I know politics is politics, and the game goes on. But sometimes a foul ball has to be called foul. I’m not accusing anybody of lying. I just want to make sure we set the record straight.
On Tuesday night at a speech celebrating the fifth year of his campaign to boost the beleaguered economy of Southern Dallas, Mayor Mike Rawlings seemed to give credit to City Council member Monica Alonzo, the challenged incumbent in a runoff June 10, for persuading a major West Dallas landlord to sell upward of 130 houses to his tenants rather than vacate and demolish them.
“I am very, very pleased,” Rawlings said, “that HMK announced yesterday that those tenants are going to be able to buy their homes, something Monica Alonzo has been working on.”
For the better part of a year, all I have been hearing from HMK is frustration, anger and injury over repeatedly getting the the back of the hand from Alonzo, a close ally of the mayor.
Meanwhile, her opponent in the June 10 District 6 runoff election, Omar Narvaez, has been pleading and bargaining with HMK for months to help bring about the resolution announced this week. In a surprise announcement that ought to be called The West Dallas Miracle, Khraish Khraish, managing partner in HMK, gave major credit to Narvaez for a deal in which HMK will finance the sale of 120 to 130 houses to current tenants rather than toss the occupants out and scrape the lots for redevelopment.
As soon as I saw Rawlings’ remarks in the online replay of the mayor’s speech, I contacted Khraish to ask him what role Alonzo played in the miracle. He sent me a long text message:
“Monica Alonzo has never reached out to me, not one time,” Khraish said in his text. “Neither by text, email, phone or any other way. She has completely turned her back on this crisis.
“The first time we met is when I came to a community meeting where she and [Dallas Assistant City Attorney] Melissa Miles were signing people up to sue me. [WFAA-TV] Channel 8 and The Dallas Morning News covered that story. That's when I demanded to see the mayor and when I called the mayor a coward if he wouldn't meet with me.
“Because of my demand, the mayor and Monica met me a few days later in the mayor's office. That's when I presented my affordable housing plan. The only other time I met with the mayor and Monica is when Omar shamed the mayor and Monica into paying attention to the crisis when he sent the entire council and the mayor a letter and spoke in front of the council in March.
“The mayor and Monica met with me after Omar spoke. Monica didn't even bother to stay for the whole meeting. She left 20 minutes into the meeting. She said she had other things to do.”
The backstory here is of rampant gentrification, soaring land values and higher taxes, a perfect storm of forces of displacement threatening to extinguish a neighborhood of frame cottages, haven to thousands of working-class Hispanics and African-Americans, many of whom are renters.
Last year, the City Council passed a new, more stringent rental-housing code to improve conditions for renters. But at the same time, the council voted down an anti-discrimination measure that would have expanded the supply of affordable housing, and the city did nothing to help or protect poor renters inevitably displaced by the new, tougher standards.
HMK became the canary in the coal mine for the tougher standards. HMK looked at its 400 West Dallas houses, most of which are at least 75 years old, less than 1,000 square feet in area and built before West Dallas was subject to any building codes, and decided that bringing those houses up to the new standards was noneconomic.
Instead, Khraish said, it would have been more efficient to bulldoze the houses and build new ones. But doing that would have caused rents to soar to a level that would have effectively evicted most of HMK’s poorest tenants, who now pay between $300 and $600 a month in rent.
New single-family homes, Khraish says, are not a viable affordable-housing option for people at those very low rent levels. Therefore, he and some partners proposed redeveloping some of the land as multifamily affordable housing.
HMK, meanwhile, has complained bitterly that Alonzo has been almost totally inaccessible while pushing events at City Hall toward an outcome that would have involved mass evictions of HMK tenants. The company suspects Alonzo and the mayor of trying to force HMK to sell land to politically favored investors and developers.
Beginning last year, the mayor and Channel 8 began labeling HMK as a slumlord. In rebuttal, HMK offered its own fairly clean record on adjudicated code violations. Khraish says some of the more sensational stories on Channel 8 – such as an often-replayed rat-bite story in which a tenant claims to have been endangered by vermin in an HMK property – were products of fakery, ambulance-chasing lawyers and dishonest journalism.
HMK’s record on code violations – an average of one per year on 400 properties, mainly for high weeds and bulk trash – seems amazingly good, given the number of properties and where they are. And Channel 8, after all, just got caught paying a dodgy source in a vote-fraud story and not telling viewers the source was paid or that he also was the subject of a law enforcement investigation. So take your pick on whom to trust there, HMK or Channel 8.
This week’s miracle was a program unveiled by Khraish in which HMK will finance the sale of houses to current tenants at a low, fixed interest rate with the full protection of deeds of trust – legitimate deals, in other words, not one-sided contracts for sale. As James Ragland explained this week in a column in The Dallas Morning News, the deal is not all wine and roses, since it will burden the new owners with the considerable expense of bringing the properties into compliance with the new building code.
But that’s also an opportunity for the mayor to make good on his often-repeated vow that he wants to keep the HMK tenants in their houses. The city already has awarded Catholic Charities a $300,000 grant, largely unspent so far, to assist the tenants, and the city has other funds available to help with repairs.
State Rep. Eric Johnson, Democrat of West Dallas, came close a week ago but ultimately failed to get a new state law passed that would have provided additional subsidies and protections for neighborhoods threatened by rapid gentrification. Johnson’s measure appeared to have bipartisan support from moderates but was torpedoed at the last minute by a posse of Tea Party anarchists. There is no reason why the mayor and City Council could not revive Johnson’s proposal as a local measure to help the new West Dallas homeowners keep their houses.
So who doesn’t want to see the neighborhood protected? When Johnson’s bill was being aired in committee, representatives of a company called West Dallas Development testified against it. It is the main proprietor and beneficiary of the firestorm of gentrification and redevelopment taking place at the foot of the new Margaret Hunt Hill bridge linking West Dallas with downtown.
The Dallas Morning News editorial page was one of several news sources at the time suggesting strongly that council member Alonzo’s brother, State Rep. Roberto Alonzo, Democrat of West Dallas, was allied with the Tea Partistas who got Johnson’s bill tanked. Rep. Alonzo conceded that he didn’t like the bill but denied he helped kill it. The News said, “With friends like that, no wonder HB 2480 got a knife in the back.”
This much is clear and not even up for debate: Monica Alonzo had nothing to do with making the West Dallas Miracle happen. Not one thing. Narvaez did.
The mayor, for his part, tells me I’m setting up a straw man here – that he never said Alonzo deserved credit: “Look, I’m not giving her credit for the decision [Khraish] made,” he said, “because Khraish is mercurial at best. He twists and turns. He has told me some things, done others and vice versa.
“I was giving [Alonzo] credit for being an advocate for those homeowners to try to buy their homes. I have been in probably half a dozen meetings where she has talked about it and talked to citizens about it. She has been saying we need to spend city money and city resources to make it happen.”
Once more, in his GrowSouth speech Tuesday night, the mayor said: “I am very very pleased that HMK announced yesterday that those tenants are going to be able to buy their homes, something Monica Alonzo has been working on.”
So maybe all I’m doing is offering a clarification. Alonzo did not have anything to do with the resolution of the HMK crisis. Narvaez did. Alonzo and her brother swear they’re not selling out their own constituents to rich developers. But somebody out there has got a pretty sharp knife.