Two proposed tools to get aggressive with slum landlords

For the past two days I have been exploring in this blog ways to deal with the massive problem of substandard apartments that has emerged in Houston.  The challenge is to get the land(slum)lords to repair and maintain their property.

The current approach taken by the City of Houston, whereby the city issues citations that landlords simply ignore is clearly not working.  Yesterday I suggested the the city commit an adequate number of city attorneys to criminally prosecute the worst offenders and plan to seize and demolish the worst apartments.

I noted that the problem with this is that both cost the city money. You would assume that since these are issues effecting the heath and safety of many citizens the city would be willing to spend the money to deal with the problem. But based on past experience this might not be the case.

Today I want to explore two other solutions I outlined in my earlier posting that offer a way around this problem. These two approaches transfer financial responsibility from the city government to a community based nonprofit organization or directly to the tenants.

First, I suggest getting a new, more responsible owner for the worst properties…

11) The Texas Legislature needs to pass a law allowing community based nonprofit organizations to force apartments with serious and repeated code violations into receivership so that responsible new owners can take over the apartments and get them torn down or completely rehabilitated.

As I see it the most egregious problems are with properties where the landlords will never willingly maintain their apartments in a safe and decent manner.  The key to addressing these worst properties is to get them into the hands of a responsible owner.  The city clearly does not want to play this role.  So I recommend turning to a nonprofit to take over.

Here is the way this would work.  Once a certain number of citations had accumulated and the owner fails to act, a new state law would permit the city to designate a nonprofit corporation to take title to the property.  State law would permit the voiding of any outstanding liens on the property so the nonprofit could secure financing against the property to make repairs.  Covenants as to the maintenance and performance of the nonprofit, enforceable by the city, would be recorded.

The premise is that the solution is to replace a landlord who does not care to maintain the property with a new landlord who does.  The nonprofit could seek out government grants and private financing to complete the rehabilitation.

The other tool I suggest places some power in the hands of the tenants to get a recalcitrant landlord to make repairs…

12) The Texas Legislature should pass a law allowing residents in apartments with serious health and safety violations to withhold their rent and place it in a court approved escrow fund until the code violations are addressed.

Many states (but not Texas) allow tenants to place their rent in escrow rather than paying the landlords if reairs are not made.  By requiring approval of the JP court before a tenant could withhold rent the landlords would be protected from arbitrary actions of tenants.

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