151210_RasyRan_MurrayM_opt_04

Murray Morgan at the Forest-Audelia intersection. (Photo by Rasy Ran)

At home on a recent Saturday night, Murray Morgan heard the pop of gunshots. He counted 20. The next day he quipped to neighbors that the shooter must have terrible aim, since no murders were reported. Morgan lives in Woodbridge, a pretty enclave abutting the Forest-Audelia area, a sector that appears annually on the Dallas Police Department’s list of high-crime hotspots. Woodbridge residents are accustomed to the sounds that accompany violence — gunfire, search helicopters, sirens. Despite his outward levity, Morgan takes Lake Highlands’ crime problems seriously. Last year he became the president of the Lake Highlands Area Improvement Association (LHAIA), and he is working hard with other neighborhood dwellers and activists to improve the quality of life for all Lake Highlands residents.

In Lake Highlands, what most needs fixing?

Lake Highlands is poised for big improvements — I-635 road improvements should be done by 2021, new developments along Northwest Hwy., Walnut Hill and Central, and the changes coming to Vickery Meadows, to name a few. We’ve got to provide a method for citizens to have a say in what is planned for their area. That’s what LHAIA is all about. But, you also have to address the crime problem.

Talk about crime, and what LHAIA is doing that hasn’t been tried.

To get to the root of the crime problems, I had to look at the multifamily communities — for the most part, crime is embedded within those apartments and seldom spills into the surrounding areas. Over the span of the last 20 years we’ve thrown more police at it and code compliance and more city resources, and all of that hasn’t fixed much. The crime is mostly within the apartments; the solution must come from within the apartments. Crime is currently down due to good police work, but also because more landlords are running background checks, job verifications, and credit reports to help keep criminals out in the first place. Part of the answer is continuing those efforts. As for what is new, we are making changes at the LHAIA, reorganizing, forming alliances.

Forming alliances?

With so much to do, trying to paint with a broad brush wasn’t going to take care of the details. LHAIA’s alliances can be likened to focus groups. The backbone and strength of Lake Highlands has always been its neighborhood associations. Our Neighborhood and Homeowner Association Alliance will be led by [former city council candidate] Paul Reyes. One of the things he will do is work on the redevelopment of shopping and retail centers. He is experienced, through his job at Associa [homeowner association services], at working with developers, on behalf of residents, to do what is best for the neighborhood. Then we have the Multifamily Community Alliance, which officially launches in January, but a lot of research has been done beforehand. Diana Baker will head it up. She is the chief operating officer of Kids-U, a nonprofit that works in apartment after-school programs. She knows apartment managers, she deals with them, and with the problems of the youth. She knows a lot of parents. It’s perfect. We are going to try to pull the apartments together, encourage them to appoint one or two representatives to attend meetings.

What a lot of people don’t know is that apartment communities, like the Indigo, already hold meetings and they are well attended. There will be 150-200 people at a meeting. You know why? Because they care about the same thing we do. Staying safe. Protecting their property. Once we get rolling, we plan for the alliances to collaborate and foster true improvement. That’s the key word in Lake Highlands Area Improvement Association. Improvement. 

Are the landlords available and responsive, and do you even know who they all are?

The problem with the apartment owners is constant turnover. Every five years or so, new owners take over and you start over. That’s why you need a multifamily alliance like the one LHAIA will have. Diana [Baker] works with multifamilies every day, and has a good idea of the changes taking place. There’s good landlords, and there’s slumlords. We’ll start by organizing the growing number of good landlords, then bring pressure on the slumlords.

Are these new positions within the LHAIA filled by volunteers?

Yes. We currently have eleven of the best visionaries and doers in the Lake Highlands area on the management team. LHAIA is constantly looking for qualified volunteers. Experience matters. Finding the right people is time consuming, but helps produce long term results. We’re still building. I can see paid positions in our future.

Homeowners often blame problems — from crime to lower test scores — on “the apartments.” Has your opinion about area apartments changed since you started working with them?

I used to say the same thing. My opinion on the apartment residents changed totally once I got involved. The apartment residents, the vast majority of them, are very good, hardworking people. My guess is that the apartments are 97 percent law-abiding people and 3 percent criminal — the problem is, 3 percent of 30,000 is 900 people. The single family neighborhoods are worried about the crime threat down the street; tenants worry about the real crime next door. We want to form unity between homeowner associations in single family and multifamily communities, and start treating apartment residents like part of the community and not outsiders. As for the schools, that is going to be a big part of what we are doing. We know we need to get the parents involved in children’s education. We’ve talked with the parent teacher associations — what we are looking at now is the PTAs having meetings at apartment complexes or arranging with Richardson ISD or DART to provide transportation to the meetings.

Seems the police are on board with what you are doing, is that right?

The Northeast Police commander is a strong proponent of community building. He sees  there are many ways to approach crime — police can’t arrest their way out of this. In November, the police launched a series of community events in the Forest-Audelia area, for example. I went and stayed a while. You saw lots of people, lots of kids, families. People from apartments and people who own homes — I’d like to see more of that. I’d like to see it happen four or five times over a summer.

But, overall, Lake Highlands is not all about crime. It’s about people. It’s about opportunity.

Learn more  about the LHAIA at LHAIA.org and on Facebook at Facebook.com/LHAIA

*This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.