspension bridge over the Trinity River has become a sword of Damocles threatening the modest neighborhoods of West Dallas with extinction by gentrification.
The new Margaret Hunt Hill faux suspension bridge over the Trinity River has become a sword of Damocles threatening the modest neighborhoods of West Dallas with extinction by gentrification.
Jim Schutze

High Noon in West Dallas, and It's the Landlords and the Mayor, Slapping Leather

The mayor and the low-rent landlords have come to their OK Corral moment. It’s High Noon. We are about to see who can shoot.

A group of landlords demonized by the mayor and City Hall lawyers as predators have authored a plan to create $100 million worth of affordable housing for 1,000 poor families, with heavy emphasis on promoting first-time home ownership in West Dallas as a bulwark against massive gentrification and displacement.

The mayor’s response so far has been a shrug. He said no initially to a meeting with them, now says maybe. But every day he fails to meet with them lends credence to the charge that the mayor does not want to protect those neighborhoods from gentrification.

The plan — carried to the mayor’s office last week by John Carney acting for himself, HMK Ltd. (the Khraish family) and Topletz Investments — would include construction of 250 new affordable apartment units, 100 new senior and assisted living units, 120 new homes built by Habitat for Humanity on lots sold by HMK, 400 seller-financed sales to current tenants and construction of 200 new single family and townhomes.

Plus, a daycare center. Plus, the donation of 75 unoccupied houses for use as temporary homeless shelters.

“I don’t see any downside,” Dennis Topletz says. “This is a win-win. I see no downside to going forward with this program.”

Well. Wait. That’s if you want to stop gentrification. That’s if you want to give the neighborhoods deeper roots by promoting home ownership. That’s if you want to protect the neighborhoods from being gobbled up by high-end condos and apartments.

That process began four years ago when the city pierced this long-neglected hardscrabble area on the wrong side of the river with a dramatic new faux-suspension bridge that seemed to go from downtown to nowhere.

Oh, it went somewhere. The new Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge went straight to the bank. The bridge spawned an invasion of the area by investors in new high-end residential and retail ventures, often enabled by generous city tax subsidies.

But the invasion hit a wall in hundreds of properties that are in the hands of a couple of real estate companies, one owned by the Khraish family, the other by the Topletz family. In the city’s version of events, especially as told by Mayor Mike Rawlings, the Khraish and Topletz families have been the bad guys, standing in the way of progress with a lot of substandard housing.

The city has even gone to court asking a judge to seize the Khraish properties, but the city’s efforts have been stymied so far by its failure to show that the Khraish family properties are substandard.

Instead, the Khraishes have shown that they keep their houses up to code. The Topletzes have done the same when the city has gone after them in the past.

And the city has gone after the Topletzes a lot in the past. In the 1970s, when they had major holdings in the old black neighborhood called Short North Dallas, now part of the area called Uptown, the city threatened them with racketeering charges based on liquor law violations, gambling and prostitution arrests at some of their properties.

Then as now, City Hall couched its campaign against the Topletzes as a crusade to improve the lives of the poor people who lived in Short North Dallas. Then as now, the first artillery fire came from The Dallas Morning News, with a fusillade of stories about wretched living conditions and the area’s desperate need for a helping hand.

But, this is a story you can’t see if you try to watch it day-to-day. You have to slow the clock way down and look at the real story as if decades were days.

Beginning at the foot of the new bridge and marching west along Singleton Boulevard, a wave of new high-end construction threatens old neighborhoods.EXPAND
Beginning at the foot of the new bridge and marching west along Singleton Boulevard, a wave of new high-end construction threatens old neighborhoods.
Jim Schutze

Rather than fight City Hall and risk criminal convictions, the Topletz family cried uncle in Short North Dallas and let the city clean them out with eminent domain. That was almost a half century ago.

Now look. Where are the poor black families whom City Hall and the News were so intent on helping? In fact, where is Short North Dallas? Not even the name exists. You can barely find a bone.

Short North Dallas, once a vibrant black cultural center with music halls, theaters, restaurants and juke joints known and celebrated nationwide by black people, was erased, expunged, torn out root and branch, swept off the map and cast out of memory, replaced by a gleaming forest of expensive condos and apartments. But you could only see it happen if you watched in slow motion.

Ask City Hall where the people of Short North Dallas went. Ask the Morning News. The best you’ll get is a shrug. They don’t know. They don’t care.

Having watched this process of neighborhood eradication take place in several parts of the city over the years, Topletz says one principle always holds true. The last thing City Hall wants to encourage in a targeted area is home ownership.

“I’ve seen this before,” Topletz says. “This is really textbook what you do if you want to clean out an area. In Uptown, State-Thomas and the Baylor Hospital area, when you want gentrification, you don’t promote home ownership.”

That’s why he liked the idea that Carney and the Khraishes brought to him. It is the perfect challenge. The mayor has said repeatedly he supports home ownership. Well here’s his chance.

Topletz and his lawyer, the Khraishes, Carney and their attorneys all met to make sure what they were proposing was clean legally. “I said, ‘I’ll go with you,’” Topletz says. “‘I will commit my property. I will do everything you want to do.’”

But he says he told them: “You are going to find out in short term if this mayor really wants to have home ownership and this mayor really wants to help the community or [if] it’s all about gentrification.”

Last week they presented the plan to Vana Hammond, the mayor’s chief of community relations and “Grow South,” his economic stimulus plan for southern Dallas. Hammond wrote back: “Shared the proposal with Mayor and unfortunately this is not something he can make a decision on at this time due to the course of this matter.”

They wrote her right back and said their team wasn’t asking for a decision: “Vana, the purpose of our request was to have a meeting with Mayor Rawlings,” Carney wrote. “The proposal was to allow both sides to be better prepared for the discussion.”

I spoke with the mayor yesterday. He did not say he would not meet with the group in the future if city lawyers tell him he can safely, but he balked at elements of their plan that he characterized as proposing quid pro quo agreements between their group and the city that might be illegal.

“The city doesn’t do trades,” the mayor said. “That’s apparently illegal even to think about.”

The group’s proposal asks that the city help them win approval for low-income housing subsidies based on federal tax credits. The proposal also suggests the city could help new homeowners repair and maintain their houses by extending federal block-grant funds that the city already has in its possession, mandated by federal law to be used for low-income housing.

Carney has suggested to me another idea not mentioned in the plan that he wants to discuss with the mayor. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is pressuring Dallas not to build more low-income housing in heavily segregated areas. Carney sees an opportunity to view the high-end development sweeping through West Dallas not as the enemy of poor people but as an asset.

If gentrification were matched with a strong first-time home-ownership program for low-income families — if the two could exist stably on neighboring streets — and if the schools in the area improved, then West Dallas might no longer be deemed a highly segregated area. Instead West Dallas could become a so-called “higher-opportunity area” where federal housing funds could be spent.

The city already expends uncounted funds and enormous energy providing incentives for gentrification. One of the new high-end apartment projects being built right now at the foot of the faux-suspension bridge, for example, is receiving a direct City Hall subsidy from tax funds of $45,000 per unit.

Nevertheless, the mayor believes that the group’s proposal to provide 1,000 low income families with housing is not for him even to hear. Rather than sitting down with Carney or anyone else from the group, he said, he thinks they must sit down first with the city’s lawyers, because of the peril their proposal presents of possibly illegal entanglements.

“I just felt net-net that all I would be able to do is sit there and say nothing,” he said, “and that’s probably not what he wants. He wants to engage in some sort of negotiation, and that needs to be done through the process.”

The problem is always in the long view. In the short view, everybody has his reasons, and people have their stories, and one thing happens, and another thing doesn’t. But in the long view, you look up one day and the neighborhood is gone.

It happens that way because all of the leadership at City Hall and the editorial writers at the daily paper and the bankers and the rest of them have already charted the long course. That’s where the ship is going to sail, and the rest is just tittle-tattle.

But that’s also what makes this moment and this proposal so unique. It’s the ultimate throw-down. The challenge has been delivered. The long game must be paused until the challenge is answered.

The Khraish and Topletz families aren’t just offering to oversee a lot of federally subsidized construction. They are pledging $20 million in private financing to convert their own renters into homeowners over a 15-year period. That’s private skin in the game, private risk. City Hall cannot credibly kiss them off and ignore an offer of this magnitude.

“If this doesn’t fly,” Topletz tells me, “then there’s no reason to think this is anything but gentrification. And damn the torpedoes.”

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