Former U.S. Army paratrooper Dave Gardner is on a mission.

Armed with a computer print-out of 30 or so complaints, City Code Inspector Gardner is creeping through the streets, looking for a suspect.

In an aging white Chevy Celebrity, Gardner makes his way down Ferndale Road, stops in front of a house, walks to the front door and knocks.

Gardner is here to investigate a complaint: According to neighbors, the homeowner held too many garage sales during the month.

When no one answers the door, Gardner says he’ll have to send a written notice of the violation to the homeowner, along with a copy of a City ordinance that allows only two garage sales annually.

Knowing the situation will be monitored for the entire year should encourage the owner to obey the ordinance and assure neighbors the home won’t become a bustling business, Gardner says

Gardner, a burly, likeable man of 48 years who can rattle off the hundreds of code violations he enforces in record time, takes his job seriously.

“I’m a soldier for the City of Dallas,” Gardner says. “My job is to keep this City wholesome.”

Do We Need Code Enforcement?

If you think Code Enforcement isn’t important, ask yourself two questions:

Do you trust your neighbors, without supervision, to keep their grass mowed, their hedges trimmed, their “junk car” out of site and their trash emptied at the proper place and time?

And, how much do you value your property

If you love our neighborhood and the lifestyle in Lake Highlands, you’ll probably be glad to know that Code Enforcement and inspectors like Gardner exist.

They help keep our neighborhood streets clean, our property values high and our living conditions acceptable.

Gardner is part of a crew of 111 inspectors who ride through our City’s neighborhoods to ensure homeowners and landlords obey City building codes.

“In Lake Highlands, I’m dealing with people who are not used to taking orders,” Gardner says.

“We do a lot of P.R. work when we go out to the property. I try to be as nice as possible, but I’m also very direct.”

Different Neighborhoods, Different Problems

The problems inspectors deal with in our neighborhood are unlike those in South or East Dallas or Downtown.

Lake Highlands has few residential “eye-sores,” dilapidated buildings, exposed “junk cars” or “slum lords.” By and large, our homes are modern, well-kept and occupied by mostly educated, upper-middle-class families.

For most of the people who live in Lake Highlands, code inspectors are, in a way, like our mothers. They make sure we tidy up, take out the trash when we’re supposed to, and follow the rules.

“No one likes to be told what to do – but if there’s no one to keep you in line, then this City could end up another Detroit or Chicago,” says Gardner, who has patrolled the Lake Highlands area for the past two years.

Virgil Woodard, an inspector with the multi-family division, enforces ordinances pertaining to apartment complexes – the properties where Lake Highland’s more serious problems lie, according to Councilwoman Donna Halstead.

The area patrolled by Gardner and Woodard includes the section east of Northwest Highway and Central, to Ferndale and everything north of the City limits.

Code Enforcement inspectors have the power to enforce hundreds of litter, junk-vehicle, nuisance, building, graffiti and zoning codes, according to Ramiro Lopez, assistant director of Dallas’ Code Enforcement Department.

Gardner looks for residents who put bulk trash outside their homes earlier then the designated time, abandon their junk cars, allow their grass and weeds to grow more than 12 inches, illegally dump trash, stack wood and other objects higher than 18 inches from the ground, set up a business in a residential area or post garage-sale signs on telephone poles.

The inspectors also look for “life hazards” such as overhanging roofs, exposed electrical wires, abandoned refrigerators that still have doors attached, swimming pools with no fence surrounding them (these are referred to the multi-family division), weak or damaged foundations, and leaning or cracked walls.

“All citizens are not going to obey the rules – we’re here to make sure they do,” Gardner says.

Gardner, a New Orleans native, says he comes from a city where codes aren’t enforced.

“Dallas looks good because they enforce their own ordinances. One day, I would like to go back to New Orleans and apply for Director of Code Enforcement and clean up the city,” he says.

The Mission

Gardner begins cruising the streets and alleys in Lake Highlands about 9:30 a.m. He carries a computer print-out of complaints – about 25-30 a day or as many as 400 a month – from citizens who phone City Hall’s 24-hour Action Line (744-3600).

Gardner is always on the prowl, looking for other violations that neighborhood “watchdogs” may have missed. Turning down Vistadale, Gardner releases an “Ah,” stopping to take down the phone number from a “Lost Dog” sign illegally posted on public property.

“We have sympathy that someone lost their dog, but we want the sign removed,” Gardner says.

Nit-picking?

Gardner is familiar with the accusation and readily has an answer.

“I tell them we’re not picking on them – this is just part of our jobs,” he says. “We don’t make the complaints. We just respond to them.”

Kenneth Walker, president of the Country Forest Jackson Meadows Homeowners Association in North Lake Highlands, says he appreciates inspectors like Gardner because they are enforcing codes that will keep the neighborhoods’ property value up.

Walker says the homeowners association depends on Gardner to enforce certain codes. One of the biggest problems, Walker says, is people who put their trash out at the wrong time.

Most recently, Walker has called on Gardner for help in stopping a neighborhood day-care center from operating on a 24-hour basis.

“I can go in there and tell them what to do, but I need someone to back me up,” Walker says. “From my experience, every time I’ve called Dave, he certainly hasn’t put me off.”

The Process

After a caller, who may remain anonymous, has made a complaint, inspectors have 10 days to respond before a resident may take recourse – a call to the district manager.

Larry Holland, an analyst with Code Enforcement, says there are approximately 150 different types of complaints, and in most cases they involve premise complaints, which include weed, litter, junk car and illegal storage violations.

Following a complaint, inspectors visit the property and issue a notice of violation, which includes an order to correct the problem. If the owner doesn’t comply, a citation is sent to the owner or, if the problem is serious enough, the Urban Rehabilitation Standards Board.

The board’s four panels, each of which meets monthly, consists of Dallas residents appointed by Council members. Halstead appointed Lake Highlands residents Charles Smith and Nancy Lawrence to serve on the board.

The board has the power to declare properties urban nuisances and order them repaired or demolished. Violating owners can be fined up to $1,000 a day.

Halstead says several “property eyesores” that formerly plagued Lake Highlands have been “cleaned up” due to tough enforcement by inspectors and pressure from community leaders.

Occasionally, the board will ask a non-profit agency to help disadvantaged homeowners make repairs to their property.

If a demolition order is issued, Code Enforcement staff members transfer the case to Public Works. The owner must pay for the demolition or the City seizes the property.

“This board has a lot of teeth. The people I appointed are pretty darn tough on slum lords,” Halstead says.

Smith, who has served on the board for the past two years, says he won’t tolerate “absentee landlords who refuse to keep property up to City codes.”

“We do this for the pride and appearance of the City,” Smith says.

Getting Tough

Tougher code enforcement sure to get offenders’ attention already is underway with the City’s recent decision to set aside one of 10 municipal courts to deal with code violations, Halstead says.

The Special Ordinance Court will allow quicker processing of cases involving homeowners and landlords who violate the City’s building codes. Before the new court, property owners were lumped in with speeders and others accused of Class C misdemeanors.

Chronic offenders sometimes escaped harsher punishment by dealing with each citation separately, each time before different judges. With the Ordinance Court, the City can consolidate cases against a single owner and related to a particular property.

Lopez says “for the most part,” inspectors are “doing their job” in answering the complaints despite criticism that their response time is slow.

And that’s a difficult task considering that there are just over 100 inspectors for a City with a population over a million, Lopez says.

“If you stop and think about the simple mathematics of this, it’s just not enough,” Lopez says. A study conducted by Lopez three years ago showed that cities the size of Dallas (Los Angeles, San Antonio, Phoenix) had twice, sometimes even three times the number of inspectors, Lopez says.

The number of inspectors has remained the same for the past two years despite requests for an increase in manpower, Lopez says.

“Like other departments, we’re trying to do more with less.”

Lopez says during the past 10 years, City residents have begun utilizing the Code Enforcement department more frequently.

Unfortunately, he says, the department now has a problem trying to keep up with demand.

“We’re now expected to provide the same level of service that the police do, but with 100 people,” Lopez says.

“What is happening is we’re going through some growing pains. But we still continue to achieve results, and we’re always looking to improve what’s there,” Lopez says.

And code enforcement is one City department that isn’t likely to go away.

“I think code enforcement will always be needed,” Woodard says.

“Sometimes it takes a little slap on the hand for people to keep their property up.”