Metropolis: Wednesday, November 12, 2003
‘It depends on who you are and whose hiney you kiss... .’
This Old House

Hammers and accusations fly in White Settlement.


White Settlement appears at first glance to be a quiet little blue-collar town on Fort Worth’s west side. Appearances deceive. This 5-square-mile incorporated area with about 15,000 residents lives up to its billing as a “dynamic city” — it gets lively and forceful often. City activists have been successfully battling City Hall in recent years, ousting 20-year incumbent Mayor James Herring, a couple of city council members, and a city manager accused of money mismanagement.

New controversies seem to arise as frequently as the morning sun.

The latest battle involves building officials and a financially struggling woman, Cheri Davis, who is trying to move with her daughter and grandson into an old house in need of repairs. Davis and her repairman estimate renovation costs at $7,200.

City building official Wayne Carlisle’s repair estimate is about $25,000. He used four pages of single-spaced typed text to list the problems he says must be fixed to satisfy city codes. The dispute, like so many others in White Settlement, has created an us-against-them mindset between residents and city staff.

“It depends on who you are and whose hiney you kiss whether your house is approved or torn down,” Davis said. “They’re trying to make this so expensive I can’t do it.”

City officials see things differently.

“We have not created an adversarial relationship with the Davises,” said interim City Manager Peter Nuckolls. “We’ve bent over backward to assist them.”

The house is about 60 years old, nestled on a spacious lot in the 8800 block of Wilbur Street and somewhat dilapidated from years of neglect. “I knew the house was crippled,” Davis said. “But this house has stood for this long. What is the problem?”

The house is gutted on the inside but decent looking. It’s pier and beam with cinder-block walls and appears solid, if unkempt.

After the previous owner died, the house sat empty for more than a year. In March, the city started condemnation proceedings after receiving a complaint about the overgrown condition of the lot. City officials said they don’t know who called in the complaint, and that many complaint calls are from anonymous sources.

What looked like an eyesore to some people looked like an opportunity to Davis. She contacted the out-of-state owner and made a deal to buy the house for much less than its appraised value of $35,000. City officials said they warned Davis this summer that many costly improvements were needed and the condemnation process was under way, but Davis was determined to buy the house. A combative relationship quickly developed between them.

In September, Davis and her daughter, Dodie Davis, went before the White Settlement City Council and accused city building officials of harassing them and stealing the homes of poor people by condemning the properties and bulldozing them. Since the meeting, she has told anyone who would listen that Carlisle and his staff are too cozy with builders seeking properties.

Carlisle wasn’t at the meeting, but he was infuriated when he heard about Davis’ claims. “I’m a good, honest man,” he said. “I don’t take kickbacks.”

Carlisle developed a report on substandard buildings, dating back to 1997, which showed that most structures that were condemned during that period were vacant. The city seldom attempts to dislodge residents from their homes. Of 116 structures tagged by the city, all but 11 were vacant, the report shows. Of the 11 that were occupied, only three were eventually razed, while the others were repaired enough to pass muster.

One of the city’s most vocal activists is paint contractor Bobby Adian, who said suspicions about officials’ close relations with local builders are longstanding. The city’s ordinances allow condemnation when damages are estimated at more than half the home’s value, and this “gives them a very broad stick as far as condemning houses, and they use it,” he said. “Code Enforcement works with these builders and tries to secure properties in that manner.”

City officials deny the accusations.

The Davises’ speeches at the city council meeting prompted a community adoption of sorts — people took the Davises under their wings and volunteered labor and materials to repair the Wilbur Street house. However, the condemnation process requires that repairs be made in 90 days, and the deadline expires Jan. 15. So far, repairs have been slow, and city officials seem intent on beleaguering Davis and her contractor, Gary Bennett. A Nov. 4 letter from Carlisle to Bennett listed the repairs necessary to meet code. Required repairs span the gamut from foundation to ceiling and appear excessive to Davis and others.

“There is no doubt the house needs some work, but he is looking for reasons to condemn this house,” Adian said. “We’ve got problems throughout our city. It’s not just the building inspector and code enforcement — it’s across the board. It’s a huge mess. If you say anything, you’re going to get retribution brought down on you by the city government.”

The extensive repair list doesn’t represent city officials’ eagerness to tear down Davis’ house, but “to ensure that our citizens don’t live in conditions that are unsafe,” Nuckolls said.

Building officials don’t have a vendetta against Davis, according to Carlisle. They are simply doing their job — a job whose very nature is rife with the potential for hostility from residents.

Since the weeks are slipping by and repairs have fallen behind, Davis doubts whether she can please the city or meet all the demands on the extensive list of repairs. But she is trying, with help from friends and neighbors. If repairs are not completed by deadline, the house can be condemned and razed.

“They all think if they push me hard enough, I’ll give up and throw my hands up,” Davis said. “I’ve done nothing but want the American dream — a home.”

Carlisle, however, said the house has become such a community hot potato that the deadline will probably be extended if Davis shows a good-faith effort to meet the demands.

“We’re not after little old ladies’ homes,” Nuckolls said.

The truth might be easier to ascertain after Jan. 15.

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