ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
We're about to meet a man who some say is a champion for the poor. Others say he's a slumlord. And that split says a lot about the country's affordable housing crisis. There are fewer places where people can afford to live. Rents are soaring, but the conditions of rentals are not improving.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
There are government programs to help - for example, Section 8 vouchers. But those programs only reach a quarter of the people who need help. The rest wind up in the country's poorest neighborhoods where the issue of how to provide adequate housing is fought over by cities, landlords and tenants.
SHAPIRO: NPR's Laura Sullivan partnered with PBS's "FRONTLINE" and their new podcast The FRONTLINE Dispatch and followed this crisis as it unfolded in one Dallas neighborhood.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: HMK - how can I help you?
LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: There are two ways to describe the man called Khraish Khraish in West Dallas. He's either a landlord saving the poor from homelessness, or he's one of the city's worst slumlords.
KHRAISH KHRAISH: Hi.
SULLIVAN: Hey, Khraish.
KHRAISH: So sorry I'm late.
SULLIVAN: No problem.
KHRAISH: Come on in.
SULLIVAN: Khraish works out of a small West Dallas office where he manages about 300 homes he and his dad own in the neighborhood. They're mostly crumbling 1940s one-story wooden houses, but at 400 or 500 a month, they're some of the cheapest in the city.
KHRAISH: Twelve-hour days, six days a week. We're still open six days a week.
SULLIVAN: They've made a good business out of it, but Khraish isn't flashy. He drives a 10-year-old car and lives in a middle-class neighborhood. He says he feels a kinship with many of his renters, who, like his parents, are immigrants. They came from Lebanon.
KHRAISH: I learned a tremendous amount from my dad, primarily a work ethic. He didn't give me advice about girls. It was work hard. Study hard. And your word is everything you have.
SULLIVAN: Which made what happened last fall confusing.
KHRAISH: I remember one evening sitting with my wife. And you know, I'd just come home from work. And we were watching the 6 o'clock news. And the broadcaster literally opened up the newscast saying - like this. He goes, they call him the most unpopular man in the city of Dallas.
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JOHN MCCAA: Well, he could be the most unpopular man in the city tonight. The...
KHRAISH: And I looked at my wife. I said, they're talking about me.
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BRETT SHIPP: The owner, Khraish H. Khraish, in the past few days...
KHRAISH: And it was just this horrible story about me and the business. I've been proud of what I've done in providing housing to the lowest-income households in Dallas, and now I was getting this smear campaign about what a horrible person I was.
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SULLIVAN: West Dallas has had it rough for half a century. It's been home to a lead smelter yard, an EPA Superfund site, and much poverty. But five years ago, the city built a bridge - the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge - connecting West Dallas directly into the city center. And now the place seems to be booming.
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SULLIVAN: Look at all this construction.
NPR producer Meg Anderson and I recently drove past huge new apartment complexes as we went to find one of Khraish's most dependable tenants, 81-year-old Pearlie Mae Brown.
MEG ANDERSON, BYLINE: Here, found it.
SULLIVAN: The siding of Brown's house is popping out, and the whole place seems to be listing. Inside, cardboard is hiding a huge hole down to the dirt below the house.
What kind of a floor is this?
PEARLIE MAE BROWN: It's supposed to be a wooden floor.
SULLIVAN: Many of the outlets don't work, and cockroaches run across the floor. Still, Pearlie Mae Brown's house is constantly bustling.
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BROWN: There it go again.
SULLIVAN: Neighbors stop by. So does her daughter. Pearline Brown Harper wastes no time when I ask her about Khraish.
PEARLINE BROWN HARPER: (Laughter) It shouldn't come out of anybody's mouth what I think about him.
HARPER: Yeah. He didn't come fix nothing. He just told the tenants that they would have to take care of stuff theirselves. He's just a slumlord. And these people out here have made him the, you know, rich man that he is.
SULLIVAN: Harper is right about at least one thing. The homes have brought in a lot of money. With 300 homes at 400 or 500 a month, Khraish could be collecting as much as $150,000 a month in rent. But Khraish isn't the only one to see the investment potential here. Across the country, mom-and-pop landlords are on the decline, and studies show owners with dozens or hundreds of properties are on the rise. The less a landlord has to spend on repairs, the more money he or she stands to make. In Brown's house, a neighbor pops in to see what's going on.
BENNIE KILSON: Hello. How you doing?
SULLIVAN: Bennie Kilson is 71. She says her house is in bad shape, too. She does all the repairs herself. And right now, leaning against Pearlie Mae's broken screen door, she's about to put her finger on the root of the entire problem.
KILSON: OK, my husband died back there in 2008. My husband didn't have no whole lot of Social Security.
KILSON: What I get now is $632. Now, where in the world can I move with that? You can't.
SULLIVAN: And she's right not just in West Dallas but in cities all across the country. Median rent has increased 70 percent over the past two decades while housing conditions haven't improved. And according to government data, the majority of poor families are spending more than half of their already small incomes just to cover rent. In Dallas two years ago, the city decided it was going to get serious about living conditions in West Dallas. Assistant City Attorney Melissa Miles and others went into dozens of Khraish's homes.
MELISSA MILES: Houses falling off their foundations - I mean, literally - walls that don't connect anymore, rooms where you look through in the seams of the walls. You could see light from the outside.
SULLIVAN: They sent Khraish a binder with hundreds of citations. He said it was devastating.
KHRAISH: It was just bankruptcy. And they want me to bring them to a standard that these houses cannot attain. It's like, how do you make a 1930s engine meet modern-day emission standards? You cannot.
SULLIVAN: But from the city's standpoint, that was Khraish's problem.
MILES: I don't have a ton of sympathy for someone who got away with something to their benefit, to the detriment of other people who weren't in a good negotiating position.
SULLIVAN: But the bigger question looming over all of this is not why the city intervened but why they intervened now. And Khraish had a theory.
KHRAISH: The city of Dallas does not want low-income households in the city.
SULLIVAN: Khraish's theory goes like this. The city wants him to renovate his homes because if he renovates, he'll have to charge more to recoup the costs. His tenants can't pay more, so they'll go live somewhere else, somewhere other than revitalized West Dallas or maybe all of Dallas.
KHRAISH: Their affordable housing policy is not to have one.
SULLIVAN: So we went to city hall to ask the mayor if that was true. Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings said, of course not.
MIKE RAWLINGS: I think you have to make those decisions based on principles. And that is the principles of making sure that people live in safe environments, OK? Safe and clean environments is not asking too much.
SULLIVAN: It took the city decades to ask that much. But Rawlings says he hopes poor people, middle-class people and wealthy people will all live together in the new West Dallas.
RAWLINGS: We're going to have people live in good housing, and we're going to keep pushing this thing. So we're going to find better and better answers.
SULLIVAN: But the answer Khraish came up with was not what anyone was expecting. Last spring, he decided he wasn't going to renovate his homes. Instead, he said he was going to tear them down and evict the tenants.
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MARIE SAAVEDRA: The largest junk property landlord in the city is threatening to evict most of his tenants.
SULLIVAN: Suddenly Pearlie Mae Brown and Bennie Kilson and hundreds of others were facing homelessness.
KHRAISH: When I shut down my rental business and 300 households were facing imminent displacement, you know what the real panic was? It wasn't that they had to leave. It's that there was no place to go to. There was not 300 units in the city of Dallas - affordable housing units in the entire city of Dallas.
SULLIVAN: Melissa Miles could only throw up her hands in frustration. She and the city wanted people in better conditions, not homeless.
MILES: I understand there's blame to go around. There's blame for the city. I think there's blame right up the ladder of government and sort of everyone in between, from national policy to the owner of a particular property not caring enough, not being humane enough, not being willing to be a little less personally greedy to do something about it.
SULLIVAN: So what is a city to do, enforce code, force landlords to pay for repairs and proper upkeep so that people live in decent conditions but know that rents could go up and the poor may have no place to live, or let the properties go and face a reality that in 2017, in the wealthiest country in the world, some of its most vulnerable residents live in squalor? Now, cities could avoid this choice by never letting properties go into disrepair in the first place. But that costs money. You have to take landlords to court, staff an office, stay on it.
Meg and I took a walk around the broken sidewalks and chain-link fences of West Dallas with prominent housing civil rights lawyer Michael Daniel.
MICHAEL DANIEL: You look at downtown. There's a lot of tax money that comes in from downtown. It wouldn't take a lot of it to make some differences. But you can't shift it...
SULLIVAN: You can't. You can't take money from downtown.
DANIEL: ...'Cause it's already set for every place else. And if you start telling people, your potholes are going to last a year longer because we're going to do code enforcement in West Dallas, their council members will say, I'll lose; I can't do that.
SULLIVAN: As he said this, we stopped in front of a lot where Khraish had already demolished the house that was on it. I told him city officials said they were stunned he was tearing houses down.
DANIEL: They weren't stunned. [Expletive]-damn the city.
DANIEL: (Laughter) No, that's not being stunned. Those are crocodile tears at best 'cause the city will do it if the landlords don't.
SULLIVAN: You're saying the city looks at this and is secretly happy.
DANIEL: Yeah. And the fact is the landlords paid the money. And the city didn't have to spend the money. I mean, it's the solution.
SULLIVAN: It's the solution that goes to their endgame.
SULLIVAN: Which is what?
DANIEL: You bring it all down, and you bring it back as something that rises from the ashes.
SULLIVAN: Except in those ashes, he says, only wealthy people get to live, and you don't even need to do code enforcement. And that could have been the end of the story, except Khraish had one more coda to add. A few months ago, he announced he was sparing half his tenants from eviction. Instead, he says, he's making them homeowners.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Some West Dallas tenants on the brink of eviction are getting the chance at homeownership.
SULLIVAN: He's going to loan the tenants the money to buy the houses from him. Seller-financed deals are often controversial and can sometimes leave buyers with less-than-favorable terms. For example, Khraish's contract says if buyers miss one payment, he can demand that they pay off the entire house immediately or lose it. Whether or not that happens, Khraish will collect payments but will no longer have to worry about repairs.
Pearlie Mae Brown signed a similar contract with Khraish. She can't afford to fix the house, but she told us she has no choice. She has nowhere to go. When we asked Mayor Mike Rawlings about this, he said it was a happy ending. More than a hundred people will get to stay in West Dallas.
RAWLINGS: It's not my job to lawyer to the papers, OK? And I don't think that he's got any motivation to outright defraud individuals.
SULLIVAN: So we asked him, does he?
KHRAISH: I was never a slumlord, but I'm certainly not going to trade the slumlord moniker for the predatory lender moniker. I'm trying to do the right thing. I believe I am doing the right thing. I believe that the community trusts me that I'm doing the right thing.
SULLIVAN: And that's where we've landed. Millions of Americans are living in poverty without any government help. The future of these residents, at least, comes down to trust, trust that this landlord will do what's in the best interests of his tenants. With Meg Anderson, I'm Laura Sullivan, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF HOT SUGAR'S "COFFIN IN THE CLOUDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.