If I were a better sport, I’d laugh. Yesterday The Dallas Morning News, which has been carrying on an editorial crusade against a Dallas landlord family, published a story under the headline, “City of Dallas' case against low-rent landlord faces setback.” A setback? Really? Makes me wish I could get my hands on a copy of The Dallas Morning News from April 15, 1912, to see if it carried a headline, “Arrival of RMS Titanic Delayed.”
Last December the News called the Topletz family “despicable” in an editorial because of shabby conditions in its southern Dallas and West Dallas rent-house properties. The city filed suit against the Topletzes, asking a judge to seize control of their assets, books and business operations, all of which the city, according to its suit, wanted to see turned over to something it described as a “receiver.”
Well guess what? In Texas law, there’s no such thing as a receiver authorized to take control of property because the owner didn’t satisfy a bunch of code violation tickets. Wait. Guess what again? The city says they can't find any code violation tickets or dispositions.
You think I’m crazy? I’m not. No tickets.
District Judge Carl Ginsburg heard the same thing I did when I filed an open records demand with the city two weeks ago asking for documents related to code violations at Topletz properties. The city told me they looked and couldn’t find any. By the way, I don't fully believe the city's response to my demand. There have to be some tickets somewhere. But even when it was in their interest to produce them, they failed to do so.
And the city told the judge the same thing. Their lawsuit said they wanted the Topletz property seized and turned over to a “receiver” because, the lawsuit said, “In the city of Dallas, the name ‘Topletz,’ [sic] is synonymous with dilapidated and often crimeridden [sic] single-family rental property located primarily in South Dallas.” According to the law, the city can go after irresponsible property owners by writing them tickets for health, safety and building standard violations and by taking them to court if they don’t voluntarily remedy the tickets.
But when the city was asked to show its record of tickets against the Topletz family and the dispositions of those violations, guess what? They told the judge the same thing they told me: Don’t got none.
It’s even stupider than this. The judge made his ruling after lawyers for the Topletz family filed an answer (see below) with the court pointing out that receivership under Texas law is a process reserved almost exclusively for arguments over ownership. If ownership is disputed, if somebody borrowed money against a property, if someone with a stake in a property is in danger of losing equity, then Texas law offers receivership as a kind of shelter, a legal deep-freeze to preserve a property until the disputes get sorted out.
But a receivership to seize property because somebody at City Hall just feels like it? That’s absolutely crazy, and, listen, it should be absolutely frightening to anybody who stops and thinks about what it says about property rights in this town.
I told you last month that Dallas City Hall already has a terrible reputation for abuse of property rights, as exposed in a Texas legislative investigation and hearings 10 years ago. The chairman of a joint investigative committee of the Texas House and Senate called Dallas City Hall’s approach to property rights a case of “ward politics run amok.”
These problems, clearly still with us, tend to be more acute in southern Dallas, where the city’s difficult racial history has created a political culture often hostile to anything it views as absentee ownership. An absentee, by this doctrine, is anybody who doesn’t live in southern Dallas and isn’t black. Witness the battle four years ago over a Diamond Shamrock gas station that South Dallas leaders wanted to shut down or buy because the owner had committed the unpardonable offense of being Korean.
Or better yet, think back to the epic saga seven years ago of the Inland Port, in which the editorial page of The Dallas Morning News joined arm-in-arm with now federally indicted Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price to run off the single biggest, best, richest, cleanest industrial investment ever to knock on the door of southern Dallas, because the owner of that venture had committed the sin of being white and from California.
We have a thick, ugly history, consistent and unmistakable in nature, of City Hall, The Dallas Morning News and southern Dallas leadership banding together to run off owners and businesses in some deeply twisted vision of racial equity. Sometimes I wish everybody would go to their attics and dig out their old cotton-picking coveralls and their white Colonel Sanders suits and just go back to doing their way-down-yonder-in-Dixieland thing, because even that wasn’t as messed up or twisted as this stuff.
And, look, I always feel like I’m in the position of defending slumlords here. I did take it upon myself a few weeks ago to drive around and knock on a bunch of doors of Topletz properties, and what I found was not a pretty picture. The houses I visited were ramshackle as hell; the people I talked to did complain of vain attempts to get repairs made; and I heard some stuff I really didn’t like about somebody coming around threatening to evict tenants who talked to either reporters or the city.
I am not here to nominate Dennis Topletz, who is head of the company, for citizen of the year or Santa Claus. We could talk instead about the harsh realities of renting properties and making a profit at the very bottom of the market. We could talk about the fact that the city is out there right now rousting homeless people while doing everything it can to cheat on its federal requirements for providing affordable housing.
But let’s not. Let’s save those chats for another fireside moment. We should focus instead on these facts: 1) The Dallas city attorney brought a sloppily written lawsuit against a Dallas business owner asking a judge to seize that owner’s properties because of alleged health and building code violations. 2) When asked to provide evidence of its efforts to prove those violations under law, the city could provide no such evidence. 3) The ultimate remedy sought by the city, a so-called “receivership” for the property, doesn’t seem to be rooted in the law.
Yes, the business owner in question here owns a bunch of properties that you and I would be ashamed to own and charge rent on. But, in the absence of any documented history of law-breaking by the owner, those are things that are sort of social, cultural, maybe political in nature. They don’t go to ownership. Or shouldn’t.
I object to a lot of businesses I see in North Dallas for just the opposite set of reasons. I think they’re too fancy, too show-offy and pretentious. So if I had a few good buddies in high places at City Hall, could I go to court and ask that those properties be placed into receivership for being excessively hoity-toity? If the city can sue the Topletzes for shabbiness, can I sue North Dallas for hoity-toity-tude?
You see the principle.
Anyway, that Morning News story saying the city had suffered a “setback” was laughably short of truth. The city’s suit against the Topletz family — and the Morning News’ editorial campaign against them — got hit between the eyes with a baseball bat. (The suit is still alive on other grounds, but watch for those arguments to disappear as well over time, into the Bleak House dust of unresolved folderol.)
Somehow the Topletz family has become that most endangered of species in this town — free game, a scapegoat, a target that City Hall and the city’s only daily newspaper consider wide open and undefended. They’re wrong so far. I have my fingers crossed.