This, I hope, will not turn into a rant. I want it to be more of a solemn prayer. I pray that this city, my city, will deeply and sincerely examine its heart where the poor are concerned. But I could start ranting anyway. It happens.
I want you to look at some similarities of outcome. Last March, Mayor Mike Rawlings toured a homeless camp with my former colleague, Robert Wilonsky of The Dallas Morning News, and at the end of his tour Rawlings made a big plea about how terrible the conditions are and how we just can’t allow people to go on living like this.
He swore tearing down this camp would not just push the beggars in it to a new encampment somewhere else to endure another cycle of misery and brutal uprooting:
“No it won't," Rawlings tells Wilonsky. "We can’t let people live like this. What we’re doing is we’re taking our homeless and sticking them in the corner and putting them under the rug and saying, ‘Stay there.’”
But that’s exactly what happens. As we speak today, the very same beggars are being uprooted again, this time from a new camp near Fair Park.
Now, here’s the non-productive rant that I’m not going to do because of my new no-rant self-control. I am not going to rant about how the mayor got himself a wonderful lookin’-real-good media moment from Wilonsky but all of the poor people in the picture wound up being made even more miserable than they were before the mayor’s visit.
Why not rant about that? For one thing, a rant like that assumes the mayor did it on purpose, that his only interest in going to the camp and making grand pronouncements was cynical and self-serving. I don’t believe that. I wish it were that simple. But life is a much bigger mess than that, and so are all of us in it. So no ranting, OK?
Here is the other outcome I want you to consider – a thing that seems somehow even bigger and more horrible to me than shoving the homeless around like so much street litter. The Khraish family, owners of more than 400 low-rent residential properties in the city, have notified city officials they are permanently closing 300 rental houses in West Dallas and either bulldozing them or putting the land into other non-residential uses, like maybe just sitting on it until the area gentrifies and they can reap that harvest.
The outcome will be awful. Three hundred poor families, almost all of them working people who can afford only $400 a month to house their entire families, are going to be out on the street at the end of the month. City officials and their hand-in-glove partners at The Dallas Morning News who made this happen all know that almost no other housing exists in Dallas at the same rents.
For the last two years the city and the daily newspaper have been hounding and seeking to humiliate the Khraish family by every means they could summon, calling them “slumlords” in litigation, painting them as ruthless Dickensian blood-suckers in the newspaper, all of which happens to be diametrically at odds with my own personal experience of them.
Khraish Khraish, a ’94 graduate of Greenhill School and at one time a member of the alumni board of that school, runs the day-to-day operations of HMK, the company founded by his father, Hanna Khraish. The younger Khraish has provided me with extensive documentation of the company’s maintenance program, as I know he also has done for the editorial board of the Morning News. He says they keep their houses up to code and run them as well as they can at the rents their tenants can afford to pay.
I believe Khraish Khraish. I just do. No one has ever shown me a shred of evidence to prove that he and his father are anything but honorable and respectable businessmen who do business at the very poorest end of the economy.
Yes, I know that a lawyer best known in the past for representing people hit by trucks is trying to put together a class-action lawsuit against HMK. And bees are making honey.
So, in our new non-ranting mode, let’s try to look at this from the Kraishes' point of view. After two years of relentless persecution by City Hall and the daily newspaper, Khraish and Hanna Khraish look at each other one day and realize that no matter what they do, they must choose one of only three choices available to them.
They can obey City Hall and the newspaper, which means they must raise money and use it to greatly improve their properties. Then they must raise their rents to pay off the new debt. Now they are basically in a new kind of business, the higher rent business, but in the same low-rent locations where they own property now.
Why would they do that? There’s a ceiling on the rent they can get in very poor areas. If they’re going to move upscale and do business in a higher category, why not liquidate their holdings and go buy new property in areas where they will be able to command the higher rents needed to pay for better houses?
They can keep doing what they’re doing. They can just stick it. And maybe they’re so tough personally they can shrug off the campaign of very personal character assassination from the newspaper and city officials. But they know they are always going to be called slumlords; their kids will have to live with that; and they’re going to be nibbled to death forever by a metastasizing cost of doing business with City Hall.
Third and last choice. Shut it all down. Get rid of the rental properties, the improvements. Develop it for something else or just sit on it, pay lower taxes without the improvements and wait for the same gentrification wave in West Dallas that Butch McGregor and Roger Staubach and all the big dogs are counting on.
In the letter the Khraishes sent to their 300 tenants a month ago (copy below), they said, “We appreciate your support of HMK and your years of tenancy. We tried to do our best. We will do what we can to help you relocate.”
Remember earlier I sort of steeled myself not to dismiss the mayor’s words at the homeless camp as either cynical or insincere, so I’m going to extend the same benefit of the doubt to Hanna and Khraish Khraish. Just for grins and to help me avoid my rant, let’s experiment with taking everybody at his word. They tried to do their best. They regret this outcome.
But the outcome is the outcome. Three hundred families tossed out of their homes, people at the very bottom of the economy with the very least ability to absorb this kind of shock. You and I can imagine what happens when a bomb like that goes off in their lives. Everything in their lives gets brutally shaken by it – employment, school, health, marriage, family itself.
They were making it before, but they were making it on a high wire. Taking away their housing is like grabbing one end of that wire and yanking up and down on it as hard as you can. By going after the Khraish family as aggressively as they have over the last two years, that’s exactly what the city and the newspaper have done to those 300 families.
But it’s OK because they have other better housing to put the people in, right? Surely they wouldn’t do this, they wouldn’t have risked the housing and the lives of these families if they had nothing to offer them in replacement.
But that’s exactly what they did. The city and the newspaper made this happen without ever having even thought what to do with the families if HMK took its ball and went home. In fact, I want you to look at the way the Morning News editorial page has reacted to the announcement of the 300 evictions. In an editorial headlined, “Dallas must not let callous landlords win this round,” the paper said, “One of Dallas' largest slumlords, HMK Ltd., is taking gall and obstinance [sic] to a new despicable low.”
I happen to think the Morning News’ basic theory – that the Khraishes are shuttering 300 rental properties out of sheer gall and obstinacy – is mentally disordered. If you own 300 rent houses, you might shut down one of them out of sheer gall and obstinacy. Not 300.
But wait. This is all about my new not-ranting mode, which I am working very hard to maintain at the moment. So I need to take the Morning News at its word as well. Let’s assume at least that the editorial writers at the Morning News truly and sincerely believe that the Khraishes are these sort of crazy hot-tempered Rumpelstiltskins capable of stamping themselves into the ground in rages.
When the paper and the city attorney’s office started calling them horrible names in print and in litigation, did they ever once stop to wonder what will happen to the 300 families if the Rumpelstiltskins go onto a rage?
No, they did not. That’s why they are stupidly wagging their fingers at the Khraishes, telling them they’re not allowed to dispose of their own property as they choose or some utterly stupid shit like that and then waving their fat little hands telling the families, “Oh dear, oh sorry, guess you’re out of luck and out of doors.”
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Had they ever given one single good god damn about those families, the city and the newspaper would have gone hat in hand to the Khraishes and said, “Here’s a work-out plan. We’re going to line up cheap financing for you. We want to sit down and have you explain your business model to us. But mainly we want to make certain that there is no remote possibility these hard-working struggling citizens of our city will wind up out on the curb because of anything we do to change their situation.”
Not once. Not once did they stop and consider any of that. You know why? OK, wait, I promised myself. I vow. I will not say that they do this stuff because they’re a bunch of vain, self-righteous, Bible-smacking fatheads who don’t care if the poor live or die. I am not saying that. I am going back to my prayer.
Please. I pray you. Think what you’re doing once in a while.