Lake Highlands residents tend to regard our microcosm of hills, creeks and green spaces as a quasi-independent city within greater Dallas. Scenic topography, diverse housing and abundant recreational opportunities mean that this area is popular with both families and young professionals, particularly those who value close proximity to downtown.

But the neighborhood’s bucolic aura has, for many years and a myriad of reasons, been tainted by crime. The situation was exacerbated recently by the Dallas Housing Authority’s decision to convert one of the area’s apartment complexes into public housing, making the whispers about crime in Lake Highlands just a bit louder.

Yet our neighborhood still enjoys a good reputation and remains popular for those who value aesthetic and architectural integrity: a compromise between the flash-and-dash McMansions of Highland Park and the generic, faux-revival boxes of Plano and beyond.

So are the stories about problems in the area just exaggerated tales about normal urban crime? Or is it truly a growing issue that needs to be nipped in the bud?

A Community Divided? / The answer to that question is elusive, depending on whom you ask. But, says the Lake Highlands Area Improvement Association’s Terri Woods: “Ask any resident in Lake Highlands what our biggest problem is, and they’ll answer one of two things: All of the apartments or not having the retail we want to have.”

In terms of the former, Woods is talking about the 220 apartment complexes, or approximately 25,000 apartment units, that exist in our neighborhood. Dallas Police Department records confirm that much of the criminal activity in our neighborhood occurs in or near these high-density apartments along Whitehurst, Skillman, Church and Fair Oaks roads.

Many residents feel the area’s problems with crime can be traced to 1985 and the Supreme Court’s fair housing ruling, which stated that apartment communities, like those in Vickery Meadow, could no longer be designated as adult only. Coupled with the continuing real estate recession of that time, the ruling brought about a substantial shift in the neighborhood’s demographics. By 1992, many of the young, up-and-coming professionals had fled the apartment complexes of Vickery Meadow and were replaced in large part by working families, who were attracted by either Richardson ISD schools or by the complexes’ often fierce competition to attract new residents. Signs that touted “free utilities” or “free rent” weren’t uncommon, and they contributed to a trend of drawing lower-income residents who moved often in search of better deals. Take all of these circumstances into account, and there is now a very real perception among Lake Highlands residents that the areas around these apartment complexes aren’t safe.

The combined crime statistics through late 2002 for the reporting areas making up the bulk of this part of our neighborhood (1041, 1042, 1054, 1055 and 1069) confirm that incidents of crime are much higher in this section than in other parts of Lake Highlands:

Murder: 3

Rape: 11

Business robbery: 21

Individual robbery: 75

Aggravated assault: 100

Business burglary: 71

Residential burglary: 239

BMV-related: 332

Theft: 277

Auto theft: 223

In contrast, where fewer apartments exist, fewer crimes occur. Take five reporting areas (1076, 1077, 1088, 1089 and 9609) just southeast of the apartment-congested area, and the statistics show significant drops in crime, particularly thefts, burglaries and robberies:

Murder: 1

Rape: 1

Business robbery: 10

Individual robbery: 11

Aggravated assault: 22

Business burglary: 23

Residential burglary: 73

BMV-related: 99

Theft: 122

Auto theft: 57

“In an area with a high concentration of apartments, you’ve got a lot of people living in a very small space,” says Senior Cpl. Sheila Cavanagh, coordinator for the area’s Volunteers in Patrol programs.

“Add to that the large population of vehicles, and this becomes a target for motor vehicle-related robberies.”

Neighborhood watches have made some impact, says Dallas officer Cayce Shelton, whose regular beat includes an area of Lake Highlands and who patrols the Whitehurst Apartments in his off-duty time.

“A couple of years ago, this area was pretty bad in terms of drugs and prostitution,” Shelton says.

Since the implementation of neighborhood watches, however, the drug and prostitution activity has declined, Shelton says.

But not every apartment complex has implemented a neighborhood watch program and, in fact, many say that a significant factor contributing to crime in Lake Highlands is the laissez-faire mode of management followed by some apartment complex owners.

Crime Fighters / Enter Woods and her group of volunteers in the Lake Highlands Area Improvement Association. The LHAIA, formed in June 2001 with the intention of bettering the reputation and quality of life in the neighborhood, intends to begin aggressively addressing the apartments’ effect on neighborhood crime this year.

According to the LHAIA’s research, 120 apartment complexes in the neighborhood have absentee landlords. The lack of informed, on-site landlords translates into sub-par management, providing ideal conditions for festering criminal activity. The LHAIA aims to create a network of members, area business owners and apartment managers who keep in contact with one another regularly, creating a system to minimize.

The LHAIA and like-minded residents have come under fire recently for their challenges to the Dallas Housing Authority’s plan to initiate Section 8 public housing at the Hidden Ridge Apartments at 9702 Ferris Branch. The initiative passed late last year after much heated debate and press coverage that stung some neighborhood residents, who have said they were unfairly portrayed for questioning the appropriateness of public housing in an area already dealing with its fair share of apartment-related issues, including but not limited to crime.

“This is not an issue of race. It is about shared values, what we all want for our community,” Woods says. “I don’t want to disrupt anyone’s life. I don’t want to throw a single mother who lives in an apartment out into the street. But we do want those people who are making an income off the properties to act responsibly, not just pull from the property and let someone else take care of the social issues.”

The Police Department’s Cavanagh says that officers meet monthly with the apartment managers to discuss eviction issues and to share information. A City of Dallas ordinance states that apartment managers must attend four area meetings a year, but not every manager is complying. The LHAIA intends to hold them more accountable.

“If we can pinpoint and prove that tenants and occupants are actually causing problems – crime, drugs, prostitution – then there are things we can do. You can get injunctions against an apartment complex and have them abide by certain procedure rules, such as background checks,” Woods says.

Woods is referring to the Dallas Police Department’s Abatement Unit – the S.A.F.E. Team, formed in 1991. As the name implies, S.A.F.E. is an investigative unit that works to help property owners alleviate crime. When a property owner doesn’t cooperate in the removal of criminal elements, the S.A.F.E. Team has the power to obtain court-ordered injunctions against the property.

“We want to put every legal tool in place to force the apartment managers into a higher level of accountability. We’ll help the good ones be as good as they can be,” Woods says.

As for the bad apartment managers: “It’ll be either shape up or get the heck out of dodge.

“The goal,” she adds, “is to be proactive, not reactive.”

So, while criminal activity does indeed continue in Lake Highlands, the mechanisms for prevention seem firmly in place.

As Woods says, “We are taking back the community.”