Longform

How the Slumlord Beats the City Every Time

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A few of the houses have been purchased over the years by tenants on Topletz terms. Right now, that means interest rates of 10 to 14 percent, Jack Topletz says, mentioning a top rate that is double that offered by savings and loans. "We tell people, if you can get a bank loan, do it," he says.

They do some foreclosures, as one might guess, and at least five evictions a week, according to Ken Harris, who for 20 years has handled much of the Topletzes' repair work.

At the entrance of the cluttered offices on Inwood, in a tiny vestibule behind a plastic window, several Mexican men just off work and covered in cement dust waited on a recent evening to see about renting a house.

"We're at nearly 100 percent occupancy," Dennis says. "If our houses were that bad, then why do we have so many occupied?"

The answer, in simple economic terms, is the large, unmet demand for low-income housing in Dallas, where there's a two-year waiting list to get into publicly subsidized housing. That makes for good business at Topletz Investments, says Trantham, who has moved into the rent-house business himself in Denton: "There's a lot of money to be made off poor people. They pay more for everything."

There is no doubt the family has made a lot of money. They have donated millions to their temple, Congregation Shearith Israel, where an auditorium bears their name.

Their office secretary, Laferne Zauner, says they have been generous with tenants too. "I've been with them 16 years, and they have some people paying $175 a month simply because Mr. Topletz says they can't afford to pay more. He's paid utility bills for elderly people. Nobody ever mentions that."

Until a few years ago, Jack would bring cakes at Christmas to some of his long-term tenants, says Harris, who handles all their repairs in South Dallas and Oak Cliff.

The family insists that its riches aren't built on slums and that their houses are fundamentally sound.

Says Dennis Topletz: "At the Urban Rehabilitation Standards Board [which rules for the city on demolitions], they ask me, 'Would you live there?' I say, 'No, I wouldn't.' But that's what these people...you need low-income housing. We keep on 'em, but for $250 a month they're not gonna be perfect...I'm sorry that is the condition they have to live in, but it's not that bad."

The Topletzes and Harris, who says he has invested in the Topletzes' company, all give variations of the same lament: Our houses are good. Our tenants often aren't.

Jack: "Roaches. That's a housekeeping problem. They bring 'em in. They're not there when they move in...We have some nice homes. You move a family in there, and in three months' time it looks like all hell."

Harold: "Vandalism is a big problem. People say these are slums, but they're not. They are in good condition. The city provides welfare and builds these projects, and then people tear them up, and the people move someplace else."

Ken Harris: "If you build these people a new house down here, what do you think it looks like in six months? They break toilets. They break windows. If you put in new faucets, they steal them out when they leave. I promise you."

And before long, that kind of talk turns into something nastier.
Jack: "The inspectors don't pay any attention to the lifestyle of the people of the house. A lot of 'em just don't clean up things. They pile 'em on the floor. That's their lifestyle. They don't know any different. Just like with the coloreds and the cuss language they use...Every once in a while, they take one of these big carts you get down at the store and take it all to the washateria."

Harris: "I can show you houses we fix, and they vandalize them again. They keep 'em filthy. I don't know why they live like that. It's their nature, I guess."

The Topletzes assigned Harris, who commutes every day to Dallas from his farm in Hillsboro, the job of spending a day showing the Observer their houses. Some Harris picked. Others the Observer chose.

There was a consistent difference between the two. In the half-dozen, mostly vacant houses Harris stopped at, there were bugs, and holes in the roofs, and doors that barely shut. But he said these things would soon be repaired. At the three occupied houses selected by the Observer, the tenants said this stuff hadn't been fixed.

Even Harris had a hard time explaining away all the problems at one of the homes he chose: a little purple-gray shotgun house at 420 N. Denley St. in Oak Cliff.

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Thomas Korosec
Contact: Thomas Korosec