Spence says his father had imparted to him a strong commitment to community service. The two years he and his wife spent in Guatemala persuaded him he probably would spend most of his life working for nonprofits helping the poor. But brief stints with SDDC and another nonprofit convinced him he was wrong. Something hadn't clicked. Spence, a product of the educated white upper middle class, says his commitment was a little more cerebral and less visceral than, say, the manner of Reid, his boss, who glides over social boundaries like a bird over stone walls.
"Apparently I lacked the first-hand emotional connection to the target population," Spence says.
Determined to set off on his own, Spence still hadn't brought himself around entirely to the P-word--profit. He began drawing up a proposal for a nonprofit enterprise engaged in housing in the inner city. With the meticulous habits of a scholar, Spence set out to interview a number of people in the community, seeking their perspectives on inner-city housing. High on the list was Bennett Miller, who owned the space where SDDC's office was. For the last 20 years, Miller had been taking junked-out but sturdy brick industrial structures and turning them into hip loft space.
"When I talked to Bennett, he scolded me for doing this as a nonprofit. He said, 'Why would you want to put up with a board?'"
Spence had worked with boards before and didn't especially mind them, but Miller's next argument struck home.
"He said, 'If your point is to show that these neighborhoods are viable for improvement, then what better way to go in and show they are viable than to make a profit?'"
Oak Cliff. Profit. Maybe it was just that Spence had never heard the two terms used in the same sentence before. The light bulb came on.
Bartosh, whom he had met by then, invited Spence to move in to some spare space in Bartosh's architectural firm's offices. Spence did his first building out of his own pocket, and he has done seven since then, completing them at a rate of one a year. He is still self-financed, and his buildings still fill up as fast as he can finish them.
Paraphrasing another Oak Cliff real estate investor, Spence says his investments are "like buying an annuity." Because of what he must invest to fix them up, the buildings are not instantly resalable at a premium the way apartments can be in the city's silkier climes. His profit comes from renting them out over a period of years.
The way to keep them filled at good rents is to make them attractive in the first place and then keep them up carefully. It's the contrary of the ride-it-down school of inner-city apartment management, in which a slumlord stays on a property's back and rides it into the mud, hoping to get his final pound of flesh from the city council in the form of some kind of rezoning.
Spence doesn't tell you that his way is the only one that makes sense. "There are solid, indisputable economic reasons for milking a property until it is dry," he says. "It is a financial imperative that, absent laws that make you do otherwise, you keep renting and avoid maintaining, avoid spending money."
In fact, he argues that "managed decline" is inevitable unless something happens to interrupt it. The first interruption can be tough code enforcement by the city. "The other interruption is a dramatic upswing in the demand for a quality that still resides in a building or a neighborhood."
Because he sees this special "quality" as his most important selling point, Spence is willing to go to some unusual lengths to find it and show it off in his properties.
Spence's building at 835 North Bishop, called Bishop Terrace, is a two-story brick complex coiled around a lushly landscaped inner courtyard. By relentlessly mining old city records, he was able to dig out the original plans, drawn by California architects famous in the 1930s as popularizers of the bungalow style.
By rebuilding shared porches, fencing and landscaping the front yard as a common area, and restoring other original features, he has been able to re-create a chummy kind of neighborhood-gardens feeling. Even though it's a major element in the quality he finds in old apartment buildings, he doesn't think it was designed into them originally with any kind of self-conscious intent. "I think it was just an ethic at the time, like exercise is an ethic now," he says.
Combing old phone books at the library, Spence sleuthed out the name of the man who was the original caretaker in 1930. He tracked the man down in a rest home in Richardson. "He said this building was 'real high-class' when it was built."