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Razing Hopes (Part I)

The church ladies fell in love with the old church house the minute they laid eyes on it.

The Lord had blessed them yet again, this time with a home on South Dallas' Dryden Avenue for their fledgling ministry, which they intended to call Church of the Living God Youth Outreach Community Center.

Prayers had been answered, they thought. And look--the little haven sat right on a street corner.

"We decided we wanted that, because a lot of young people usually be standing around on the corner," says Maye Jefferson, one of the elders of the church and its unofficial spokeswoman. "We thought it would be a welcoming place for them--where everybody is somebody."

The property's owner, the Reverend Clifford Frazier of Calvary Temple Pentecostal Church, wouldn't donate the church building, which is what the ladies really wanted. But he promised them, "I'll sell it so cheap, you would think it was donated."

There was one catch. The old church was under a demolition order imposed by Dallas' Urban Rehabilitation Standards Board because board member Roetta Barrett-White, who lives in the neighborhood, thought it unsightly.

Undeterred, the church ladies paid Frazier $2,000 for the property last summer. The city--several people told them--rescinded demolition orders all the time for good causes. The ladies already had lined up a contractor and several volunteers to fix the place.

Just wait till the board heard what they planned for this ministry. The ladies practically bounced off one another, they were so excited.

Finally--an opportunity for the city to be part of an urban rehabilitation success story, an example of citizens and city government working together to revitalize the inner city. Urban rehab boards revel in these kinds of cases--public-relations manna from heaven. The headlines could have read: "Women renovate church in struggling neighborhood. Urban rehab board pleased with progress."

But it didn't happen that way, and here's why.
Dallas' Urban Rehabilitation Standards Board, which decides the fates of homes and other buildings whose owners fail to bring them up to city code, refused to give the women a chance. The refusal is one example of what critics say are often capricious, arbitrary decisions made by the board at its code enforcement hearings.

The city's Code Enforcement department, which, through its inspectors, generates the cases the board will hear, boasts that 80 percent of the properties it targets get fixed. And city officials say both the board and Code Enforcement staff work daily alongside the Public Works, Streets and Sanitation, and Housing departments to make sure neighborhoods are clean and safe.

But critics contend that the city is running a deeply flawed code-enforcement program--a system set up merely to react to citizens' complaints, with no vision, no leadership, and very little communication among the departments responsible for acting on the URSB's rulings.

Far too often, when faced with decaying homes in low-income neighborhoods, the city employs the most unimaginative approach possible to urban rehab: tear it down.

Harvey Giddens, a Los Angeles developer who has won praise for renovating two old apartment complexes on South Dallas' Dixon Avenue, says he's frustrated with city officials' attitudes toward urban rehabilitation. "It seems to me that the opinion [in Dallas] is 'Let's demolish it, then look for funds and start all over again,'" Giddens says. "Often you will have a sincere contractor who wants to halt the demolition process and build up the property, but often he will be talking to deaf ears. It is difficult to get [a property] off the demolition list--it is nearly impossible. And at the same time, the City of Dallas is having a hard time providing low-income housing."

The city's lack of vision also leaves room for individuals to influence the process--such as activist Joe Burkleo, who has lodged thousands of citizen complaints against Dallas properties (see previous story, "Demolition man"). And the lack of departmental coordination leaves room for others to escape scrutiny, such as West Dallas slumlord Tom Wheeler, whose dilapidated rental homes seldom get cited for code violations. (Only 55 code violation notices have been issued during the last three years, against Wheeler's 400 rental homes, most of which are in poor condition.)

City and court records show that Dallas' urban rehab efforts are, in fact, rife with inequities. This is a city where poor homeowners and small-time landlords often get run over and powerful landlords are coddled. It is a city where Urban Rehabilitation Standards Board hearings deteriorate into cheap theater, its members handing down rulings seemingly based on whim. Citizens' rights are often overlooked and sometimes plain ignored, and inadequacies in the system have resulted in improper demolitions of homes.

Code Enforcement officials admit their department has its problems. But urban rehab is an evolving industry, they say, and Dallas is doing a good job of it, despite its unavoidably controversial aspects.

 

"Some people will say we are harassing them, and their neighbors might say we are not doing enough," says Ramiro Lopez, assistant director of Dallas' Code Enforcement department. "We walk a fine line in code enforcement, and you know what? I think we walk it pretty good."

Maye Jefferson and her sisters had been holding church in their homes ever since Jefferson's son Charles received the call to the ministry. "We decided we wanted our own church," she says. "We wanted an outreach center for young people and lost people. All the people nobody wants, we want them."

With her stout build and shock of cotton-candy hair, Jefferson is the image of the gentle church lady; people who know her call her Ma'Dear.

The sisters took turns holding services at home. One Sunday, Willie Blake would host services at her house; the next Sunday, Kassie Woolbright might have it at hers.

Then--"bless the Lord"--the ladies heard about the old church house on Dryden. "We asked God to give us a church so we could worship in it," Jefferson says. "And he provided it."

The ladies journeyed to City Hall and signed up to plead their case for the condemned building at an Urban Rehabilitation Standards Board hearing. That day, August 14, 1995, saw a relatively light docket; about 20 people had applied to testify before the board.

The ladies showed up with high hopes, all hairnets and stockings, and when it was their turn, stood before the imposing panel of seven board members to humbly ask the city to let them save their church.

"We were thinking that the city would let us fix it up," Jefferson would recall later. "If that old black Ms. White wouldn't have butted in...If they would just go on and let us have it, we would have it up in little or no time."

The Reverend Clifford Frazier had owned the small converted frame house for more than 10 years. For several years, he rented it out to a day care center, but when that business went under, it left the old church vacant. The building grew shabby, even though its foundation remained sound.

When Frazier was summoned by the board for code violations in 1993, he told them he was interested in finding a buyer for the house. Another church, perhaps.

"The rest of the board seemed comfortable with the proposal," Frazier recalls. "But Ms. White [board member Roetta Barrett-White] was adamant about not having another church in her neighborhood. She was demeaning and quite vitriolic. Her suggestion was that we denigrate the neighborhood by our existence. She said she would see to it that it gets demolished."

At the church ladies' URSB hearing two years later, however, White showed no sign of wanting the church demolished--at first. Instead, she made a motion to allow the ladies to repair the church. Then board chairman Darwin Gaines moved to demolish the church--which got a second.

The church ladies asked again for a chance to fix up the church--which, for the most part, just needed a good paint job and replacement of some rotted wood. (The house next door appeared in worse shape, and several homes on the street display severe structural problems even today.)

After swearing to board member Norma Self--in response to an unusual board query--that they had enough money, the ladies told the board they were ready to get to work.

Then White--abruptly changing her position, for no evident reason--began arguing for demolition.

"You are all middle-aged women," White remarked disdainfully from her perch in Dallas' city council chambers. "You can't even paint that building, much less anything else."

"You don't know what we can do, Ms. White," Jefferson answered plaintively. "If you just give us a chance, we can do it."

The ladies were begging now, desperately looking about for a sympathetic face among the board. But the members stared back impassively.

Ms. White shook her head. The church must come down.
"Have you been inside?" one of the church ladies asked.
"I don't have to go inside," White replied. "We walk the streets every day. I do not want another church in my neighborhood." (In fact, none of the board members present that day had ever stepped inside the church, even though they are encouraged to tour buildings, when possible, before the hearing.)

"Why, Ms. White?" Jefferson pleaded. "Why won't you give us a chance? We can do it. God is on our side."

"Because I don't want any more churches in my neighborhood!" White yelled back.

Then board member Helen Swint chimed in: "Have you thought that God might not want you to have this church?"

 

But clearly, this was showtime for Ms. White. She had endured, quietly and indifferently, the last few citizens before the board, occasionally chatting on the phone or staring blankly into space. But now she came to life--treating the audience to an impassioned discourse on struggling neighborhoods, irresponsible owners, and nasty buildings. "This is what destroys the neighborhoods," she proclaimed. "To have this piece of junk sitting there."

"I don't think that's a piece of junk," Jefferson replied.
Swint piped up again. The villain, she said, was the Reverend Frazier. The board could rescind the demolition order to let the ladies save the church, but that wasn't the point, she explained. Frazier had known there was a chance the board would let the demolition order stand. And when it did, the ladies would lose out.

"The culprit is the minister who showed up taking your money, knowing the building was up for demolition," Swint told the crestfallen church ladies. "He knew what he was doing. You go back and tell everyone that the Reverend Frazier--he takes advantage of people."

The ladies argued to no avail; the board voted 6-1 to demolish the church. If the women wished to appeal the order, Gaines told them, they must pay the board a $540 appeal fee.

After getting a copy of the demolition order and weeping in the hallway, the church ladies filed out of City Hall.

Later that evening, as Gaines left the council chambers, he explained that the board had voted for demolition on "recommendations from staff." Yet city records showed the staff had actually recommended allowing the ladies to repair the church.

Today, the church is still standing, but the church ladies don't know if they'll be able to raise the appeal fee.

Gaines would later characterize the entire episode as "unfortunate."

Dallas' Urban Rehabilitation Standards Board wields enormous power. It can order your home demolished without a judge's consent, and requires no warrants for city officials to set foot on your property.

And scenes such as the church ladies' ordeal are commonplace. Citizens who find themselves dealing with any of the city agencies that play a part in Dallas' urban rehabilitation effort are often lost amid a bureaucracy that seems to have no idea where it's headed, or why. It simply rumbles on, fielding citizen complaints, responding with code-violation citations, forwarding tougher cases to the URSB, and--when board members perceive that the urban-rehab machinery isn't chugging along as fast as it could--ordering a demolition.

Citizen encounters with the URSB's administrators and staff frequently result in unpleasant, and sometimes devastating, experiences.

The URSB's staff offices on the sixth floor of City Hall feature no literature defining the board's function, nor anything to explain its relationship with other city agencies engaged in the task of urban rehabilitation--such as Code Enforcement, Planning and Development, Public Works, and Streets and Sanitation. No knowledgeable staff person greets the harried citizen. Unsmiling clerks, when pressed for information, impatiently tell you they don't have it. Supervisors, who presumably do have the information, are rarely available to assist visitors.

Aquila Allen, the URSB's administrator, acknowledges that her office is not known for customer service. "That's something we are looking into," she says.

So without a road map--deprived of brochures, outlines, manuals, or guidelines--the citizen is left to figure it all out himself.

The system works like this: after a citizen complains to the city's Code Enforcement Department about the condition of a property, an inspector visits the site and, if the situation warrants it, issues an order for the owner to make repairs. If the owner complies quickly enough, the matter is finished.

If the owner doesn't--perhaps he lacks the money to make the repairs, or has abandoned the property--the case moves on to the Urban Rehabilitation Standards Board. During the city's 1994-'95 fiscal year, 13 percent of the 18,200 structures and properties cited for code violations ended up before the board.

The board's four panels each meet once a month at City Hall. Its members, numbering from six to eight on each panel, are appointed by city council members to two-year terms.

At the URSB's public hearings, the great majority of properties that come up for consideration are declared urban nuisances--and the board either orders immediate compliance from the owner, or demolition. The board possesses the power to level fines of up to $1,000 a day to enforce its actions. Occasionally, it will hand over a property to a non-profit organization that agrees to fix it up.

If the board issues a demolition order, Code Enforcement staff members forward the case to Public Works, which contracts with several private demolition companies. The city charges the property owner for the demolition, and if the owner doesn't pay up, the city seizes the property.

 

A homeowner has only a few options if his property comes under a demolition order. He can sell it, appeal the order, or demolish the house himself. The homeowner can stop a final demolition order only by going to state district court. And if he doesn't have the money or wherewithal to get an injunction, the house will invariably get torn down.

It's no secret that URSB and Code Enforcement officials make few friends through their often-unpleasant work.

One clerk acknowledged Code Enforcement's propensity for making enemies when she commented on remodeling in the office: "It's OK," she said. "Except our backs are to the window."

Many people despise the URSB for one reason: it has the power to demolish homes. And the demolition program the board oversees is aggressive, but also flawed.

From October 1993 through September 1995, the City of Dallas demolished 1,113 structures, mostly single-family homes located in low-income areas of South Dallas, West Dallas, and Oak Cliff.

For fiscal year 1993-'94, Code Enforcement estimated that 485 Dallas homes would be demolished. But seven months into that period, the city had already demolished 534 homes. The staff noted that two of those properties, very large apartment complexes, cost the city nearly $1 million to tear down.

The number of URSB-demolished houses was much higher than city officials expected. So in February 1994, the city council approved another $750,000 to pay for more demolitions.

The city's actions are a classic example of what ails urban rehabilitation efforts in Dallas. Despite the grave need for low-income housing here and in other urban areas across the United States, the city chose not to rehabilitate these substandard homes, but simply to make them disappear. And disappear they did--mostly in minority and poor neighborhoods--with nothing to replace them.

Developer Harvey Giddens says he ran straight into Dallas' one-track strategy for urban rehab when he tried to buy some condemned properties on Dixon Avenue.

"I think more can be done with existing properties in Dallas than what is being done right now," he says. "In Los Angeles, a property could be standing and get ordered demolished...but if someone comes in and says, 'I am going to buy this property,' the City of Los Angeles is always in a position to allow them to do that. They don't tell a person to go see a lawyer, that 'this is on the demo list--try and stop it.' This is the kind of attitude I have found in Dallas."

Giddens adds, "Any developer who runs up against this kind of resistance with the city...is apt to get frustrated. The result is that the city is creating problems for itself."

Because of criticisms that the city was demolishing too many homes in poor minority neighborhoods, the city council issued a moratorium on demolitions of single-family, owner-occupied homes in October 1994. The moratorium, however, does not apply to vacant homes or those occupied by renters. And from October 1994 through August 1995, the URSB ordered another 322 homes demolished.

In principle, the city seeks to demolish dangerous homes--urban nuisances that the owner cannot or will not repair to meet city codes. Even so, a house can have several code violations and not be considered a nuisance. Most homes in Dallas, in fact, contain at least one code violation.

If a home has visible code violations, such as a broken window pane or sagging roof, an inspector, usually acting on citizen complaints, gives the owner a notice of violation, and follows up until the house is fixed or its status forwarded to the URSB.

But in Dallas, many citizens complain that it doesn't always work that way.

Continued...


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