City Hall

Khraish and Topletz Families Have a Plan for Affordable Housing. Does Dallas?

Sorry to repeat myself. Last week I told you about a private sector proposal to provide 1,000 units of affordable housing in West Dallas while encouraging home ownership to protect existing neighborhoods from gentrification. I’m afraid I need to ring that bell once more just for emphasis.

The proposal is important and novel in several ways. Dallas has a crushing need for apartments and houses affordable to working people. The area we’re talking about at the foot of the new Margaret Hunt Hill fake suspension bridge across the Trinity River is experiencing a forest fire of gentrification that threatens existing affordable housing.

The big surprise was in who made the proposal. Two of the three authors and sponsors of the idea are families whom City Hall has labored to paint as predatory slumlords. Yet here they are, offering to create what they say will be $100 million worth of new housing for 1,000 families, including senior assisted living units and a daycare center, much of it at their own substantial financial risk.

A joke? A bluff? Is it a proposal from people who couldn’t possibly carry it out if they wanted to?

Well, all I can say is that one group, the Khraish family, owns hundreds of properties in the city and have done real estate developments including high rise towers in this country, Europe and the Middle East. The other group, the Topletz family, may own even more property in Dallas and have been in the city for generations, where they are known for their philanthropy.

Part of the proposal is $20 million in private financing these families have offered to put up themselves to help their tenants become owners of the houses they already occupy. If somebody needs to do a credit check on the Khraish and Topletz families to see if they’re good for it, I have to think that would be easy enough to do.

If somebody needs to draw up some good solid contracts to make sure the deal is solid, I have to think that could be done, as well.

If somebody wants to analyze their proposal and argue that it conflicts in some important way with other key city housing policies or initiatives, then, sure, that’s fair game. That seems unlikely. The city’s housing department has informed the city auditor and officials at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that they are unable to produce accounting records for the expenditure of $54 million in federal funds and also cannot produce copies of their own policies governing such expenditures, because … just can’t.

So I’m going to have a really hard time believing that the proposal brought forward by the Khraish and Topletz families and their associate John Carney won’t work because it’s incompatible with the jeweled Swiss watch that is Dallas's affordable-housing policy. Before they can argue their policy is a watch, they have to find it.

But you know what? Let’s give them that one. If they want to argue that this proposal is incompatible with their existing policies, then they should do it. But do it. Don’t just try to hold their breath and hope the proposal goes away.
There’s a reason I am bothering you about it again so soon after telling you the first time. This proposal has a less visible edge that is at least as sharply important as the 1,000 units of housing it proposes.

The proposal includes the creation of as many as 720 first-time homeowners in the West Dallas neighborhoods clinging to Singleton Boulevard where it runs west from the new bridge across the Trinity. Everyone on all sides of the housing issue agrees that home ownership is a strong bulwark against gentrification. Individual families who have put down stakes in a neighborhood are harder and more expensive to uproot than landlords who can only reap modest rents at best from their properties anyway.

Mayor Mike Rawlings has said that his ambition for the area is to see greater home ownership. But the Khraish and Topletz families, who have been vilified unfairly, they argue, for their role in owning and operating low-rent properties, believe another agenda may be afoot. They see some evidence that the mayor and City Hall may simply want to push them off the land to make way for the high-end developers whom City Hall is already subsidizing heavily at the foot of the bridge.

So while there is irrefutable altruism in their willingness to deal themselves out of hundreds of income producing properties over the years, there is also an unmistakable line in the sand: If the powers that be at City Hall are not merely bulldozing human beings out of the way to make room for higher profits, then those powers will offer some sort of serious response to the landlords’ proposal. If not …

Meanwhile, Khraish H. Khraish, the son in a father-son company, is not standing by idly waiting to get a letter from the mayor. A product of Greenhill School in Dallas with a degree in civil engineering from the University of Texas at Austin and three masters degrees from UT-Dallas, the younger Khraish has shown himself to be a self-possessed and skillful tactician not without political skills.

I am already hearing from neighborhood and civic leaders, some of whom were wary and suspicious of Khraish before meeting with him, who tell me they came away from those meetings deeply impressed with the man and the plan. I would assume some kind of shared announcement is not too far off in the future by which a coalition of groups and individuals will back this proposal.

Gentrification is at the top of the list of reasons I am hearing for support. Veteran Dallas Hispanic leader Rene Martinez, who has seen other neighborhoods wiped off the map in his time, told me that protecting these West Dallas neighborhoods is the plan’s greatest virtue.

In other words, this is not an idea that can be allowed simply to wither on the vine. Any kind of serious answer will be instructive. The lack of an answer will be equally instructive.

A week ago the mayor told me he had elected not to meet with the group making the proposal: “I just felt net-net that all I would be able to do is sit there and say nothing,” he said, “and that’s probably not what he wants. He wants to engage in some sort of negotiation, and that needs to be done through the process.”

I asked his spokesman Monday if there had been any change in that position. He said, “Not at this time.” I asked city attorney Larry Casto if he is reviewing the proposal, but I did not hear back.

I will be keeping you posted. Believe me.
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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