Note: the Dallas City Plan Commission Public Hearing for PD-15 is scheduled for Thursday, April 18
This is the real story of the Pink Wall – a little pocket of Preston Hollow tucked between two of the highest net worth zip codes in the country. It is one of the few places where women of means at some point, who suddenly find themselves with a drastically limited bank account, can live with some dignity. And safety. For years it has been the answer to the need for affordable housing skirting the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods.
Sometime in the 1990’s we moved my mother “Behind the Pink Wall”, into her unit at The Seville on Averill Way. My mother had moved to Dallas in her seventies to be closer to my children, to help in my husband’s medical practice (she had managed medical practices in suburban Chicago) and to escape the bitter midwestern cold. Her first home when she moved here was a townhome off Knoll Trail Drive I found while taking the kids to Toys R Us: it was being leased by the bank holding the note, brand new, bright and cheerful.
It was also seven miles away from our home.
We wanted her to be closer, especially as she aged. We lived in Old Preston Hollow at the time and the only proximite multi-family living was Behind the Pink Wall. That is why I jumped on the two bedroom, two bath first floor unit at The Seville: it was about a mile from our home on Park Lane. We could walk to her house!
I will never forget sitting with her as she closed on the only property she had ever owned “sole” by herself. My parents had been married for 42 years before they divorced, and like most women of her Depression-era generation, men handled every penny. As we turned each page after her signature, she’d whisper to me, “are you sure I’m not going to lose everything?”
When she died in 2003, I left the condo exactly as it was for months, hoping she’d walk in the door. It remains in our family as an investment property, and has always been leased by retirees, most of them single women. My mother loved living Behind the Pink Wall.
Thank God she is not here to see it turn into a Senior Slum.
I met a Realtor a few weeks ago who is moving into an apartment down the street from mine: her husband supported her with the Highland Park good life until he decided her best friend was more exciting in the boudoir. She is a woman needing a place to live with two school-aged kids as she stitches a life back together. All up and down Bandera, Averill Way, Pickwick, Edgemere are neat, tidy little homes, 1950’s and ’60’s apartments converted to condos, decorated to the hilt with furniture and antiques moved from some of the toniest addresses in town. Come dusk they walk their dogs, doting on them, chatting with neighbors, accepting the lot life has thrust their way.
But all that changed with the fire.
The Preston Place fire destroyed not only a three-story 60 unit condo, snuffed one life, displaced many single retiree owners, but it changed the properties surrounding it in ways only the real estate savvy can understand.
Billie Mills*, in her mid seventies, has lived in The Diplomat Condominium since 2011. For a woman with multiple degrees from a major university, a Texas Real Estate license, a woman who once owned a University Park home, the burning of Preston Place in March of 2017 has virtually made her a prisoner in her own home. Intentional, premeditated deferred maintenance strangles her health and sanity on a daily basis. And now she fears the City of Dallas will further limit development rights as it interprets a decades old Planned Development, because of a few loud, selfish neighbors and a boomerang politician.
“The fire pulled the curtain back on The Pink Wall,” she tells me. “I have lived on Indian reservations, I have helped fight for minority rights, and Native Americans have federally endowed rights that are far better than what I have here. ”
The Diplomat Condominium is a 14-unit, two story condo with a garage apartment, located just east of Preston Place, its closest neighbor. The last listings were in January of 2018, when price per square foot was about $194 psf, and 1599 square foot units were asking from $310,000 to $325,000. The units lease for around $1500 to $2500 a month. But few want to lease, says Billie, because of the zoning uncertainty. Hence many units are now empty.
“We are a one acre property (.94) where most of the owners are senior citizens, women, most on limited incomes, and we need to be treated fairly,” says Billie. “Some of us are in poor health. One of my neighbors has actually moved away, her unit is vacant. I think the whole political process here is discriminating against women and seniors.”
Billie wants the city to move forward with the zoning that would finally free her from her prison home. She says Jennifer Gates has bent over backwards for the Preston Place residents, but not so much for those in the near-neighboring buildings. As far as Laura Miller joining the narrative, Billie says it’s either a late-life power play or something deeper.
“These are very vulnerable people living here, people not in her league,” says Billie. “We are not in the same multi-million category as the people in Old Preston Hollow where Miller lives in a five million dollar home. Why is she hell-bent on helping the towers so much?”
What would Miller do if she lost her home through a fire?, Billie asks. What would the folks in the two towers, Preston and The Athena, where Miller owns a unit, do? Preston Place was built in 1979; the seven alarm fire was one of the largest in Dallas history, kindled for four days, and could well have spread to the neighboring towers.
“If they are worried about their views, let them pool their resources and buy this property, ” she says. “But to sit there and dictate to others that they cannot sell, to manipulate city zoning to seal their objectives, that is a violation of a homeowner’s constitutional right.”
The night(s) Preston Place burned, residents of The Diplomat Condominium, as well as the other neighboring condos, were severely affected. For one, their cars were barricaded in the underground parking garage. The Preston Place fire created 59 holes in The Diplomat’s roof as Preston Place fell. Smoke remained in the area for days, especially right next door. Debris was piled right up to the Diplomat’s exterior walls for weeks.
“Preston Place and the Athena would not allow any of the demo trucks to drive down their streets, which is a private Northwest Highway service road. They constantly called police to enforce it, ” says Billie. “Did they forget the fire could have burned their homes, too? All the demolition debris got pushed to the east side of our building. We had to tape up our windows. Demo trucks, not being able to pass by the towers, had to go up and down Diamondhead Circle. The trucks were heavy and destroyed the streets. I found out we own to the center of the street, but the city has an easement. Thus nobody will ever pay for the repair.”
Because of her health problems, asthma and arthritis, Billie’s insurer moved her out of her home for a year, while she paid her mortgage, taxes and $623 a month in HOA dues..
But the home she came back to was far worse than it was before the fire:
There were electrical problems, HVAC problems, units not working, units leaking, foundation problems, poor or non-existant lighting, loose old windows that let in fire debris because they had not been sealed or painted: Billie couldn’t cook for an entire month due to electrical issues. A sewer pipe backed up and broke, with sewer debris dumped right on the sidewalk (on blue tarps, see photos) during the repair.
Three years ago, right before the fire, the Board conducted a professional maintenance review of the AC units and found many badly needed repairs. But the Board opted to not repair, believing the building was going to be sold. The HOA board decided it was just not worth investing in repairs.
Or at least that is what the board of The Diplomat believes. In fact, deferred maintenance is a major problem in other older units Behind the Pink Wall, which some say is slowly turning into a senior slum.
The AC units, all eight of them, are stacked on the roof of The Diplomat. Right above Billie’s unit. They vibrate and roar 24/7, shaking the walls and floor. She has no peaceful place to sit or rest.
Last year, says Billie, The Diplomat had swarming bees nesting in the walls. She had to hire a beekeeper, guarantee payment, just to have a professional bee-remover come out and remove the bees and nest. Ultimately her HOA reimbursed her.
“We have lived next to the burned out garage for more than two years. The City should have taken the garage out. It holds water and Dallas weather has been exceptionally rainy. It had an electric pump system before the fire,” says Billie, “Now it’s just a cesspool whenever it rains.”
The water is a health risk and mosquito trap. She has tried calling the City. But by the time code inspectors come out, the water has dried.
The heat: “it goes off, sometimes the office won’t repair it until the next day or so.”
“The structural systems here are duck-taped, bandaged,” she says. “All four buildings of the Diplomat had blue tarps over the roof at one point in 2012.”
A structural engineer says the foundation on the 63 year old building can not be brought back or repaired. She has the report.
“The current board president thinks he knows more than structural engineer,” she says, ” so he is ignoring the report.”
To be clear, the City of Dallas cannot control the HOA’s Behind the Pink Wall. Billie admits the Diplomat condo board is a large part of her problem, making unilateral decisions, ignoring her, and totally hamstringing sales of the units by factoring in tomorrow’s developer assumed pricing today. Technically, she cannot even sell without the approval of her HOA. The Board President doesn’t even live in his condo unit, he leases it.
“No one wants to buy a unit in a dilapidated, decaying building next to a burned-out shell. My whole building is being held back by PD-15,” she says. “The people who can afford to move away have done so, leaving the rest of us in a slum condition.”
The Diplomat finds itself in a unique real estate condition: functional obsolescence. The value is in the dirt, which allowing height in PD-15 where two high rises already exist, will make more valuable with increased density. And with The Diplomat’s high ratio of tenants, good luck getting buyer financing: Fannie Mae will not underwrite loans in buildings where a large percentage of units are leased.
“There has been a lot of fear mongering,” says Billie. “We (the owners) have a confidential agreement with a developer pending the zoning outcome: the party who wants to buy our property really wants to build a thoughtful, high quality development.”
She says Dan Rhodes with Compass tried to sell her unit last year, no one wanted it. There were issues relative to buyers not knowing what was going to happen with the development and the zoning.
“It’s really a difficult situation for the owner occupants,” says Dan Rhodes, who lived in the area, on the south side of Del Norte, for 16 years. “I feel sorry for the people who live there because they cannot make decisions based on the uncertainty. It’s a challenge. Change is difficult, but it happens. Ultimately someone will re-develop these vintage 1960 complexes in some capacity, but this current offer is an opportunity to do it right.”
Billie says, it’s like living in limbo.
“Laura Miller’s intrusion is forcing me to live in slum senior housing, denying me the opportunity to have a decent, and affordable home,” says Billie. “This new development will resolve many of the issues. According to the original documents, we had unlimited height. Now the City is jiggering with setbacks, trying to take them away from us.”
The City needs to work with ALL the PD-15 owners, says Billie, so they don’t lose the property rights they have this very day.
Once she and the other homeowners are bought out, I asked, where she will move?
“Anywhere where there is no HOA,” she replied.
- Billie Mills is a pseudonym for an actual resident of The Diplomat Condominiums