In Meeting With Landlords, Mayor Talked About Selling Land, Not Conditions
Be it ever so humble ... it's gotta go, Mayor Mike Rawlings says.
The accusation against Khraish H. Khraish, who with his father owns hundreds of cheap rental houses in South Oak Cliff and West Dallas, is that he’s a slumlord who doesn’t maintain his houses within the requirements of city building codes, subjecting tenants to vicious living conditions.
So how is it that when Khraish and his father met with the mayor a year ago, the mayor brushed off their attempts to discuss code violations and only wanted to talk to them about them selling their land? You can listen to that conversation here and judge for yourself.
You may have read here about Khraish H. Khraish and his father, Hanna Khraish, in the last week or so, and you probably have seen their houses on television lately. Last week, WFAA Channel 8 introduced a story about the younger Khraish by saying he “could be the most unpopular man in Dallas.”
The thrust of the Channel 8 stories has been entirely about alleged code violations at the Khraish rental houses. The Khraishes say they maintain all of their properties within the requirements of city building codes. Last year the city had to refund the Khraishes $52,000 in fines after the Khraishes were able to show the fines had been levied against them by the city illegally. In response to an open records demand, the city was unable to produce any record of inspections to justify the fines.
Another piece of the puzzle central to the Khraish story is this: hundreds of their houses lie directly in the path of a wildfire of gentrification, soaring land values and high-end development in West Dallas. The Khraishes think the sudden interest of the mayor and city officials in their property has something to do with that. In particular they think the mayor wants them to sell their land to someone else.
Where would they have gotten a weird paranoid idea like that? Well, maybe from the fact that in their meeting with the mayor a year ago, Rawlings turned aside any mention of code violations. He never expressed any interest at all in where their tenants would live if they could no longer rent houses from the Khraishes for $300 to $500 a month.
In fact Rawlings spoke almost derisively about running low-rent tenants out of West Dallas. He sneered at concerns about gentrification. Meanwhile, he probed the Khraishes about financial details of their business and about selling their land.
Their meeting was 54 minutes long. The excerpts below represent about 10 percent of that total conversation. In the recording, excerpts are delineated by a heart-beat sound. (For the full un-excerpted conversation, go here. )
First, Rawlings gives the Khraishes his grand vision for the program he calls, “Grow South,” to boost the economy of the city’s southern half:
Rawlings: We have done it for the last three or four years by pushing the areas that are growing, where there are hot areas, North Oak Cliff, we’ve got the Canyon out there.
Then, showing them a printed report, Rawlings zeroes in on West Dallas, even though the Khraishes own houses elsewhere in the city:
Rawlings: And then, here, the next page is in West Dallas where [your] homes are. Now this is a very important area for us because growth’s comin’ (laughs), down Singleton and across Margaret Hunt Hill [Bridge]. I assume you have felt the impact with a lot of things that are changing.
When the younger Khraish tries to talk about his company’s relationship with the city’s code compliance inspectors, Rawlings steers the conversation away. Instead, he wants to talk about the appearance of the Khraish properties to people driving by.
Rawlings: I didn’t start with the code thing. We can go there, but I said let’s just keep this real simple. Somebody driving by and saying, ‘That is a very poor house.’ To me, what we do with code is another issue, but do you believe that assessment is correct? These are very poor houses?
Khraish, son: You know. I don’t know. You’d have to define that. We want to be average with the neighborhood, so our houses look just like the neighborhood, an exact feel for the neighborhood. You know, we don’t want to be necessarily much better, much grander than the average, and we certainly don’t want to be much less.
Rawlings: OK, so that’s the issue, because I think the whole neighborhood is not as good as it needs to be. So everybody has kind of got to raise their game.
The younger Khraish attempts to talk about the people who live in his houses.
Rawlings: So give me advice, how should we attack this?
Khraish, son: You know, from our perspective, we don’t see the poor quality houses. We see tenants and families that want to live in that location. That’s what we see. My father and I work hard to provide them the housing that they demand.
Rawlings shifts the conversation:
Rawlings: Before I forget to ask this question, do you have one bank that you work with?
Khraish, son: Typically.
Rawlings: Yeah, who’s your bank?
Khraish, son: May I ask why you are asking.
Rawlings: Oh, I’m just curious, are they local banks?
Toward the end of the meeting, Rawlings closes. What he really wants to talk about is the Khraishes selling their property. He couches the matter in terms of increasing home ownership. The Khraishes know that their tenants, who can barely afford a few hundred dollars a month rent, cannot become homeowners.
The mayor says he thinks “the homes end up better” if they are owned by occupants. He says nothing about what happens to the renters who would be dispossessed in that process. He mentions an unnamed program that would allow “people” to buy the Khraish homes.
Rawlings: I have already got a couple ideas. Let me throw out an idea for you. Maybe this isn’t your cup of tea. But the other pillar was, expand home ownership. To me as much as I like you living there and taking care of all these homes, I think the homes end up better if somebody owned them, OK, personally, and their personal assets go up. The whole family is better.
If we put a program in place that allowed people to buy your homes and gave you a fair profit for it, not saying you would give these homes away, is that, would that be just, say, ‘No, we’re not interested in selling, we like this whole thing,’ or would you say, ‘Yeah, we would take some money off the table and let these people buy their homes?’ What’s your attitude about that?
Khraish, son: Our primary business model is rental. We haven’t really considered much in terms of selling. We haven’t really had much demand from people to buy them. The demand isn’t there that we’ve been able to notice. At least we offer…
Rawlings: So people don’t ask you.
Khraish, son: Sometimes, but you know it’s kind of like, ‘Give me a house,’ rather than selling me a house. And you know, we can’t just give the houses away. So it’s a matter of we’ve never really been offered anything, you know, substantial. We sold a handful maybe seven years ago, back in 2006 when things were really bubbling in the housing market. There was some interest then. Ever since then, it’s been really slow in terms of houses.
What follows is some serious probing by the mayor and Assistant City Manager Joey Zapata to discover the willingness of the Khraishes to sell their property. The mayor’s interest is framed as increasing home ownership. But the only new home ownership the Khraishes see anywhere near their West Dallas property is in $300,000 condo units and high-rent apartments marching west from the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge.
Zapata: Are you buying more lately, or have you sold any?
Khraish, son: Maybe one or two.
Zapata: How many?
Khraish, son: Maybe sold one, sold two.
Zapata: So it’s pretty stable
Khraish, son: It’s pretty stable. We haven’t bought any in a few years.
Zapata: And the houses around you, you’ve got some pretty heavy clusters in West Dallas. I’m just curious. Are the other ones that are near you also rental?
Khraish, son: A lot of them are. And the homeownership down there is…
Khraish, son: If anything, it’s tied up with title issues and back tax issues and lien issues. So it’s not really a very fertile ground for housing turnover in terms of redevelopment. It’s hard.
Rawlings winds up the meeting with a speech about gentrification. You will have to judge for yourself what he’s really saying about it:
Rawlings: OK, you know it’s funny. Everybody is worried about Grow South and gentrification. We’re going to drive poor people out of home ownership. I haven’t found any poor people that own anything. It’s you guys that own it.
At this point the senior Khraish, says something to the mayor that is garbled in the recording about competing with Frisco. Then he and Rawlings have this last exchange:
Rawlings: So the real issue is that we’re not going to drive home ownership out. We may drive rents out. But here you guys let somebody stay…
Khraish, father: Because they need it.
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The mayor’s words in the full conversation can be interpreted as expressing interest in raising the economic level of West Dallas neighborhoods by increasing home ownership. Maybe as a rich guy he’s just not very tuned in to what that would mean for poor renters. Clearly he associates the health of neighborhoods with the drive-by appeal of the housing. If it looks better, it’s better.
But put yourself in the shoes of the Khraishes. All he wanted to talk about was their selling their land. Beginning soon after their meeting with the mayor and continuing ever since, the Khraishes have been targets of a blitzkrieg of fines and lawsuits from City Hall. They see well-heeled and well-connected developers getting tens of millions in city tax subsidies called “TIF funds” to build expensive projects marching in their direction, and they know that their land lies in the path of that contagion.
Not the smallest part of what makes them suspicious is the transparent callousness and hypocrisy of the mayor's crusade supposedly to rescue their tenants from abuse. The other evening, looking out over downtown from the patio of the Belmont Hotel, the younger Khraish said: “Why can’t they come up with some TIF funds to help our tenants stay where they are? Not once has the mayor ever expressed any interest in the people who live in our houses or where they will live. Not once.”
If you were in their shoes, might you suspect that it could have something to do with the land?
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