After only a minimal amount of mind-numbing bureaucratic discussion, Dallas City Council members voted Wednesday afternoon to approve a new ordinance regulating the city's boarding homes. Set to take effect October 1, the rules apply to around 200 of the cities 300 boarding home facilities, where several thousand people with mental illnesses or drug addiction live. The deplorable conditions of some boarding homes has been a serious, unaddressed issue in the city for years.
In the morning's council session, several mental health advocates had urged the council members to approve the new rules.
"We've seen beautiful, clean houses with high-quality care," said Lynda Ender, the director of advocacy for elder care agency Senior Source. She frequently visits the boarding homes where her clients live. "But we've also seen houses that are dark, smelly, soaked with urine, insect-ridden, with broken windows, hanging electrical wires, food thawing in the sink and medications out in the open." The new rules, she said, will require boarding home operators to keep a record of accidents and complaints that will help people when they're trying to place their relatives in a facility.
Marion Shaw, a family advocate with the healthcare system NorthSTAR, agreed. "In Oak Ciff, some of these boarding houses are a disgrace," she said. "It should never been necessary for a citizen of Dallas to live in a building that has holes in the roof and no door on the bathroom. If mentally ill citizens have proper care and treatment, they can be productive citizens. We Texans are known for our pride. But we can't be proud of the conditions of some of these houses."
Two former boarding home residents also showed up to urge the council to pass the regulations. Charlie Lindsey said he's a recovering alcoholic who's been diagnosed with bipolar and major depressive disorders. "But in another lifetime, I was on the other side of the desk," he told the council. "I've done ministry. I've done social work. I've had to refer people to places like that, and the feeling in my gut was, 'I wonder if they're going to make it OK?' From both sides of the desk, I'm asking you to support this resolution."
The council held off passing the ordinance until the afternoon, when a few small changes to its language were made: The council specified, for example, that every resident has to have access to at least two extra pillows, and fire extinguishers have to be regularly examined by the fire department. But another change took more time to slog through: In the draft ordinance, people convicted of certain felonies were barred forever from operating boarding homes. That rule was changed; they're now ineligible for 10 years after a conviction.
But council member Ann Margolin pointed out that it wouldn't be hard to skirt that requirement, if a determined felon was hell-bent on opening a boarding home. "It's so easy to create a corporation" to run a home, she said. "I think we've created a loophole that's a mile wide, and I'm trying to figure out a way to close that loophole." The City Attorney's Office will add language specifying that if a corporation runs a home, the majority owner can't have had a felony conviction in the past decade.
Council member Scott Griggs, who's pushed hard for these regulations ever since his election, called the vote "a make it or break it moment for those of us in Dallas. We probably all have family, friends or other loved ones in such a facility, or we may end up there ourselves. I'm proud to say in Dallas that we're going to make it today. This is about decency and dignity for all people residing in Dallas."
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"We all concur that this is important for us to do," Mayor Mike Rawlings told the council. "I think this city wants to take care of 'the least of these,' but we want to do it in a way that's right for the city and right for the neighbors. Like anything that's complicated, God is in the details. That's why there are 51 pages of this."
And like anything else worth doing, he added, it will cost some money -- the ordinance is projected to cost the city around $600,000 a year, or roughly 0.3 percent of a very large bridge.
"Let us make no mistake, this is going to cost us money," Rawlings said. "This is a decision that's taking money from someone else in the city coffers. ...This is the right thing to do, but this does not come easy. It's a decision that we as a city have grown up, and we can walk and chew gum at the same time."
It's not a great metaphor, but we do get what he meant. Congratulations to everyone who, come October, will no longer be forced to reside in urine-soaked, insect-ridden facilities.