When Lake Highlands resident Tim James learned that the high mobility of some apartment residents and the deteriorating condition of numerous apartment complexes were hurting his neighborhood, he didn’t sell his house and move to Plano.

He didn’t withdraw his two children from Northlake Elementary and put them in a private school.

Instead, he became chairman of the mobility committee of RISD’s Youth Services Council, which is working to decrease apartment tenants’ mobility and create a sense of community in our schools.

“It takes a whole village to raise a child,” James says. “We on the stability committee are taking that seriously. If we make (apartment residents) feel more part of the community, we have a better chance of keeping them here.”

“As a homeowner, I have a stake in the community. It’s called an equity stake. Because of that investment, I’m not going to move.”

But it’s difficult to induce apartment residents to take the same stake.

“What we hear from them is: We feel unwanted; we feel excluded,” James says.

So James and others are trying to make apartment complexes and their residents a part of the Lake Highlands community.

This is the story of some of their efforts.

ON THE SCHOOL FRONT

James, who is executive director of Campfire Boys & Girls, became aware of the mobility issue a few years ago when he participated in the Danforth Study for RISD. He and other community residents researched the issues affecting the district and how youth organizations could help address them.

The three biggest issues were student mobility, child care and developing activities for mid-aged children.

The Youth Services Council is taking a multi-faceted approach to addressing mobility.

School principals and apartment managers are working together to address each others’ needs, James says. And each elementary school in the Lake Highlands area is developing Neighborhood Action Teams comprised of teachers, residents, students, business owners and church members to develop ways to get neighborhood residents involved at elementary schools and to create a sense of responsibility and community.

Ted Moulton, RISD area superintendent for the Lake Highlands/Berkner area schools, says mobility caught the district off guard in 1986 when singles-only complexes were outlawed.

“Prior to that time, the apartments didn’t affect our operation.” Moulton says. “We didn’t anticipate the long-term effects of mobility.”

For example, Skyview Elementary has 44 apartment complexes in its attendance area and 88 percent of its student population lives in apartments, Moulton says. At Northlake, 75 percent of the student population lives in apartments.

Of 34,000 students district-wide, 19,000 of them live in the high-density Lake Highlands/Berkner area, Moulton says.

Whenever a child moves, his or her education suffers, Moulton says. A highly mobile student is always out of sync with other students, either slightly ahead of or behind the class he moves into.

“If you have a mobile school, teachers are constantly stressed,” Moulton says. “They’re constantly assessing.”

Another problem: Many children who live in apartments come from single-parent families, and between work and taking care of children, the parent doesn’t have time to become involved with the child’s school, Moulton says.

“Any yet, some of our best families live in apartments,” Moulton says.

To help meet students’ needs, schools have developed unique programs. Lake Highlands and Wallace Elementaries have YMCA after-school programs. Skyview and the Youth Services Council of RISD implemented the after-school enrichment program at Skylark.

Northlake offers Betty Hersey’s after-school program at Highland Crest apartments and a Math Club before school. The school also organized intramural games with student families this spring.

“As a school district, we can’t solve this problem,” Moulton says. “We have had to rely on some outside agencies.”

In the meantime, Moulton says the district is reassuring homeowner parents that the quality of education is not being sacrificed.

“Their fear is that we’re going to lower our standards,” Moulton says. “Our expectations are going to remain high.”

The issue of mobility is a top priority of new superintendent Vernon Johnson, Moulton says. Plans are being developed to specifically address this issue, and some programs should be implemented with the new school year.

Moulton declined to identify the new policies, but he says they are considering “differentiating” staffing at Lake Highlands schools, meaning the schools would receive more staff to help out with the demands of the student population.

“It’s a challenge for us,” Moulton says. “But it’s an opportunity for us. We’re in a period of society with a lot of changes.”

WORKING THROUGH THE CITY

It is common knowledge at City Hall that if an apartment owner runs a bad property in Northeast Dallas and applies for a zoning change, the change will be fought, says Donna Halstead, City Council representative for Lake Highlands.

“Five years ago, if you had talked to someone in Lake Highlands about a zoning case, they would have said: Heck no, not in my community,” Halstead says.

“Today, they are saying: We want you here, but you’ve got to abide by some community standards. And we will help you be good neighbors.”

“We as a community and as a City have a right to see that multi-family operators are good neighbors,” Halstead says.

Turning apartment complexes into good neighbors is being accomplished on a property-by-property basis.

This summer, at least five vacant lots in Lake Highlands have been rezoned, says Ed Barger, our neighborhood’s representative on the Planning and Zoning Commission.

The zoning has been changed from multi-family to something less dense, such as townhouse, Barger says.

For nonconforming uses or when properties apply for a zoning change, neighborhoods have utilized the City’s termination ordinance to negotiate for property improvements, Barger says.

This method succeeded with the Audelia Heights and Kingsley Park North apartments, and the community is now addressing another property at Royal and Abrams, he says.

“We’re kind of drawing the line in the sand and saying: Do it our way or no way at all,” Barger says.

Most of the apartments in Lake Highlands were built about 20 years ago as singles-only complexes. At the time, our neighborhood was one of the few areas left in the City with available land.

And since the City enforced “cumulative zoning” at the time, multi-family structures could be built just about anywhere, Barger says.

The population of Council District 10, which encompasses much of Lake Highlands, is comprised of 80 percent apartment complexes and 20 percent homes, Barger says. Eighty-five percent of the apartments meet the criteria for low-income housing, he says.

Contrary to popular belief, Barger says the complexes in Lake Highlands are not government housing. The problem is the complexes are operated by absentee landlords looking to make a quick buck.

And the only way to make a difference is to disrupt the cash flow, Barger says.

“I wouldn’t live anywhere in Dallas but Lake Highlands. It’s either Lake Highlands or nothing. I want to stay here and fix it. And I think most people feel the same way,” Barger says.

“It’s going to take awhile. It’s going to take showing up – whether it be the Planning Commission or the City Council – and filling the auditorium.”

BATTLES WON

“The vast majority of Lake Highlands residents are willing to work with the apartment owners to create a situation everyone can live with,” says Bill Blaydes, president of the Lake Highlands Homeowners Association.

“Apartments are a matter of fact; they’re here to stay. Until we got the attention of the owners, the older units were down-spiraling.”

“They are here. They will be here. So you’re going to have to make some changes. You’re going to have to be accepting. You’re going to have to work.”

And work they have. Here are some of their successes:

  • An apartment complex at Kingsley and Plano had long been a nuisance to surrounding neighborhoods. The buildings were deteriorating, crime was increasing, and part of the complex was boarded up in 1990. Utilizing City zoning ordinances, the neighborhood fought and won a four-year battle to shut down the entire complex. The buildings are expected to be bulldozed sometime in the future.
  • When the new owner of Kingsley Park North apartments, at Kingsley and Audelia, applied for a building permit, which requires a zoning change, the Lake Highlands Neighborhood Association filed a request for a City termination hearing on the property. Utilizing the threat of the hearing, neighborhood residents negotiated with the property owner to improve the property to community standards. As a result, some units will be torn down and a playground built in their place. There will be security fencing and lighting. More landscaping. Limited access with entrances only from Audelia. A tougher resident screening process. And more participation from apartment management in neighborhood affairs and crime watch.
  • The neighborhood association also used the termination ordinance on the Audelia Heights apartments, now named Highland Crest. Standards for the property were put into deed restrictions. The property was sold, and the new owner has transformed the property – renovating each unit, installing more lighting, adding playgrounds and landscaping, and painting the buildings.

“I think this whole topic has pulled us closer together even more than we were,” Blaydes says.

“Folks have stopped pounding the kitchen table and decided to get up and do something about it. It’s a great relief for frustration.”

TURNING THE APARTMENTS AROUND

Neighborhood resident Jim Mattingly is president of LumaCorp, Inc., which purchased Highland Crest Apartments little more than a year ago. At the time, the complex was notorious.

When Mattingly purchased the property, formerly called Audelia Heights, each tenant was required to re-apply for a lease, and most were turned down. Each unit was updated. The property was landscaped, the parking lot was updated, more lighting was installed, security was increased, and rents were raised.

The new owners worked hard to encourage a feeling of community by installing playgrounds, a clubhouse and pools.

The renovations were a business investment, Mattingly says: An attractive property will attract stable tenants and earn profits for its owners.

“I think most apartment owners have the same goals,” Mattingly says. “What we sell is time. When you have mobility in your apartment community, you lose money.”

And most apartment residents want the same thing as homeowners: “A decent place to live,” Mattingly says.

More and more forward-thinking apartment owners and managers are moving into Lake Highlands and turning properties around, Mattingly says.

Market trends also will help Lake Highlands, Mattingly says. Increased demand and little new construction are reducing the number of available apartments. As a result, properties are screening prospective tenants more stringently for credit problems and criminal records. And rents are increasing. So if a resident finds a good deal today, they’re less likely to move, Mattingly says.

HOW THE CHURCH HELPS

Ray McKelvey and North Highlands Bible Church operate an outreach ministry for children living in apartment communities.

Once a week, McKelvey and volunteers bring about 50 children to the church for activities. They serve Brookshire, Highland Crest, Country Squire, Kingsley Park North and Audelia Springs.

The ministry started a few years ago when members of the church noticed changes in their neighborhood. Rather than turn their backs, they decided to take action.

About half of the children in McKelvey’s program have been involved for four years, which shows that not all apartment residents are highly mobile, McKelvey says.

“They’re not all the same just because they live in the apartments,” McKelvey says. “We assume, number one, they’re poor; number two, they’re uneducated; and number three, they don’t care about their children.

“I don’t think apartments have a sense of community. That’s one issue in itself. I think they want that. That’s part of our youth problem. There’s no sense of community, no sense of family.”

McKelvey has talked to a few families living in apartments about the community. He says many don’t feel welcome: Why stay if you don’t feel wanted?

“I find three kinds of people,” McKelvey says. “One is: Get them out of the community. Another group is: I’ll give my money to keep these kids busy.”

“And then you have this rare third person who tries to get to know them. And that’s the person who makes the biggest difference.”

“I think the Lake Highlands area, if it desires it bad enough, can accomplish it. It won’t happen overnight. It will take creativity. It will take all of us working together.”