Tenants, the landlord and the judge in the HMK mass-evictions case in West Dallas cobbled together an 11th-hour deal Thursday afternoon, hours after a protective court order expired, with some help from Catholic Charities of Dallas. It should mean that even some tenants eight months in arrears on rent will not be evicted.
HMK has evicted six other tenants in southern Dallas in recent weeks for nonpayment of rent. Only the company’s several hundred tenants in West Dallas were covered by a temporary restraining order issued last October by 95th District Judge Ken Molberg.
When he stopped HMK from evicting its West Dallas tenants last year, Molberg said his primary aim was to protect poor families from becoming collateral damage in a war between City Hall and HMK, a major landlord company, over a new, more punitive building code passed by the City Council last year.
Michael Hindman, a lawyer representing some of the tenants, told the court Thursday that Catholic Charities will use $26,000 from a $300,000 relocation-assistance grant from the city to pay up to eight months of back rent for eight tenants. Charles McGarry, an attorney for HMK, said the company will drop eviction proceedings if the money is paid in full by 5 p.m. Monday.
At a press conference earlier Thursday at HMK’s headquarters, managing partner Khraish Khraish offered to drop the back rent charges and eviction proceedings while allowing tenants to stay in their houses for two more months if the tenants dropped lawsuits they had filed against HMK. But by the 2 p.m. court hearing, that offer seemed to have gone by the wayside in favor of the arrangement with Catholic Charities.
Molberg spoke favorably of the HMK's efforts in recent months to resolve a crisis that could have put hundreds of poor families on the street with few options for relocation. HMK, which had decided to get out of the low-rent landlord business in Dallas because of the new building standards, has been selling its small rental houses to current tenants rather than evicting them. At the Thursday press conference, Khraish announced that his company has closed on sales of 78 of the company’s rental houses in recent weeks. He said the number will rise to 100 within two weeks.
Khraish also announced that his company will deed houses to six elderly tenants who were unable to qualify for conventional mortgages under an arrangement he called “life estates” — similar, he said, to reverse mortgages. The tenants will own their homes until they die. Their houses will revert to HMK at the ends of their lives.
Pearl Brown, 80, a lifelong West Dallas resident who is receiving one of the life estates, wept at Khraish’s side during the press conference. She and her neighbor, 72-year-old Bennie Kilson — who also will receive a life estate and stay in her house — both said they had been unable to sleep or eat for months from worry. Brown said she had lost 20 pounds.
“I was just depressed and worried," Kilson said. "You wonder where you’re going to go. I didn’t have nowhere to go.”
Brown said HMK had made extensive repairs to her home in preparation for the transfer of ownership.
The matter in Molberg’s court Thursday was a separate issue dealing with tenants who, unlike Brown and Kilson, had not been paying rent. Khraish has accused city attorneys of encouraging his tenants to stop paying rent. He has argued from the beginning that the city’s aim was to force him to sell his land in a rapidly gentrifying area to developers friendly with the mayor.
The settlement Thursday with Catholic Charities seemed to please everyone except Assistant City Attorney Melissa Miles, who has represented City Hall in the matter. She sat silently by while McGarry, Hindman and the judge worked out details of the compromise. At the last moment after the issue seemed to have been worked out, Miles rose and tried to pull it apart.
“We’re talking about Monday by 5,” she told the judge. “That may be unrealistic to go out and tell [the tenants] what the possibilities are and get them down to Catholic Charities if they want to take advantage of that. I don’t see that happening by 5 o’clock on Monday.”
Judge Molberg answered with exasperation: “We’ve got 4½ days. You might want to see if you could make that happen this afternoon.”
Miles argued with him: “I’m trying to be realistic. People may be gone all weekend.”
Molberg seemed to suggest Miles was pushing her luck.
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“You all get out there and do the best you can do on this deal,” he said. “The court has had misgivings all along, for lack of buying into your arguments fully, about the jurisdictional aspects of some of this.”
Molberg spoke highly of HMK’s efforts.
“I know a lot has been moving out there,” he said. “I think HMK has made a great deal of effort in moving this thing forward. I just tend to think we can get this thing worked out with the least harm to everybody.”
Assuming Catholic Charities shows up with the check Monday, Molberg’s hopes may come true.