On one hand, you could argue that Monday’s development in West Dallas was a topsy-turvy turning of the tables. The person the mayor has repeatedly slimed as a slumlord turns out to be the knight in shining armor, the only one with a plan to protect a deep-rooted but embattled community and keep low-income people in their homes.
On the other hand, it’s par for the course. Relentless efforts by City Hall to push the West Dallas community off the map and make way for gentrification have only made the community smarter and tougher. That’s how things happen here, and in some crazy and very exhausting way, it works.
It was true in Old East Dallas, true in Oak Lawn, true in North Oak Cliff and the Cedars: Neighborhoods get better because they have to get better in order to fight off City Hall’s efforts to destroy them. Do you think City Hall does it on purpose?
I do not. I think City Hall undermines communities because City Hall is stupid — still dominated by white-haired, golf-playing, shopping-center developers whose notion of nirvana is a waitress, a hot tub and a Trump hotel. They get community about as much as they get John Oliver. But as I say, it works.
I can do the backstory for you here in a thumbnail: Last year, city passed tougher housing code to make conditions better, which meant some low-end properties would be forced off the market and tenants displaced, but city did nothing to soften the blow of displacement. In fact, the City Council voted down measures to open up more low-income housing.
So, displacement. In the West Dallas story, one landlord, HMK, owned by Hanna Kraish and his son, Khraish Khraish, announced it has more than 300 houses that can’t meet the new code and would have to be vacated and demolished.
The elder Khraish, a Lebanese immigrant, has done business in Lebanon, Abu Dhabi, London, Houston and here. The younger Khraish, born in London, attended Greenhill School in Dallas and has multiple advanced degrees from the University of Texas at Austin.
City Hall tends to talk about the Khraishes as if they collect their rent on camels. The mayor is pushing HMK to sell its land to corporate buyers — people he wants to name. Imagine the mayor coming to you and saying, “I think you should sell your house, and I think you should sell it to my friend Rex.”
Scary. But the Khraishes have been around the block before — a lot of blocks — and they don’t scare.
The land all around HMK is soaring in value because of gentrification spurred by the opening of the new Margaret Hunt Hill bridge. HMK smells a rat. The Khraishes see themselves getting pushed to sell — to specific buyers — while developers friendly with the mayor are snatching up land at inflated prices all around them.
HMK says it will clear the land and develop it. City Hall takes the company to court to freeze that plan. Everything the city does from there out tends to push toward three outcomes: HMK sells, poor tenants vamoose and more hot tubs.
HMK announced Monday that it intends to sell its property to its tenants, making them homeowners and locking down the community in place. It’s a major chess move on the mayor. The 130 sales will effectively take those properties out of play in the gentrification wars and also help to form a barricade around the most rapidly gentrifying area at the foot of the new bridge.
To understand how this happened — and, eventually, we will all understand — we will have to do two things. We will have to get to know Khraish Khraish better. And we will have to get to know West Dallas better.
West Dallas is a four- and five-generations-deep community of hardworking people who know each other, who tend 50-year-old rose bushes in their yards and whose attitude is, “Take your money and go away; just leave us alone.”
At a press conference in front of the first house to sell, Khraish credited City Council candidate Omar Narvaez and community leaders Hilda Duarte and Ronnie Mestas with leading him to a change of heart.
“I have been moved and transformed by the relationship of Omar, Hilda and Ronnie,” he told a large gathering of media and tenants. “Their concern for these families gave me a change of heart. I realized what needed to be done for these families and this community.
“I cannot take any credit for this decision,” he said. “All the credit must go to Omar, Hilda and Ronnie.”
Khraish said he intends to sell the 130 houses where tenants are still in place to the current occupants at a fixed price of $65,000 apiece. HMK will finance all sales at a fixed rate of 4.7 percent over 20 years. (According to Google's mortgage calculator, that comes out to $418 a month. A monthly tax escrow of $150 a month will put total payments at about $570 a month.)
Families will pay no money down and no penalty for prepayment, but if a family decides to sell, HMK will retain first right of refusal to buy the property back. Khraish said the right of refusal is designed to prevent speculators from talking families into flipping their land.
Many of the properties Khraish wants to sell to his tenants for $65,000 are on county tax appraisal roles for less than $20,000. But the opening of the new bridge to West Dallas has ignited a firestorm of gentrification, and sale prices for some lots are now in the seven figures.
“When he told me the price, it made me surprised," said Duarte, president of LULAC Council 4782. "I said, ‘You know that it’s not the house that they’re wanting, the city and the investors. It’s the property. You are selling two- and $300,000 properties for $65,000. You’re losing money.’ He goes, ‘Yes, but families are gaining homes.’”
At a meeting Saturday where the decision to sell was announced to more than 100 tenants, initial reactions ranged from cheers to disbelief. But after answering questions for an hour, Khraish seemed to win the trust of most in the crowd. At the subsequent press conference Monday, Khraish said he has signed up 10 buyers and will have 120 more under contract within weeks.
The core question of code compliance remains. None of the 130 houses Khraish proposes to sell meet new, tougher standards imposed by a housing code ordinance passed by the council last year. Responsibility for bringing the properties to code will reside with the new owners.
Khraish said Monday he will lobby Catholic Charities to help the new owners make repairs with the $300,000 in city grant money it recently received to assist the HMK tenants.
Narvaez, a candidate for the West Dallas City Council seat in the June 10 runoff election, stood at Khraish’s side at the Monday press conference. Narvaez is running to unseat Monica Alonzo, a close ally of the mayor.
“I want to thank Mr. Khraish,” he said. “Sept. 28, 2016, was a very scary day when the city forced this man and his company to decide that they were going out of business.
“I immediately got on the phone with Mr. Khraish. I had never met him before. I didn’t know who he was. I just knew that I had friends and neighbors and family members that were terrified.
“Over the course of months, we have been talking and discussing, and he was very solid that he was not selling these properties. We kept trying to come up [with] different solutions.
“We tried to work with the city, and the city, as is usual, ignored us and ignored this community. But Mr. Khraish said, ‘Omar, let’s keep talking; let’s keep working; maybe we will find something.’”
There were moist eyes and emotional voices at Monday’s press conference. Khraish gave high praise to Narvaez, to Mestas, chairman of the Los Altos Neighborhood Association, and to Duarte of LULAC.
Khraish said of Duarte: “I am so happy and honored to call her a friend. She is a warrior. I will say this first. She does not like anyone saying anything nice about her or giving her any credit. She is a gangsta. She does everything selflessly. She has turned into a role model for me. I hope to be more like her one day. She works for these families, and she does it with unconditional love.”
Now it's the mayor's move.