Let’s make sure we don’t lose sight of one extremely interesting aspect of the big local political turnover that just happened. One of the most surprising outcomes in last Saturday’s City Council runoff elections, the victory of challenger Omar Narvaez over incumbent Monica Alonzo in District 6 in West Dallas, happened in large part because of ideas put forward by West Dallas landlord Khraish Khraish.
Only months ago the city attorney, the mayor and The Dallas Morning News were calling Khraish a vicious slumlord who needed to be brought to heel. All have softened their tones more recently. Good thing: At the end of the vote count Sunday, Alonzo, the ousted incumbent and a subservient mayoral acolyte, was out on her heel or some other aspect of her anatomy, and Khraish, instead of looking like a vicious slumlord, was Mr. Affordable Housing. So who got brought to whose heel?
Khraish and his father own a company called HMK, a real estate firm that owns and operates hundreds of affordable rent houses in West Dallas and southern Dallas. It's in business to make money. The mayor accused HMK of persecuting its own tenants when it announced it was getting out of the rental business at the ends of existing leases, forcing hundreds of families to move. HMK said it could no longer operate the properties profitably and meet the new, more stringent housing codes.
But HMK says it bent to pressure from Narvaez and other community leaders who sought to preserve old neighborhoods. As of last week, HMK had come up with three ways, possibly four, to create viable affordable housing for poor working families in Dallas and keep families in their homes.
By election day in West Dallas, the city of Dallas and the private agencies the city works with had come up with not one idea, unless you count letting people live in rent houses but not pay their rent, which is sort of the Hugo Chavez solution — works like gangbusters for a while, but eventually the army has to take over the country.
The old private Dallas Citizens Council elite sluiced money into Alonzo’s campaign, presumably because the big money people have always been able to count on Alonzo’s vote for their development projects. But for months while her own constituents were faced with a mass eviction crisis, Alonzo failed to come up with a single effective idea to help them. Meanwhile her opponent, Narvaez, embraced the Kraish/HMK ideas and made sure he was standing next to Khraish at every press conference.
When the vote tally finally was completed late Sunday, Narvaez had crushed Alonzo by almost 10 points — a solid drubbing. Somewhere Sunday night, Khraish and his father were smiling.
There is skepticism among some affordable-housing advocates concerning the various formulas HMK has put forward to resolve what would have been a crisis of epic proportion in West Dallas. But the fact right now is this: HMK has been putting innovative ideas on the table for months and moving on them — it has sold more than 78 rent houses to tenants, for example — and nobody has uncovered a trick or a deception yet.
That is not to say there isn’t an elephant in this room. The houses in question do not meet new city occupancy requirements, and someone is going to have to remedy that problem eventually.
Meanwhile Mayor Mike Rawlings has serially reinforced the impression that the focus on Khraish has less to do with tenant welfare than a land grab. In a microclimate of explosive gentrification, Rawlings has explicitly suggested to HMK at least twice that it consider selling its holdings. On one occasion, Rawlings named a potential purchaser and suggested HMK give that person a call. At the same time, the city sent waves of code inspectors to write tickets against HMK properties while encouraging tenants to join the city in suing the company.
None of that contributed in any way to a resolution of the standoff. In fact, everything the city did served only to ratchet up the psychological pressure on the tenants. These are people we’re talking about — human beings.
There are two women I take as my bellwethers for how the tenants are doing. Our encounters are weeks, sometimes months, apart. Last Friday, I saw them again at HMK’s offices on Singleton Boulevard in West Dallas, across the street from two enormous, new, high-dollar apartment complexes going up around a vast, vacant field that will soon house more of the same.
Pearl Brown is 80 years old, and Bennie Kilson is 72. The women, both lifelong residents of West Dallas, are neighbors on Crossman Street. Each time I see them, they are smaller — visibly smaller than they were the last time I saw them.
“I couldn’t sleep,” Kilson said. “I couldn’t hardly eat food. I was just depressed. Worried. I wondered where am I going to go. I didn’t have no place to go. When you don’t have nowhere to move to, that just really depress you.”
She sat on a chair against the wall, a short distance from Brown, waiting for a press conference to begin. She told me Brown had lost 20 pounds. Brown beamed happily through streaming tears. Both women had been informed days before that HMK had found a way for them to stay in their houses.
Because of each woman's age and net worth, neither qualified for the conventional mortgages HMK is offering to other renters. HMK decided to deed houses to Brown, Kilson and four other elderly renters under a provision of Texas law called a life estate, which works a little like a reverse mortgage. Brown, who could not stop crying during the subsequent press conference to announce the transfers, said she was crying from relief.
So here are three paths: One, HMK is selling 100 houses to qualified tenants. Two, HMK is transferring six properties under the life estate arrangement. Three, HMK also has offered to forgive about $26,000 in back rent from tenants who stopped paying their rent eight months ago and were subject to eviction.
HMK believes those tenants were encouraged by city attorneys to stop paying rent and join a city lawsuit against HMK instead. HMK said it will eat the unpaid rent and allow the delinquent tenants to stay in their houses until the end of July if those tenants will drop their roles in litigation against HMK.
A fourth possible path to resolution appeared at the 11th hour last week, just as a protective order stopping evictions expired. Catholic Charities of Dallas offered in court to pay the back rent with part of a $300,000 relocation assistance grant from the city if HMK would allow the tenants to remain in their houses as long as they continue to stay paid up.
Incredibly, the city appeared to balk at the Catholic Charities offer, claiming 4½ days were not enough time to notify the eight delinquent tenants involved. At that point, 95th District Judge Ken Molberg seemed to have had enough.
“I think HMK has made a great deal of effort in moving this thing forward,” the judge said. He told the city to get on the stick and get the deal done by the 5 p.m. Friday deadline.
Here is the part I find remarkable — no, not remarkable, appalling. The city gave Catholic Charities $300,000 in “grant money" to assist the threatened West Dallas tenants. So far, the only significant appearance of any of that $300,000 has been in the offer to make whole the tenants who stopped paying their rent eight months ago, possibly on the city’s advice. If the city really told those tenants to stop paying their rent, then it’s understandable the city might want to mop up that little mess now, and it's awfully nice of Catholic Charities to help the city do it.
But meanwhile, what about Brown and Kilson, who have been losing weight because they were unable to sleep or eat from anxiety? What has the city done, what has the mayor done, what has Catholic Charities done to help them?
These women are only two examples of the hundreds of men, women and children put through a terrible emotional wringer by this crisis. And now, even with the paths toward resolution offered by HMK, the elephant is still in the room. Someone is going to have fix those houses, and it won’t be HMK. It's about to be gone.
HMK was the first to point to the elephant. It has been frank and candid from the beginning. If those hundreds of houses are to continue to serve as dwellings, someone will have to bring them into compliance with the city code, and HMK will not bear that expense.
If you want to call that the trick, the scam, the con, then OK. But I don’t know how something can be a trick when the person doing it tells you and shows you and wants to be sure you know he’s doing it from the beginning.
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HMK has always said it would not bring the properties into compliance with the new code. Its first idea was to vacate, bulldoze and redevelop. When neighborhood leaders came to HMK pleading for a way to preserve the neighborhood, HMK relented and came up with several solutions that would make everyone whole.
The city has come up with nothing. Except for helping the city cover its possible exposure on the unpaid rents, Catholic Charities has offered nothing. The only private entity to offer any constructive ideas has been Habitat for Humanity, but its model doesn’t fit the situation of most of the HMK tenants.
So it’s the landlord doing the thinking. In fact, HMK has offered several more creative ideas that haven’t gone public yet, such as offering for free to help every poor family in West Dallas protest new, higher property tax appraisals driven by gentrification.
Clearly, the voters of District 6 found the Khraish/HMK ideas and efforts compelling Saturday and voted overwhelmingly for the candidate associated with them, against the incumbent, who was associated with the mayor. In a city that staggers beneath a burden of poverty, homelessness and a dearth of affordable housing, maybe somebody should ask the terrible vicious landlord if he’s got any more good ideas.