AN AT-HOME FEELING - Oak Cliff neighborhoods increasingly popular for gay couples buying houses

The Dallas Morning News - Saturday, July 19, 1997
Author: Sherry Jacobson, Staff Writer of The Dallas Morning News
Bob Wilfong and David Daso were willing to move anywhere in the United States that offered them decent weather, affordable housing and acceptance as an openly gay couple.

The Cincinnati pair considered Atlanta, San Diego, Austin and several cities in Florida. Then they came to Dallas and checked out Oak Cliff.

"Dallas wasn't our first choice, but we found a house we liked in a great neighborhood here and, in a month's time, we made a bigger circle of friends than we had in Cincinnati; and I lived there my whole life," said Mr. Wilfong, 42, who sold a successful car-rental business to make the move.

Without knowing it, the Ohio couple joined a steady stream of gay couples who have been quietly migrating to Oak Cliff neighborhoods. This demographic shift - mostly from Dallas suburbs and other city neighborhoods - started as a trickle more than 15 years ago but has become a virtual stampede in recent years, say real estate agents.

Mike Grossman, president and founder of Uptown Realty, says his gay clientele likes "to personalize and stylize their property, and Oak Cliff lets them do it in an affordable way. " Uptown caters largely to a gay and lesbian clientele and is a major seller of Oak Cliff homes.

Of the company's 500 real estate transactions in Oak Cliff last year, about 75 percent involved gay couples buying or selling a home, he said. Selling prices typically run $60,000 to $150,000.

Oak Cliff offers a perfect fit for many gay couples, says Jan Fite Miller, executive vice president of Judge Fite Realtors, which has sold homes in the area for 60 years. "They've got double incomes, no kids and have the time and energy to redo an old house. " But she disputes the notion that this migration of gays and lesbians across the Trinity River is anything new. "I just see it as a continuing push, a rebirth of the area," she said, recalling a Southern Methodist University study in the 1980s that predicted Oak Cliff would be "the next gay area" of Dallas.

Nationwide trend Dallas is not alone in experiencing this shift of gay people toward home ownership, writes Michelangelo Signorile in his new book, Life Outside. He cites the movement from traditional gay areas in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston and Atlanta.

"Gays and lesbians are tending to settle in places where the housing stock might be cheaper and where they can fix up old homes, places left behind by heterosexuals looking for newer housing stock," he writes.

Indeed, hundreds of gay couples - and singles - now scour the residential options in Oak Cliff's old established neighborhoods, where houses with unique architectural details, hardwood floors and sizable yards once could be snapped up for $60,000 or less. With such increased demand, the bargains are getting harder and harder to find, said Uptown Realtor Susan Melnick.

Agents who sell in Oak Cliff say more than a dozen neighborhoods are attracting gay home buyers in large numbers. And buyers are pushing their search far beyond Oak Cliff's best-known neighborhoods, Kessler Park and the Winnetka Heights Historic District.

Mr. Wilfong and Mr. Daso looked at 16 homes before choosing a sprawling ranch house on a small, private lake in the Wynnewood North neighborhood, an enclave of 300 homes just north of Illinois Avenue. They knew it was a nice area, but only after signing the $115,000 contract for the house did they discover that a third of the households were gay or lesbian.

Still, they were not prepared for how the neighbors would greet them when they moved in a month ago, said Mr. Daso, 33. "It's not just the gay people who dropped by to say, `Hi,' " he said. "The guy across the street, who is straight and knows we're a male couple, stopped over and didn't seem to mind. It felt great. " Area attributes For neighborhood leaders, the major selling points of Wynnewood North are the virtual seclusion of the area and the mix of people, from young Hispanic families to elderly white couples to the newer gay residents. Neighbors are so compatible that several dozen are planning to take a cruise together this year.

"There's an acceptance over here that you might not find in other parts of the city," said Paula Graves, who is a lesbian and became president of the Wynnewood homeowners association in 1996, just a year after moving from Garland. "At the last neighborhood Christmas party, an elderly woman asked me if I knew of a nice gay couple who could move into the house next door. She wanted neighbors who would keep up the yard and be good for the area. " As Wynnewood has drawn more gay households, other residents there have voiced no concerns about the shift, said Ruthmary White, a Wynnewood North resident for 40 years and a member of the Dallas Park Board.

"I don't know if they're gay or straight," she said of her new neighbors. "It's just nice to see people out running and walking their dogs. " Historically, Oak Lawn has been considered the heart of Dallas' gay and lesbian neighborhoods with its thriving mix of stores, bars and apartment complexes offering a sense of community and camaraderie.

New lifestyle Leo Cusimano lived in an Oak Lawn apartment for 13 years before moving to Kessler Park last year. "Now that I'm in a committed relationship, I don't have many friends in Oak Lawn," said the advertising salesman. "We like to socialize with other couples who are like us. What's nice is that so many of us now live in Oak Cliff that we can have a progressive dinner and walk from house to house. " Longtime Oak Cliffers say the new homeowners are pumping energy and enthusiasm int o neighborhood activities on a scale that recalls the urban-pioneering days of the early 1970s when baby boomers were buying their first homes in older parts of the city.

City Council member Bob Stimson laughs about the increased pressure on him to improve city services in the emerging neighborhoods where gay couples are settling.

"It's a welcome pressure if all they want is better code enforcement and more attention from city departments," said the north Oak Cliff representative. "It's been a huge asset to the area. " Edwina Jackson and Emilia Menthe, a lesbian couple, have been trying to resuscitate a neighborhood organization for Beckley Club Estates since purchasing a 1,500-square-foot home there for $47,000 a year ago. The hilly, heavily treed neighborhood of 200 homes, located just south of the Dallas Zoo, boasts many small, well-built houses that date to the 1920s and sell for as little as $20,000.

"This area is the best-kept secret in Oak Cliff, but we'd like to start planning for the future," said Ms. Menthe, 46, who is director of lesbian programs for Oak Lawn Community Services. "We

have a crime watch group, but we want a neighborhood association so we can get historic grants for keeping the area up. " Gary Burns had the same idea when he moved from a downtown loft to the Kings Highway Conservation District two years ago. Shortly after buying a 3,000-square-foot house for $60,000, he joined the board of the newly revived neighborhood group and later the Old Oak Cliff Conservation League , where he now serves as vice president.

"There's a large population of gay people in the area, but I feel strongly that everyone's working toward the same goal," he said of the effort to encourage owners to maintain and improve their properties. "There's no split by race or sexual preference. " Good for business Such revitalization efforts have not escaped the attention of the Oak Cliff Chamber of Commerce. John Clark, its president, says there has been much discussion about the improved condition of the housing market. But there has been no controversy, he says, about who is driving what he calls the best housing market in a decade.

"If people come in and fix up the houses and fix up the yards and open nice restaurants, it's good for the community," he said.

"That's all. " Indeed, one recent study suggests that places such as Oak Cliff stand to benefit from attracting gay and lesbian residents, who tend to be more affluent and educated than the rest of Dallas, says Robert Moore of the Dallas Voice, a free weekly newspaper targeting gays and lesbians.

Last year's survey of 788 Dallas Voice readers by Simmons Market Research Bureau found an average individual income of $42,340, compared with a state estimate of average industry wages at $31,260 for Dallas County residents two years ago.

Such affluence seems to be benefiting Oak Cliff businesses. In particular, the Bishop Arts District at Bishop Avenue and 7th Street has undergone a dramatic recovery in the past two years because of the increased spending of new residents, including those who are gay.

Marc Serrao opened his Italian restaurant, Vitto Pizza and Pasta, a year ago expecting a heavy turnout from Oak Cliff's gay residents. Instead, the restaurant routinely fills up with families and children in the early evening and later with gay customers.

"The gay community is moving away from the bars, that's for certain," he said. "But the straight community also wants to eat in a good restaurant. That gives us a really nice crowd mix. But you know, that's just Oak Cliff. " Church leaders who work among gays say the movement to Oak Cliff and other established areas of the city has been driven by the simple quest for a normal life.

"There is an inherent human need to be able to establish a home and really put down roots in a community as part of accomplishing this need to be normal," said Pastor Leon Linfoot of Grace Fellowship in Christ Jesus, an interdenominational church that recently moved from Oak Lawn to Oak Cliff to follow a number of its gay members.

"We all do the laundry and clean the floors. It's the most normal home environment," he said of gay households. "All we want at the end of the day is what everybody else has. "