Longform

How the Slumlord Beats the City Every Time

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Judging by the color of the walls, it already had received the treatment many Topletz houses get between tenants: a blast of paint sprayed over everything, including the dirt. As Harris opened the door, at least a dozen roaches rained down on his shoulders. "You can see why I keep my pants like this," he said, pointing out how he keeps them tucked into his boots.

One could see daylight out the back door, which lacked any sort of weatherstripping. The roof, which had been redone over the back half of the house, had a hole in the section the landlords had obviously stretched past its prime.

From back to front, the house was so askew on its foundation that it felt as if one were on a jacked-up treadmill. "What do you want for $175 a month?" Harris said, then corrected himself by saying it probably rented for $225.

Harold and Jack say that when they think of city codes, they think of keeping the exteriors of their houses looking decent so neighbors won't complain. They don't believe the city has any business inspecting inside. For that reason, they contend, they instruct their tenants not to let inspectors in. But most do. "They think they're gonna get a free ride then," says Dennis.

Responding to the TV reports and the Page suspension, Harold Topletz talks at length about how he tries to keep drug dealers from renting his houses. They are read stern warnings. They sign a no-dealing pledge on their application. Phone calls are made to employers listed on rental applications. With the damage done by SWAT teams--broken doors, smashed windows, walls destroyed in searches--and the cost of evictions, $203 for filing and set-outs, and the general destruction the drug trade does to his houses, there is no sane business reason why he would want to rent to dopers, he says.

Still, he laments, "We're talking about low-income tenants. We don't know who's doing what out there." It's not unusual for one person to rent a house as a front and let someone else use it, he says.

Tenant screening and scrutiny of who is actually using the house are things the S.A.F.E. team will typically review with landlords, says Sgt. Tracy Hearn, one of the unit's supervisors.

The unit claims that 97 percent of the landlords it approaches about drugs or prostitutes on their properties will cooperate with police. They are asked to sign an agreement "as to what abatement strategies will be employed and the mutual support expected," according to the team's information pamphlet.

The Topletzes and Trantham agreed to attend one meeting with the S.A.F.E. team several years ago, with the police running a video camera from one end of the room. "Trantham told us, you are going to be on videotape with them telling you, showing you what they want you to do. He said, don't stay here."

Adds Dennis, "They weren't there to work with us. They were there to tell us this is the way things are going to be."

The Topletzes haven't made another meeting since.
Instead, they found themselves in a paper war, a battle of tickets fought via certified mail. Thus far, the Topletzes have held the high ground, but a new city offensive is clearly under way.

Over the past six months, there have been shake-ups in the city's code-enforcement operations and assignment of a new lead prosecutor at the municipal courts.

Code enforcement, which has been reorganized into a new department, started getting some attention after a series of critical audits began in 1997. The audits detailed code-enforcement officials owning substandard properties, inspectors with criminal backgrounds, a lack of educational standards for new hires, poor training, and outdated policy manuals. And tucked well into the back of one of the reports by City Auditor Robert Melton was the conclusion that the city does not use its power to write citations to crack down on repeat offenders.

"You know, for years they hired the ladies to investigate these code cases, give 'em a ticket book, and tell them go out and write tickets. There was no training," says Judge Solis.

"I must tell you, though. The council is responding to these concerns. Code enforcement has a training academy now, just this year. Hopefully, in the next few months we'll start seeing results."

And at the S.A.F.E. team, procedures have clearly been tightened up.
Since early 1998, not long after Page wrote her memo on procedures, all Topletz cases have been assigned to one detective, one code inspector, and one fire inspector. They say they are researching property titles and attempting to be meticulous in giving proper legal notice.

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Thomas Korosec
Contact: Thomas Korosec