The approach of a June 3 court-imposed deadline — when more than 100 poor families are to be tossed out of their homes in West Dallas — is creating a political pressure-cooker. None of the parties to this dispute wants to be blamed when the TV cameras show up to document a scene of weeping and wailing right out of a Dickens novel.
Last week I told you how Catholic Charities had either leaped, stumbled or gotten tripped into the middle of it by accepting a phony $300,000 grant from the city to help tenants evicted from substandard rental properties move to their new homes.
Oh, problem. They don’t have any new homes to move to. There are no homes in Dallas at rents these people can afford — $400 to $500 a month for a single-family home. They’re in them. The homes they are in now probably are the last in the city at those rates.
The landlord, a company called HMK Ltd., is shutting them down. The company, owned by the Khraish family, says if they keep renting the houses under the city’s new tougher city housing ordinance they would be subject to fines of $1,000 per house per day and possible jail time.
They say the houses are too small, too old and too obsolete to be brought up to the requirements of the new law. Bill Hall, executive officer of Dallas Area Habitat for Humanity, has told me and told The Dallas Morning News that the Khraishes are right. Hall told Dianne Solis of the News last November that it was “a fallacy” to think the houses in question could be repaired and sold to the tenants. Hall told Solis it was “a bit irresponsible” to give poor tenants in those houses “false hopes” about homeownership.
But last weekend just when I was hoping to do something fun for a change and repair a slow toilet in my own house, I got a call from Mayor Mike Rawlings. He said he had just seen a new Solis story in the News in which Khraish revealed he will not sell his houses to the tenants under any circumstances.
Rawlings told me the statement in the paper by Khraish Khraish, the younger of a father-son partnership, was contrary to what Khraish had been telling him and also contrary to the mayor’s own plans:
“I’m working to try to figure out a way so they can buy their homes, so they can be homeowners, keep them in their neighborhood,” Rawlings said.
The statement attributed to Khraish in the News was a paraphrase. Solis wrote: “Khraish has made it clear that he wouldn’t sell any of the old West Dallas homes, some of which date back to the '40s. He has said the housing is beyond updating for long-term ownership.”
My impression had always been that Khraish, who wants to get out of the low-rent rental business, was actively selling some of his bigger, better houses to tenants in southern Dallas but that he had also always said the West Dallas properties were not suitable for sale.
When I called Khraish, he said, “I am going to address that by simply going to even a higher authority than myself. Bill Hall of Habitat for Humanity, I believe, is on the record in one of Dianne Solis’s articles saying that these houses cannot be brought into compliance with Chapter 27 [the new code].
“That is his belief, and that is my belief, at least specifically for the houses in West Dallas that were built in the '40s and the '50s before West Dallas was annexed into the city of Dallas.
“So both Bill Hall and I believe these houses cannot be brought up in compliance with the revised Chapter 27. I think we have little bit more knowledge about affordable housing than the mayor.”
Rawlings insisted to me that he has city programs at hand that can bring about the required improvements to the Khraish houses and also their sale to the current tenants. He said he thinks the goal for the neighborhood must be more homeownership:
“That’s why I want people to own them, and we’ve got ways for people to improve the homes and get loans and get it done. We need homeownership down there.”
He said he was taken aback to learn that Khraish was opposed to selling his houses to the tenants: “More importantly, he’s not told me he has declared that he will not sell these homes in West Dallas. It just kind of flipped into the Morning News article. He said all along to me that he would sell them, so I’m confused. You talk to him more than I do, and that’s why I’m calling."
Khraish told me politely he was less open than the mayor to accepting my services in the disposition of his assets.
“Why, if he’s going to try to negotiate a sale on behalf of my tenants, isn’t he discussing this with me? Why isn’t he broaching this sale with me?”
I was a little embarrassed. I was actually thinking to myself, “Why don’t you guys go have a coffee and talk this out, so I can go fix my own assets?” I said, “Oh, you haven’t heard from him?”
“Of course not,” Khraish said. “Of course he has never approached me. He has not spoken one word to me since I forced him to meet with me back in October when I first presented my affordable housing plan to him.”
Ah, yes, that. Khraish has proposed and is actually already under contract to begin a major affordable and mixed-income community project in West Dallas that far outstrips anything City Hall has ever done. But when the mayor asked me what Khraish plans to do with his land, all of that kind of slipped my mind because I was thinking of … other issues.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe he plans to sit on it.”
That was wrong. I was preoccupied. I owe an apology to the mayor for misleading him. When I asked Khraish about the sitting-on-it thing, he reminded me what he’s really up to:
“I already have a contract and title with Habitat to build no less than 100 houses in West Dallas and another 30 houses in South Oak Cliff. The remaining lots that I have, I plan to build on and market to Dallas police, Dallas fire, DISD teachers and veterans.
“I don’t plan on sitting on the land at all, actually,” he said. “I plan to actively build with Habitat and with myself. I am going to make a real mixed-income community. I am going to build some affordable housing for what I consider the foundation of our civil society.”
The bottom line in what the mayor was saying — and I think he said it very diplomatically — was his belief that Khraish has been talking out of both sides of his mouth, acting like he’s willing to sell when he’s not, and maybe I might want to mention some of that next time I write a diatribe. He clearly believes the statement in the Solis’ story about how not selling was a contradiction of Khraish’s prior publicly stated position.
“I just didn’t know it was a blanket statement,” Rawlings said. “I’m just trying to find a way those folks can stay in those homes.”
Khraish told me he thinks the mayor’s proposal of a sale now, about 60 days short of the eviction deadline, is transparently insincere and desperate:
“If the mayor were honest, if he were serious and genuine about the future of my tenants and the potential sale of these houses to my tenants, he wouldn’t have waited until 60 days before the deadline of the temporary injunction to start discussing this.
“This is a conversation that should have been started months ago to give it the proper time to consider and to negotiate and to make something like this happen. We are at the 11th hour and we’re supposed to make a deal for 150 houses and homeowners?
“This is another charade,” Khraish said. “The mayor is trying to save his image with this preposterous 11th-hour proposal.”
The mayor said Khraish was the one being a hard-head. “It sounds like he has decided that, one, he’s not selling, and two, they’re being kicked out in June, and that’s new news to me. It would just be nice that he communicate that to the world.”
Right now the Khraishes can keep renting the houses, because 95th District Judge Ken Molberg has placed the whole dilemma under a kind of temporary judicial deep-freeze. In return for the Khraishes’ agreement not to kick anybody out who is paying the rent, Molberg has enjoined the city from fining the Kraishes huge amounts or putting them in jail for code violations.
The Molberg injunction either gets extended, or it does not, and that date is June 3. The Khraishes say the minute the protections of the injunction are removed, they must evict the tenants. And then we will have the scene from Dickens on live TV.
Nobody wants to be the villain in that scene. It was not my place last weekend to issue my own judicial ruling on which party, the mayor or Khraish, was telling me the truth. My place last weekend was to fix the toilet. But here’s a way for all of that to get done:
If the mayor has programs and money at hand enough to bring the Khraish properties into compliance with the new law and convert the current tenants into owners of those homes in the next 60 days, then he needs to lay all of that out.
Rawlings needs to name the programs. And then, given the shortness of the leash on this story, he needs to hurry up and make a hard proposal and get the negotiations underway.
Nobody knows ahead of time what a judge will do, but Molberg has stated clearly in this matter that his main goal is to protect the tenants from becoming political footballs. It seems reasonable to assume that if the mayor came forward with programs, money and a hard offer, the judge would extend his injunction and give the mayor’s deal time to develop.
I personally wish that would happen, because, among other things, then all the parties would all be talking to each other for a change and not to me, and I might be free to attend to other pressing matters.