Time’s almost up for West Dallas residents told to move out, but many have found new homes

Most residents who were told they’d need to leave their homes when a West Dallas landlord decided to shutter his rentals have moved on, but more than 120 have been able buy houses from the landlord.

Fewer than a dozen renters remain in their homes. On Monday, a judge extended his temporary injunction barring eviction of the tenants. But there are only about ten left.

Dallas landlord HMK Ltd. decided to get out of the rental business last year, saying strict new city codes would make it too expensive to repair about 300 aging wood-frame houses the company owns in West Dallas and parts of Oak Cliff.

Many of the homes are in a rapidly gentrifying area of West Dallas, where pricey development took off after the construction five years ago of a $180 million signature bridge over the Trinity River. HMK co-owner Khraish Khraish says he’s planning to redevelop a large number of those properties.

“This gentrification is extremely fast-paced,” Khraish said, referring to the Trinity Groves restaurant complex, a coming hotel and expensive apartment buildings now jutting skyward along West Dallas’ main drag, Singleton Boulevard. “It is a complete repurposing of the area.”

The 41-year-old landlord did reverse an earlier vow to never sell any of his houses to his renters. Recognizing that the affordable housing crisis still remains, Khraish first decided to sell some of his Oak Cliff houses. Then, in May, he stunned many when he decided to sell some houses in West Dallas, where the bulk of tenants lived and were most organized and demanding.

Houses were sold for $45,000 in Oak Cliff to about $65,000 in West Dallas in “as is” condition.

“I felt I needed to do what needed to be done: make these very loyal tenants into homeowners,” he said. “They had a history and connection to West Dallas unlike other residents of other neighborhoods.”

Ashton Elder stands before her new home. She was an HMK tenant until she purchased her 680-square foot rental in July of this year. (Photo by Dianne Solis/The Dallas Morning News)

He has also signed life estate contracts with seven elderly tenants that allow them to stay in houses, or move to other houses, for a monthly fee until they die. Upon death, the houses revert to HMK.

It didn’t ease tensions that have arisen between Khraish and many area residents: Three times this summer, Khraish replaced glass exteriors at his West Dallas office because of vandalism.

About 70 percent of HMK tenants were Latino and 30 percent were black — a fact Khraish played up when he said Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings wanted them out because he was in favor of a high-dollar transformation of the area. The mayor has strongly denied that accusation.

Khraish said he believe he was wrongfully targeted by the city as a “high-impact landlord” who needed to improve his properties. The landlord said repairs to his homes would have forced him out of business because the houses are so old. Many date back to the 1940s and are listed in poor condition in county records.

This is the kitchen of the HMK rent house Fernando and Yolanda Gonzalez plan to move into in West Dallas on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017. The couple must leave their current HMK rent house on McBroom Street because the landlord wants to redevelop there. (Rose Baca/The Dallas Morning News)

The tenants had been paying rents of about $300 to $600 on month-to-month contracts. In West Dallas, the houses were as small as 480 square feet.

The Dallas Housing Finance Corp., a City of Dallas agency asked Catholic Charities of Dallas to distribute transition funds from the agency. But the nonprofit has only distributed about $84,000 of $300,000 to families that were relocating, said Catholic Charities CEO Dave Woodyard. Catholic Charities also accepted $30,000 for administrative costs.

Some former tenants who bought homes say they’re grateful to be homeowners. Yamilet Longinos said she was also relieved.

“I’m a homeowner now,” said the University of Texas Arlington student, a criminal justice major. As Longinos and her mother Leticia stood on a rotting side porch at her home on El Benito Drive, the women said it would have been impossible to find housing for $600 a month, which is what they’d paid to HMK.

A few doors down on El Benito, Ashton Elder kept using the word “blessed” to describe her situation. The house Elder purchased has a sagging roof, peeling yellow paint and a hole in an exterior side wall where a wasp nest is located.

But Elder raises four children on a paycheck from a daycare center and she’s happy to call it home, she said. The landlord “spared my family and I’m elated. I’m blessed,” Elder said. She’s paying on a 10-year mortgage now at $650 a month, that includes back rent she owed HMK, she said.

“This could have gone south,” Elder said.

But on McBroom Street, Yolanda Gonzalez, a Spanish-speaker who is nearly 70 years old, kept using the word “deceived” to describe her situation. She didn’t want to leave her grey-and-white house on a stretch of land planned for future townhouses by HMK.

Her rental has a sturdy porch, old beige linoleum, a gas stove and a kitchen where she’s made homemade flour tortillas for years. The windows feature pink lace curtains with ruffles that complement the burgundy sofa. A tiny table holds prayer books, figurines of Catholic saints and Native-Americans that pay homage to her indigenous roots.

Monday night, empty cardboard boxes sat in her living room floor. “I don’t want to go, Fernando,” she told her husband.

By Thursday, the boxes were still empty. She said she saw two HMK houses about six blocks away that the company offered to her and her husband.

She rejected them as unfit for living, but her husband signed a life estate contract for one of them.

By that afternoon, a nephew, Carlos Zapata, was at one of those houses, painting and trying to make repairs. The bathroom pipes were clogged and would be expensive to fix, he said.

There were cracks in the walls, the wood on the front porch was soft from rot, and there was only one handrail along the steps. Gonzalez surveyed the new house tearfully. She slumped on a chair.

“I’ve been deceived. I’ve been deceived,” she said.

Across the street, there were signs of change. A construction permit was visible by a chain-link fence in a lot that had been cleared. A big board advertised the coming development as “West Dallas Urban.”

An old convenience store next door had a fresh coat of sky-blue paint. Around the corner, several houses were in good condition and painted in pastel hues of yellow, blue and peach.

A white vehicle sat parked with door signage many dread seeing: City of Dallas Code Compliance.

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