Low-Rent Landlord Alex Stolarski is City Hall's Fall Guy
Wow. Have I got a story for you! Headline: Ancient riddle solved! Dallas city officials join with local newspaper to discover root cause of crime.
Amazing. All these eons, moral thinkers and criminologists have been sorting through possible explanations.
Poor impulse control. Socio-economic disadvantage. Chromosomal mishap. Old Nick. Just bad-assedness. And all along it was the damn apartment building owners.
On January 9, three days after the shooting death of a revered Dallas police officer—on the day of his memorial service, in fact, when the city's heart was open and bleeding—The Dallas Morning News stood before its altar in long editorial robes, figuratively speaking, and delivered this epitaph:
"Nothing will change," the newspaper intoned on its editorial page, "unless City Hall dedicates itself to a new mindset of zero tolerance for these properties where criminals have no qualms about brazenly setting up shop, terrorizing residents and shooting anyone who gets in their way."
Dispelling all ambiguity, the editorial named names: "This disgusting situation is reinforced by a political system that lends support to scofflaw apartment owners. Alex Stolarski, whose Oakwood Place apartments were the scene of Tuesday's shootout, seemed to have no problem making $5,000 donations to the political campaign of Mayor Pro Tem Elba Garcia.
"But when it comes to spending the money necessary to keep his property up to code, Stolarski has a history of coming up short."
The day before the editorial ran, the paper had provided evidence on its news pages: "City Manager Mary Suhm said Stolarski does fix problems when the city brings them to his attention, but she suggested he hasn't actively improved the property."
The story quoted Suhm as saying: "That's kind of walking a line that does not improve the quality of life in the community."
I have a problem with that. I have a problem with what Suhm said and a huge problem with what the Morning News said.
It's all a lie. It's a straight-up lie—a vicious slander of an honest businessman and involved citizen. As far as I can tell, Stolarski does everything humanly possible to combat crime in his buildings. He is also not a nobody. I don't think it's OK to savage people who happen to be unknown, but Stolarski happens to be known. He has a reputation, and it's good. All anybody had to do to find out was lift a finger, make a couple calls.
Bad enough is the cheap, maudlin exploitation of a terrible death. But this is even worse than that. It goes deeper. This whole line of thinking is a flabby moral self-deception.
You know what really does contribute to tragedies like the recent death of Senior Corporal Norman Smith? City officials and editorial writers who continue to say crap like this. They enable the moral conditions that will produce more cop killings, more crime.
Crime will be reduced when more people start acting better. People don't act bad because of their building owners.
Exactly how dumb do we have to get about this before we take a smart pill?
Crimes do happen at Stolarski's Oakwood Place apartments, at the intersection of Interstate 45 and Loop 12 in southern Dallas. Lots of crimes. In four years of records, I found 330 police calls at the address. But wait! That makes Stolarski's complex an oasis of calm, relative to the neighborhood.
Oakwood's rate of crimes per 100 occupants is one-third that of surrounding apartment complexes. One-third! Why? Because Stolarski has invested millions of dollars in upgrading the complex, especially in crime-fighting security measures.
Spurred by the death of Officer Smith, the Dallas City Council recently passed a crack-down measure for apartment owners, requiring them to conduct criminal background checks on potential tenants, hold monthly crime watch meetings, remove pay phones and allow police to enforce trespassing laws.
Stolarski has been doing all of that for years. He says after buying the 206-unit complex in 2000, he carried out a $6.6 million rehabilitation, which included repair of the brick exterior, new aluminum-frame windows, a new iron security fence with card-operated gates, all new central air and heat, all new wiring, all new plumbing, new paint and texture on the inside, new cabinets, new appliances, new tile floors in bathrooms and kitchens, new carpets.
Stolarski received state tax credits which required him to provide one afternoon of social services per week for kids in the complex. He provides four afternoons of computer training, supervised activities and help with homework.
He was required to hold rents at prescribed maximum levels. He maintains his rents at rates 19 to 26 percent lower than the required maximums.
Morning News reporters Steve Thompson and Rudolph Bush wrote, "...records from the city's Code Compliance Department show that Oakwood Place has a lengthy history of citations."
But what does that mean? For the year 2008, I found records of 19 visits to Oakwood Place by code inspectors. But if you look all the way across the page to the column called, "Status/Comments," 13 of those were summarized as "No violation found."
So do those 13 count as "citations"?
Five more of the 19 were shown as "notice of violation." These included problems noted as "burned structure," "plumbing," "hole in floor." All five were shown as "abated" or taken care of soon afterward.
The 19th item was a duplicate. So this guy is a scofflaw? It's his fault that a beloved Dallas police officer was shot on his property?
Stolarski showed me pages and pages of e-mails he has exchanged with Dallas police officials over the years. Most of them involve his attempts to keep the department abreast of problems at his own building.
In an e-mail last year to the Deputy Chief Sherryl L. Scott over the South Central Patrol Division, Stolarski said, "Just to thank you for the additional police presence, but even with your effort we had two car break-ins and some shooting this weekend at Oakwood. I am attaching a notice from a good tenant who left us due to the ongoing problems.
"What we are afraid of is to fall into the vicious cycle in which good tenants leave and we only keep the bad ones..."
So, hang on for a second. I ask: Does that sound like a cruel, rapacious slumlord son-of-a-bitch who goes around getting cops shot? And, if not, who would say such a thing about him?
The Morning News editorial page sort of threw in his face that Stolarski "seemed to have no problem making $5,000" political contributions to Elba Garcia, who appointed him to the city's Commission on Productivity and Innovation.
Yeah? You know why he had no problem? Because it's legal. In fact, in some circles, supporting council members would be considered a sign of civic involvement.
As for Garcia's appointment of him to the productivity committee? I have sat in on sessions of that body. It's a brainiac think-tank of volunteers from the business and professional community, who come up with ideas to help City Hall get smarter—lots of luck.
Stolarski and I spoke by phone last week. He was in California. He sounds like an interesting guy. He's 62 years old.
"I was born and raised in Mexico City," he said. "Went to school in Mexico City, then college. I graduated from the University of California-Berkeley. I have an engineering degree, where I understand the nuts and bolts of properties. That's why we're able to rehab them the way we do. Then I got an MBA there also."
He says his years at Berkeley were formative. "I got there in '68. I was in the middle of the Free Speech Movement and all of that, so I have a social conscience."
I asked Stolarski a stupid question. "Why did you buy a low-end apartment building in a tough neighborhood instead of a high-end building in a nice neighborhood?"
He gave me a brilliant answer. "I didn't have enough money for a high-end building."
Aha! I think I'm drilling down here. I asked him if he makes a ton of money off Oakwood Place. He said no. "No one has yet to make a profit from it."
His company, which owns other properties, does take 8 percent of the revenues as a management fee. And if the neighborhood ever goes up instead of inexorably down, he and his partners hope they will one day sell the property at a profit.
I walked the Oakwood property with an executive of his company, looking in and out of units. It was tidy and quiet. I saw lots of fresh paint and new carpet in empty units waiting to be re-rented.
But lots of empty units. The manager told me the place hovers around 70 percent occupancy.
In addition to the lady who toured me around, Stolarski's company keeps an on-site manager at the place and an on-site maintenance crew of four people.
A one-bedroom rents for $400 a month. A three-bedroom rents for $600 a month. So tell me something. Do you see anybody carting off unconscionable truckloads of profit from this operation?
I have another question. Do non-affluent people have a right to rent from private-sector providers? Or do they all have to live in government housing and take parenting classes three times a week? I hope you won't opt for everybody living in public housing, because we won't have anywhere near enough to go around.
Plus, it's America. It's still a free country, right? Even if you're not rich.
My point is this: The only way working people and poor people can live in market housing is if somebody can make a profit providing them with it. So we want Mr. Stolarski to make some profit, do we not?
But this is the larger point: The political pressure to blame landlords for crime is an expression of profound cultural and moral corruption. It is scapegoating.
Scapegoating is always vicious and corrupt. It lets people off the hook for their own culpability. It enables broad social and personal moral irresponsibility. And when you start thinking in terms of abandoned babies and dead cops, moral irresponsibility is just another term for evil, isn't it?
Stolarski is an honest businessman. Don't take it from me. Talk to people who know him. Over the years his company has received written commendations and endorsements from District 104 State Representative Domingo Garcia, District 109 State Representative Helen Giddings, former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk and former City of Dallas Housing Department Director Mary K. Vaughn.
I contacted Judd Bradbury, a member of the Commission on Productivity and Innovation, the brainiac group I mentioned. He is president of his own company, Maverick Consultant Management, advising midsize to Fortune 500 companies on international business, corporate governance, strategy—stuff like that.
I don't know if I'm supposed to tell you this, but Mr. Bradbury and I are occasional correspondents. In the interest of his reputation, I will tell you that he usually writes to tell me I'm wrong about things and why and how. (These are my most valued pen pals.)
I asked him by e-mail for his take on Stolarski. He wrote back quickly: "Alex is one of the best board members we have," Bradbury said. "He works tirelessly on subcommittees and has a very strong ethical compass.
"...I had the opportunity to meet two of his property managers at a working session we had for multi-family recycling. I believe they are good managers that care about the quality of life of their tenants."
Bradbury mentioned something I already knew from Stolarski: After the attacks on his character by the Morning News, Stolarski wrote to all the members of the Productivity Commission to give them his side of the story but also, implicitly, to give them a chance to boot him off the commission if they so choose. Committee chairman Bill "Bulldog" Cunningham told me last week that Stolarski will not be asked to resign.
Bradbury sent this to Stolarksi in response to his message: "Alex, thank you for the note. Your service to the city is without parallel, and I have always considered the time you dedicate to the city to be a valuable gift. Our work on multi-family recycling provided many of us with a good view of how much pride you have in your complexes. The most memorable was from one of your complex managers relaying the story about your company providing gift baskets to your residents in the spirit of creating a sense of community. If there is something we can do to help at this difficult time please do not hesitate to ask."
So let me say this one last time. He's an honest businessman providing a good service in an atmosphere where there is struggle, courage, virtue, some hard-fought success but also a bracing amount of evil.
Blaming him for the evil that comes to his door is sleazy, corrupt and corrupti ng.