On a Tuesday at dusk, foot traffic around the Forest-Audelia area of Lake Highlands is heavy. A police cruiser, lights flashing, idles in the EZ Food Store parking lot as its cop — flashlight in hand — searches a vehicle. From the looks of it, his partner is cuffing the driver. By now a dozen reports of burglaries, thefts or assaults, and at least one carjacking have been reported in the area, Dallas police beat 252, and the night is still young.
The following morning at the same intersection, dozens of children, backpacks bobbing, wave at crossing guards and parents as they hurry along to class at Forest Lane Academy, an exemplary RISD school.
Our district’s councilman Jerry Allen explains that there are two types of apartment tenants — the law-abiding folks, many whose children comprise the neighborhood schools’ populations (100 percent of Forest Lane Academy, in fact), and the “punks”.
At a recent “Imagination Session” held at Lake Highlands High School to discuss the needs of the multifamily communities both in District 10 and other parts of the city, Allen tells a group of community representatives and state and city officials that he intends to “send the punks back to Punksville”.
Allen calls on the help of Dallas Mayor Tom Leppart and City Manager Mary Suhm, multiple elementary school principals, and police, among others, and he promises that with their support, and the cooperation of apartment managers, he can turn the problem area into a shining example for the rest of the city.
Forest-Audelia’s crime problems are rooted within the 6,197 apartment homes located within a half-mile radius of the intersection, so weeding out the punks, while it will take a united front, begins with multifamily property management, police say.
“In the old days it was easy to get rid of the punks. We drove them to Oklahoma and dropped them off,” deadpans Officer Steve Shaw of the Dallas Northeast Police subdivision.
“Today we can’t do that. Here, it starts with the apartment managers — they are either part of our solution or part of our problem.”
Enter part of the solution — two guys from California, Joe Killinger and George Pino, have become key to the effort to clean up the Forest-Audelia area, and other problematic high-density areas of the city, from inside the apartments out.
In Los Angeles, the two investors acquired some of the city’s grittier apartment buildings and turned them into nice, comfortable communities by expelling criminals and incorporating after-school learning centers known as Learning Links Centers for students. In 2006, they set their sights on Dallas and, in 2009, purchased The Madeline apartments at Audelia and Shadow Way, about a half-mile from Forest-Audelia.
When Killenger and Pino stepped in, The Madeline, formerly known as Ashley Creek, was rough.
“It was a bad property with just about any type of crime you could imagine — drug running, prostitution, gunshots. We had a police escort during the middle of the day the first time we walked through,” Pino says.
Woodbridge Homeowner Association president Steve Wakefield, who lives in the neighborhood adjacent to The Madeline, calls The Madeline makeover “a vast improvement from what was there before.” He says he admires the new owners’ availability.
“One of the things we have been working to get mandated is that names and faces of human beings be put with these apartment buildings, so that there is some accountability placed on the owners of the problem properties,” Wakefield says. “The Madeline owners have made themselves available.”
Just before selling, Ashley Creek owners evicted all tenants who didn’t have a proper lease, or who had defaulted on their rent, leaving the property at more than 70 percent vacant when Killinger and Pino took over. That made for a slightly cleaner start, the men say. Today they are at a little more than 50 percent occupancy.
“Going forward we run background checks and are very particular about residents we take,” Pino says.
That can mean filling up slower than less discriminating apartment communities, but it’s worth it.
As you build a population of good tenants, they begin to police themselves, Killinger says.
“They will call and let us know about suspicious activity as soon as they see it,” he says.
Tim Raemhild, a veteran Marine, manages the property and is on site when kids arrive from Audelia Creek Elementary School to use the learning center.
Soon, he says, he would also like to make resources available in the learning center to adult tenants who would like to earn a GED.
Tadasia, 9, a fifth-grader at Audelia Creek Elementary School, says she likes living at The Madeline, where she walks after school. When she arrives, she goes straight to the after-school center adjacent to the management offices where she gets busy on homework, so that she can move on to the “fun things, like computer games and books.” Every Monday through Thursday from 5:30-7:30 p.m., teachers are on hand to help her with her work. Learning Links Centers teachers and tutors receive discounted rent.
The vigilance with which the owners have weeded out bad tenants, combined with their focus on caring for and educating the community’s young people, have made it possible to keep crime low on the formerly crime-infested property, Raemhild says.
“When something happens, we respond,” he says. “We see drugs or prostitution, and you’re out. Plus, we have incredible support from the police.”
Killinger and Pino also are developing a new website to track apartment “skips”, people who jump from apartment to apartment, defaulting on leases.
“It will start as a skip database for apartment managers and police, but we hope it will evolve into a one-stop-shop for background checks and other tools that will allow apartment managers to track these people who really offer nothing to the community,” Pino says.
Officer Shaw adds that using this new media to identify bad tenants will help us rid our neighborhood of them.
The database should go online within the next month, Pino says.
Councilman Allen can’t say enough good things about Kilinger and Pino’s Learning Links Centers and what they are doing for his district.
“They have brought a village mentality into these apartment homes — this is the right thing to do,” he says.
When he met with the men and toured The Madeline, he says, it impressed him so much that he immediately wanted to see the idea spread.
“One of the first things he said to us was, ‘This is great. What else can you do?’,” Killinger says with a smile.
Kilinger and Pino have plans to acquire more properties in the Lake Highlands area, and they also operate a property in North Dallas. They hope their success in California and in Dallas will prove to be a model for other investors.
“We want to show that you can do good by doing good,” Pino says.
—Christina Hughes Babb