City Hall

Jury Still Out on Topletz, In Spite of What You May Read in Daily Paper

Balance. That is the best I can offer. I can’t tell you if the people whom The Dallas Morning News describes as vile malevolent slumlords are what they say they are or if they are legitimate honorable business persons targeted by forces that just want their land.

But I can tell you this much without any hesitation or qualification. The headline on the daily newspaper’s editorial yesterday didn’t even take a stab at balance: “Will tenants’ voices add punch to city’s fight against landlord Topletz?” That’s straight-up cheerleading. 

You may say, sure, they’re cheerleading for the side fighting the evil slumlords. Who wouldn’t cheerlead against evil slumlords? Of course. But, wait. That’s the question in the lawsuit, the one that has not yet been settled. Are they evil slumlords?

You may say, if they are not evil slumlords, why would City Hall and the city’s only daily newspaper say they are? Let me offer you a possible reason. It’s called Short North Dallas. Or was. Now it’s called “Uptown,” a name invented by an ad agency.

From the early 20th century through the 1980s, the area from Thomas and Hall streets near McKinney Avenue east to Ross Avenue was a thriving black community called State-Thomas and Short North Dallas, home to important black cultural, commercial and religious institutions as well as a nationally known entertainment hub.

In the 1980s the city joined forces with federal prosecutors and The Dallas Morning News to accuse the Topletz family of engaging in organized crime by owning and renting a lot of property in that area that was low-rent compared to white areas. It was a full-court political and criminal assault on the Topletzes, justified in the name of bringing better conditions to black people.

The Topletzes took a dive. They looked at those RICO charges and other accusations that would have been ruinous just to defend against, and they let the city have it.

Now look at it. Just look at it. You know where it is. It’s Uptown — a district of uber-high-rent high-rises occupied by affluent people without one scrap of dirt left behind for the African-American community that was there before the ethnic cleansing took place.

You know those poor black tenants the city and the News were so eager to defend? The city and the developers wouldn’t even let them keep their city-owned swimming pool in the area because it might cause black kids to cross under the freeway from nearby public housing and mess up the landscaping with their blackness. The city even moved their swimming pool across the expressway. That’s how utterly and totally they wanted them gone.

So let’s do this, in the name of balance. When somebody asks why City Hall and the daily newspaper are back calling the Topletzes and other low-rent residential operators slumlords in relation to other properties they own in South Dallas, let’s just agree that we don’t know why. Lots of things are possible.

And that means we don’t know if they are slumlords. That question is what the city’s lawsuit against them is about, and the question is unresolved.

The city took the Topletz family to court last year demanding that a judge confiscate more than 190 Topletz-owned rental properties and turn them over to a receiver. The drumbeat in the lawsuit, echoed by closely paired news stories and editorials in the Morning News, was that the Topletz properties were “substandard.”

Especially when the city with its general police power uses that word, it has a specific legal meaning. The standard in question is set out in the city’s various codes or laws. To be substandard is to be in violation of the code — specifically, to have code violations.

I think you and I would be safe in using those code violations as a rubric for resolving the slumlord question. If city inspectors have cited you repeatedly for code violations — accused you, in other words — and if the end of that process has been that they were right, then I think the Morning News should be able to call you a slumlord.

I told you here last February that 193rd District Judge Carl Ginsburg delivered a powerful interim opinion on the side of not-a-slumlord. The Topletzes had gone to court and asked the judge to ask the city to show him their code violations. He did. They had none.

None? How is that even possible? The city is in court asking the judge to seize these people’s property on the basis of code violations, but the city has no code violations to show to the judge when he asks?

Yes. Exactly. So Ginsburg threw the city out of court on their receivership demand but allowed other peripheral portions of the suit to remain alive.

I want to pause here for one moment and go back to my Short North Dallas story. In that awful saga the clear lesson of history is that the stated aims of City Hall and the Morning News, to protect a black community, must not have been the real agenda, because neither City Hall nor the paper made a peep when that community was brusquely scraped off the map as soon as the Topletz-owned properties were wrested from their control.

Beware the city — and beware the city’s locally owned daily newspaper — whenever you see a dramatic discrepancy between their stated goals and what’s really happening on the ground.

But I can tell you what has been happening on the ground ever since Ginsburg’s opinion, and maybe this is one you might have seen coming yourself. I have learned from representatives of the Topletz family and other major owners of low-rent property that the code inspectors have been out in force, scouring for violations.

It’s the city’s job and the city’s duty to look for violations, and if they find them and the citations stick, then I guess things are leaning back toward the owners being slumlords. Time will tell.

I know that the city has always scoured them. There has always been a certain game of cat and mouse. The Observer has been reporting on that game for 17 years that I know of, usually to the effect that the mouse wins. Successful owners of bottom-level rental properties in Dallas, the ones who stay in business and make money, must learn how to avoid tickets in the first place, resolve them with repairs before they turn into violations or beat them in court. A few operators like the Topletzes are really good at that.

But, look, I think we agreed already: a slumlord operates substandard property. Substandard means code violations. No code violations, no slumlord. Fair?
This latest bit that the News was cheerleading on its editorial page is a bid by two lawyers to get Judge Ginsburg to certify them as representing a class of plaintiffs, the Topletz tenants, and persuade Ginsburg to then let that class intervene on the side of the city against the Topletzes.

In their class so far they have two tenants. I think that’s how these things work. If they can get Ginsburg to certify the class, the lawyers can recruit more plaintiffs to it. Nothing necessarily wicked about that.

But I wanted to know how the intervener class would help the court resolve the slumlord issue. When the judge asked the city for their ammo last February, the city had none. That’s why the judge sort of gave them the old get-outta-here. My curiosity was whether the petition filed by the lawyers who want to intervene brought the court some of that ammo that has been so sorely missing so far.

The petition cites what the lawyers call 11 “Dallas code violations” from “a recent inspection by the city of Dallas,” clearly the work product of that scouring campaign I have been hearing about. I read all of them. Some sound awful.

But not one of them is a code violation. They are unadjudicated tickets. Tickets are not violations. For one thing, the code itself gives property-owners time to remedy a condition before it becomes a violation. For another thing, we have no idea, until these things get tested in the legal process, if they’re at all legitimate in the first place.

Think about this for a second. The city got spanked hard by the court last February for coming to court asking for a major seizure of private property based on an allegation of code violations but having no code violations to show the judge. The ruling against them was a public humiliation for the city.

So they sent out the scrubbing bubbles to hunt for violations. I think we have already agreed that doing so was the city’s right and even its duty, but let’s not forget another important piece. In the 17 years I know of that my own newspaper has been covering the Topletz saga, the history of the validity of these citations has all gone to the Topletzes. They win every time.

So we know that the city has a very big motivation right now to rack up a mess of violations against the Topletzes. We also know that the city has a terrible track record for writing tickets that won’t stick legally.

And here are these two lawyers offering the court 11 tickets that they say prove something. Prove what? They prove that the city has been out writing tickets again.

The would-be interveners have other arguments in their petition that may well have more merit than the tickets, having to do with rental contracts they claim violate state law. I wouldn’t count them out or count the Topletzes in at this point.

But when the daily newspaper is cheerleading one side in a lawsuit like this and it isn’t entirely clear why, look to history for your caution. The really terrible track record here is at City Hall and the News.
KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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