Win, Lose or Draw?

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The Two Years Code War is over, although it's difficult to say who won.

Dallas' protracted struggle with the Topletz family, one of the city's biggest owners of slum properties, ended recently with a wheeze: a lawsuit settlement that, in the nature of such things, gave in on both sides.

Under the agreement, which was approved in county court on March 16 and is scheduled to be made final this month, the city will collect $39,750 from the Topletzes and wipe away between 1,000 and 1,500 outstanding tickets for unsafe electrical fixtures, hole-filled walls, vermin, peeling paint and myriad other code violations at the family's 300 or so rent houses.

The deal represents the first time the city will collect anything close to a sizable penalty from the Topletz family, which rents mostly to minority tenants in the city's poorest neighborhoods. Dallas will collect only a small amount on each ticket--between $26 and $39 each, depending on which sides' numbers are used--and drop a civil suit that could have resulted in penalties of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Given the city's ineffectiveness in the past ("How the Slumlord Beats the City Every Time," June 2, 1999), its top lawyer touted the deal as progress, if not an outright win. "We went from a pattern of not getting [code tickets] to trial, to getting not-guilty verdicts, to getting guilties," says City Attorney Madeleine Johnson, who took over from Sam Lindsay in 1999 and pledged to retool code prosecution in the city courts. "That turned the tables."

Under Johnson's predecessor, a civil lawsuit brought against the Topletz family languished and was dismissed in 1997 because city attorneys simply quit pushing it forward. The Topletzes' lawyer, Bill Trantham, crowed at the time that the city was so hapless, "they make me look like Samson at the temple...The ball over there isn't even in play. It's out in the bushes somewhere."

Says Johnson now, "Mr. Trantham was kind of boasting, but he's not won a case at any level in more than a year and a half."

True enough, court records in the cases show. But Trantham appears to have done his best to grind things down to an expensive standstill.

Trantham and the Topletzes had put the city on notice they planned to fight every ticket in city court. After a jury found them guilty of 10 code violations in a single trial in 1999 and assessed the maximum $2,000 fine for each, the family appealed and began fighting the tickets one at a time. That process allowed them to challenge each violation as minute nitpicking, rather than as a part of a broader pattern of violations. Trantham also raised legal issues in the civil lawsuit and the municipal court ticket cases that were working their way through appeals courts, although no rulings had yet gone his way.

"We had so many motions going I had to buy a high-speed printer to get them all out," Trantham says. "It was a huge burden to the system to keep up with them. We'd go down to the city and file four or five reams of paper. It was staggering."

But the strategy, which would have taken several years of nonstop municipal court trials to resolve, started getting expensive for his clients. "Settling was cheaper than keeping on," Trantham says.

Dennis Topletz, reached at his office near the corner of Lovers Lane and Inwood Road, says his legal bills, which were running $100 an hour for Trantham's services, were a big factor in his thinking. "I had the choice of keep fighting or bring an end to this," Topletz says.

The settlement came in the course of a civil nuisance suit brought in county court in 1999 that singled out 16 Topletz houses, most renting for between $350 and $500 a month.

"With certain owners who have multiple violations, our focus has shifted from criminal citations [code violation tickets] to civil lawsuits," Johnson says. "With citations, you pick a jury and try to prove that a window was broken on a certain day. When you have hundreds of violations and there really is a pattern, we can bring a civil suit that allows you to show the whole story. We can get documents and depose people...The burden of proof is different. At the end of the day, we can get a court order for them to fix the properties and try to hold them in contempt if they don't comply."

Meanwhile, the family insists it is providing decent housing for the poor at affordable rates, and with a shortage of low-cost rentals in Dallas, their houses are always full.

But inspection records at houses named in the litigation illustrate just how substandard some of the properties have been.

Take, for instance, one of the "shotgun shacks" the family owns on Angelina Drive in West Dallas. In 1999, records show, city inspectors wrote 66 citations against the bleak-looking structure, which measures 12 feet across and 36 feet down the clapboard sides. (It's taxed at a value of $8,000, land and all.) The tickets were for peeling paint, lack of a moisture-resistant floor in the bathroom, lack of weather stripping, missing boards and holes in exterior walls, a hole in the bathroom ceiling, failure to vent the water heater, a leaky faucet, blocked windows, weeds, no working smoke detector, junk and litter in the yard, no cover on the fuse box and open storage of tires, auto parts and appliances outside.

Topletz says that if he is required to "upgrade" houses such as this, he will be forced to raise his rents. "They're taking affordable out of affordable housing," he says, adding that problems such as high grass and junk in the yard are the tenants' responsibility.

"How do I know they have junk in the yard?" says Topletz. "But if it happens, you're guilty."

In response to the lawsuit, the Topletzes alleged the city's efforts would cost them "huge multiples of the cash generated from the property." Dennis Topletz says they were contemplating suing the city in federal court because their houses were singled out for especially harsh treatment, an outgrowth, they believe, of publicity about the family in 1999.

The city's lawsuit says an elderly woman was renting the Angelina house at the time the suit was filed. Nobody answered the door during several visits last week, although the house appeared to be occupied.

The Topletzes are required under the settlement to repair 16 rent houses that were the focus of the civil suit, which in Johnson's view makes the outcome a winner. "The main thing, we are expecting these owners to keep up the property," she says. "We will be watching them."

Given the hazy outcome, there might be more to watch on all sides.

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