City Hall

Dallas City Hall Sues "Scrooge," Tiny Tim Winds Up Out in the Cold?

Far be it from me, at this holiest period in the Christian calendar, to defend slumlords or, heaven forfend, Mr. Scrooge himself, as The Dallas Morning News has now formally characterized low-rent landlord Dennis Topletz on its editorial page. But I do have a few small questions to ask about poor people and cheap housing.

Topletz stands accused by the city’s only daily newspaper and now by the newspaper’s acolytes at City Hall of being a slumlord — that is, I think, a landlord who rents to people in the slums. The city is suing Topletz. The lawsuit says the Topletz family name is “synonymous with dilapidated and often crime-ridden, single-family rental property located primarily in the southern area of Dallas.” 

I actually know some members of the Topletz family, not well but well enough to know they are not in the rental housing business, never have been in it and never will be. Some of them are excavating pre-Columbian pots in Central America I believe, so I can’t help wishing the city had found some method of attack less coarse than vilifying an entire family name. Something about that smacks of slander to me, if not legally then morally, and I’m trying to think of other instances in which the city or the city’s only daily newspaper ever singled out an entire family by name for excoriation.

But I’m willing to let that one slide for now in order to get to my questions a little faster about Dennis Toplez, chief executive of Topletz Properties. It’s undeniably true that Topletz is a landlord, one of the biggest in southern Dallas going back 30 years. But is he a slumlord — a term I’m sure we would all agree is pejorative?

Usually in my experience people in southern Dallas balk at the term, slum, for their part of town, associating it with distant cities in the northeast and Old South. But it has always seemed to me the vast stretches of the city’s southern hemisphere where Topletz operates meet all of the qualifications I know of for a slum, especially extreme poverty and racial segregation. So let’s call it a slum and stipulate for the sake of conversation that Topletz, a landlord, operates in a slum.

Does that make him a slumlord? Maybe not quite yet. To be a slumlord he also needs to be Scrooge, as the News has painted him — a heartless, stingy man with a corrupted soul who inflicts harm on the people of the slum by renting them illegally dilapidated or dangerous properties. And here is where the Topletz tale seems to circle back in time to us with all the regularity of a Dickens favorite.

The last cycle of anti-Topletz activism took place in the late 1990s, echoing an earlier cycle a decade before, both based on the same accusation we see surfacing again now — that the Topletzes break the law by renting out properties that break the law. But if they break the law, what law? And why isn’t that law simply enforced? Isn’t that what’s done with laws? Isn’t that what they’re for?

The germane laws here are the building and health codes. If these people are flagrantly and repeatedly violating the building and health codes, then why would the city have to resort to a civil lawsuit against them? Why wouldn’t the city simply send out its army of code inspectors, write up the violations and haul the errant Topletzes before the bar of justice?

The answer now as in the previous cycles is that the city does do just that, or tries. It typically sics the dogs on the Topletzes, massively, with wave upon wave of code inspectors sent out to scour them for violations. But the Topletzes typically emerge unscathed.

In the campaign against them in late 1990s, their ability to survive massive inspection campaigns was attributed to “clever lawyering.” And, indeed if that was the truth of it, every unlucky defendant in the world from the asbestos industry to British Petroleum should have rushed here to hire the Topletz lawyers away from them.

What about the other possible explanation? Is it possible they have been able to beat these city code violation ticket tsunamis so decisively over the decades because they don’t break the law?

But wait. And here we get closer to my gut question. If they don’t break the law, why do their houses look so crappy? Over the years I have toured around and looked at a lot of Topletz properties — I think I’ve spent more time in southern Dallas than many reporters in this town — and my conclusion has always been that the ones I have seen don’t look crappy. They look poor.

Why do the houses look poor? Why are they small and slump-shouldered? Because poor people live there. Poor people live there because the rent is cheap.

Does somebody think that making the houses look better and raising the rents is really going to help poor people? I guess I don’t believe anybody is that stupid — that they think making a house look more middle class will make the people in it more middle class — but I have to admit I wonder sometimes.

I especially wondered at the end of last week when the Morning News leveled its Christmas guns against Dennis Topletz in an editorial titled, “Scrooge meets his match in Dallas’ Dennis Topletz.” Invoking that name so famously associated with enemies of the Christmas spirit, the News pilloried Topletz because he had written to his tenants (letter below) warning them that the city’s campaign against him might wind up forcing him to raise their rents.

In a balefully disapproving voice, the News asked its readers, “How many new lows can Dennis Topletz sink to before he hits rock bottom? The slumlord’s gall is a source of constant amazement.” 

OK. I might be tempted to criticize the letter more for being naively candid. I’m sure a top-flight public relations consultant would have devised a much cleverer and less honest line of patter for him.

But what about the fact that what he is saying is true? If the housing he provides not only must meet the city’s codes but also must look nicer, then making it look nicer will cost him some increment of additional expense, will it not? In that case, won’t he, like any other businessperson, try to recover that expense by raising prices? And if the market won’t bear an increase, then won’t he take his money out of low-rent housing and go into something more lucrative?

What about the fact that poverty in this city is skyrocketing, up 41 percent between 2000 and 2012? What about the fact that poverty and the scarcity of cheap rent are principle drivers of homelessness in Dallas, as Jay Dunn, CEO of The Bridge, the city’s homeless shelter, explained to me a week-and-a-half ago?

All right, if you think I’m soft on slumlords, then let me give you that one. I promise not to be anymore. To hell with slumlords. To hell with anybody else who even vaguely reminds us of Scrooge at this supposed-to-be joyous time of the year.

What is the Morning News going to do and what is the city going to do about replacing the cheap low-rent housing that will cease to exist when Topletz and landlords like him either raise their rents or shut their doors?

And why, at this time of year more than any other, is that not the city's and the paper's principal concern? Why aren’t they more worried about getting poor people under rooftops than about making the roofs look better?

Maybe you think that’s unfair. Maybe you’re thinking, “Oh, c’mon, Schutze, that’s exactly what they’re concerned about. They’re concerned about substandard housing because it’s not fair to make poor people live that way.”

All right. Good. Then I have a next-to-last question. If the belief behind the anti-Topletz campaign is that poor people ought to be able to live in better conditions, then why don’t the people who share that belief get busy and provide those conditions?

How wonderful would that be? City Hall and the Morning News could lead the way. As soon as those much better looking, much nicer houses start opening their doors at the same rents the Topletzes charge, then we should expect to see a massive defection from the Topletz properties. What more American way could there be to teach those Topletzes a lesson than to beat them at their own game? What finer token could there be of true empathy and generosity?

Last question: How long do I have to hold my breath? I don’t really want to kill myself here.

Topletz_lttr.pdf by Jim Schutze

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze