City Hall

Landlords' Claim of City Plot Against Them Has History on Its Side

The Dallas Morning News
has been carrying out a tough-worded editorial campaign against a Dallas family the paper calls slumlords, describing their business practices as “despicable" and dismissing the family’s own arguments as a “massively most absurd defense.”

The paper wants a court to enforce a petition from the city that would allow the court to seize control of 190 separate rental properties owned by the Topletz family, appoint a receiver to collect rents, evict tenants and make repairs. The petition would order the Topletzes to surrender all of their books and records to the receiver. The petition would bar the Topletzes from coming within 500 feet of their own property.

But the newspaper asserts repeatedly that seizing control of the physical property, income stream and disposition of the business “has nothing to do with property ownership.”

The Topletz family asserts that the campaign by the city to seize control of their property may be a politically inspired effort to cleanse them from the map and make way for gentrification by other developers favored by City Hall. The newspaper has repeatedly dismissed the Topletz claims as laughable and paranoid.

Me, I’m not laughing. Please allow me to offer some colorful historical context.

First, the city’s civil lawsuit against the Topletz family bounces around a bit between arguments why 190 parcels of private property should be confiscated from the owners. The city’s lawsuit, marred by grammatical and spelling errors as if hastily composed (see copy below), argues that “the name ‘Topletz’ [their quotation marks] is synonymous with dilapidated and often crimeridden [sic] single-family rental property located primarily in South Dallas.”

So that’s two arguments: dilapidated and crime-ridden.

To buttress the first claim, the lawsuit presents a laundry list of health and building code tickets written against Topletz properties by city inspectors, but the suit tells the court nothing about the disposition of those tickets. The mischief there is that the city can send out van-loads of inspectors to write reams of tickets against anyone it likes. But a property owner then can either satisfy the tickets by making repairs or prove the tickets were written unfairly.

The Topletz family has a long history of doing both things — satisfying some complaints with repairs, getting others dismissed as ill-founded. If they don’t make the repairs or don’t get the tickets tossed out as improper then the city has at its disposal an entire body of “police power” — laws governing public nuisances that it can use to shut down businesses and even condemn properties.

This lawsuit is an admission by the city that it has been unable to use those laws to gain the outcome it desires. The lawsuit is a work-around, an attempt to use a civil claim to achieve what the city has been unable to achieve with the ample police powers granted it by the Texas Constitution.

Which brings us to the other side of the city’s claim: crime-ridden. Here is where we need to pick up some serious historical context.

The lawsuit claims that, “The Defendant Properties are only current examples of Topletz Properties that are plagued by habitual drug sales, possession and use. Many Topletz Properties have been in and out of the Dallas Police Department's SAFE program for criminal nuisance properties for years.”

I was shocked when I read the suit to learn that the police department’s “SAFE” program is even still in existence or back in existence after an excoriating report by a Texas joint House and Senate investigative committee that looked into it in 2006. The legislative investigation was spurred mainly by a story I covered a lot at the time, the saga of Jim’s Car Wash on MLK in South Dallas, the only white-owned enterprise on that stretch of street and the target of multiple campaigns against it by Southern Dallas City Council members.

I remember driving over there one evening because a phone call had informed me that the police department was putting up traffic barriers at all entrances to the car wash. When I got there and asked the police why they had shut off the car wash with barriers so it could do no business on a normally very busy weekend day the next morning, they said they were following orders.

I said, “Yeah, from a City Council member.” They shrugged. Then they threatened to arrest me if I asked any more questions.

Spurred by stories like that, which a joint chairman of the legislative committee called “appalling,” the committee compiled records, sent out investigators and interviewed witnesses for eight months. In the end their bipartisan report found exactly the kind of deep-running despicable political corruption at Dallas City Hall that the Topletz family is now claiming.

The SAFE program at that time was using combined teams of cops and health and building inspectors to compile records against landlords. The police department then used those records to compel the targeted landlords to hire high-priced off-duty Dallas cops as security.

But Terry Keel, a joint chair of the investigative committee, argued that the way Dallas deployed the SAFE team exposed even deeper running corruption — what he called “ward politics run amok” in Dallas.

Well-wired developers or property-owners could sic cops and inspectors on their competitors and rivals. The city then used bizarrely convoluted logic to pin down the targeted property-owners.

A property-owner who failed to report crime at his property was an enabler of that crime, the city said. But a property-owner who reported a lot of crime at his property was also the cause or enabler of that crime, so multiple police reports could be used as evidence against the landlord who made the reports.

Keel said the committee found a general pattern in which insiders were able to use Dallas City Hall as leverage: “There seemed to be cronyism,” he said, “and if you didn't play the game, you got retaliated against.”

Keel spoke specifically to the role of The Dallas Morning News as a kind of propaganda arm aiding these insider campaigns. He said the paper covered the legislative investigation by allowing city officials to answer softball questions without ever informing readers of the core findings of the joint committee:

“They [the newspaper] kind of let the city answer questions but not the direct questions we had posed in the report.”

What the joint committee found most reprehensible about the city’s behavior was that it targeted certain property-owners to blame for crime in and around their property without any reference to what was going on at other properties all around them:

“What is left unsaid,” he said, “is the point that they were selectively targeting businesses while ignoring surrounding crime.”

Each and every one of Keel’s points can be made about the city’s “crime-ridden” claims in the Topletz lawsuit. The argument that the Topletz family is responsible for drug use in poor neighborhoods would be truly “laughable,” to borrow the Morning News’ term, if it were not so serious. That brings us to the last and maybe most important point — property rights.

The newspaper claims that seizing control of the property, the books and the money, barring the titled owners from setting foot on the property and fining them $1,000 a day for resisting “has nothing to do with property ownership.”

Let me point out that the judge, on viewing this messy, un-spell-corrected porridge of a lawsuit, was apparently so unimpressed that he did not do one single thing the city had asked him to do and sent it all instead to mediation, hardly a ringing endorsement of the city’s claims.

None of what I have said here is intended to claim that the Topletzes are good landlords or bad, that they are slumlords or leading citizens. That’s a body of fact that remains to be established.

But I am saying this: The Topletz claim that this campaign against them is a joint City Hall/Dallas Morning News effort to take their property away and deliver it to somebody the newspaper and the city like better has all of the known history and all of the city’s known track record solidly behind it.

All this stuff is known, proven and fully recorded in the files down in Austin. People here just don’t know it, because too many people here know only what their daily newspaper tells them. Acting as if it isn't known and recorded, as if the city and the newspaper do not have this track record, is what I might call a  "massively most absurd defense."

And finally, this has nothing to do with property rights? Really? They can say that with a straight face? Here, try this: Give me your car. C’mon, I want the keys right now. Now give me your credit card for gas. Hand it over.

Don’t touch this car. You touch this car again, I’ll give you a serious whuppin'. No, no, sir. Don’t say that again. I am not a car-jacker. Not at all. I am a “receiver” of your automobile.

Don’t believe me? Look it up in the funny papers. 

City of Dallas v. Topletz 2015 by Jim Schutze

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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