City's Senior Affairs Commission Warned That Many Dallas Boarding Houses Are "Snake Pits"

If you happen to own or rent a house and you enjoy exploiting the elderly and the mentally ill, the city of Dallas has a legal loophole made just for you. A representative from Mental Health America of Greater Dallas warned the city's Senior Affairs Commission yesterday that despite years of public outcry, many of the hundreds of unregulated boarding houses in the city are still little more than "snake pits" for the elderly, mentally disabled and mentally ill.

Janie Metzinger, public policy director at MHA, appeared before the commission to let them know that the city isn't taking advantage of a 2009 state law that allows them to regulate and inspect these facilities to make sure they're clean, safe and livable.

"Right now, they're generally unregulated," Metzinger said. "Some are good, but an awful lot of them are bad."

Boarding houses are defined under state law as facilities where three or more elderly or disabled people live. Residents are supposed to receive meals and help taking their medications from the staff, but boarding houses aren't nursing homes, and the people who own and operate them aren't medical professionals. Most residents who end up in boarding houses land there after short stays in facilities made for acute crisis situations: hospitals, psych wards, jail, or drug rehab. Across the country, these places are known as "board and care" facilities or "adult homes." It's difficult to say how many people actually live in these facilities; the last good study was conducted in 1995, and it estimated that there were around 34,000 boarding houses nationwide, housing around 600,000 residents.

A 2006 statewide study group on boarding houses estimated there are around 150 of them in Dallas and Tarrant counties, but Metzinger thinks that number is vastly underestimated. She said the city convened its own task force around the same time to try to figure out just how many boarding houses there are in the city; the lack of regulation makes them very hard to track. The task force, relying on information such as repeated 911 calls from one address and reports from beat patrol officers, turned up more than 300 such places just within city limits.

Virtually everyone who lands in a boarding house is poor, kept afloat with just their monthly Social Security or Supplemental Security Income checks. A 2009 study presented to the governor and legislature found that most boarding house residents make less than $650 per month. In many homes, the residents are (legally) charged an enormous amount of their monthly check for rent; some boarding house operators require the residents to turn over their entire monthly check to the owner by taking them to the Social Security office and persuading them to designate the owners as their "representative payee."

It's a set-up that's rife with potential for abuse, Metzinger said. "It puts the person in financial bondage to that landlord." It also creates a situation where residents are unable to move out even if they want to, because in addition to being poor, mentally ill, disabled or some combination of the three, they're flat broke. The 2009 study found that many people receiving SSI would have to pay 109 percent of their monthly income to afford even a cheap apartment in many Texas cities.

Ethical boarding house operators face problems too. Legally, they can't require their residents to take their medication, or even ask if they've taken it. "The good ones break the law," Metzinger said bluntly, by doing things like reminding residents to take their pills. In many facilities, she said, operators don't feel comfortable going against state regulations, a situation that results in many of the mentally ill residents totally decompensating.

None of this is exactly new information, or it shouldn't be. Kim Horner at The Dallas Morning News did a multipart series on boarding homes back in 2003 (available these days only as a Word doc, for some reason), and Fox DFW denounced the "broken system" of boarding house regulation back in February.

It's clearly a troubling situation, but Metzinger said the city already has a solution at their fingertips. They're just not using it. In 2009, the state legislature passed House Bill 216, which created new regulations for boarding houses. Besides broadly forbidding abuse and neglect of residents, it set out specific and exacting standards: Doors in the house have to fit correctly and have working locks. Electricity and hot water have to function. Every bed has to have a pillow, two clean sheets and a blanket. The kitchen has to be one in which food can actually be prepared. Residents have to have a certain amount of square footage, rather than being crammed into as many bunk beds as an owner can fit into a room.

"We would like to see the city of Dallas initiate a regulation of boarding houses within its jurisdiction," Metzinger told the commission. Only one Texas city, El Paso, has already done so already.

The city, she said, "has the statutory authority right now" to demand higher standards in boarding houses. But first they have to create clear laws governing the houses, and holding their owners responsible. Currently, she said, "the city of Dallas has not chosen to take the authority HB 216 gives them." She said a few city council members, including Angela Hunt, Delia Jasso and Scott Griggs, had expressed an interest in working on boarding house standards, and that the City Attorney's Office was also examining the current regulations (or lack thereof).

"Nothing can be substandard until you have a standard," Metzinger told the commission. "And right now you just don't have a standard for boarding homes."

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