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Houston Mayor Bill White tells Houstonians not to worry about substandard apartments

Aerial view of Southwest Houston neighborhood with concentrated low income apartments
Aerial view of Southwest Houston neighborhood with concentrated low income apartments

I was proud to present Houston Mayor Bill White an award in 2007 on behalf of the National Low Income Housing Coalition for his work on behalf of the survivors in the early days following Hurricane Katrina.

I am sorry to say the mayor’s response to the death of two children from a collapsed staircase at a low income Houston apartment building that had not been inspected by the city for a dozen years shows a lack of leadership and what appears to be a strange ambivalence toward the safety of low-income Houstonians.

Houston Chronicle reporters Matt Stiles, Ruth Rendon and Mike Snyder reported today

The mayor, speaking by phone from a conference in Colorado, said the collapse that killed two children at the Westwood Fountains apartments shouldn’t worry other Houstonians living in older complexes. He declined to speculate whether a more recent inspection might have prevented the collapse.

The series of articles that the Houston Chronicle reporters have been writing for weeks about the severely substandard conditions in low income apartments in Southwest Houston contradicts the Mayor’s reassurance.  Of course people should be worried when the city government fails to do its job to ensure the safety of its citizens.  This is a city government that allows hundreds of safety violations to stack up on low-income apartment projects and has failed to take any meaningful enforcement action against slumlords according to the Houston Chronicle’s investigation.

Yesterday I outlined twelve initiatives the city should undertake to deal with the slum apartment problem.  Today I want to explore four of those recommendations in detail.

1) Send the City building inspectors out right now to sweep through the apartments in this area, and ultimately through the entire city, and give landlords no more than 24 hours to fix major health and safety issues.

2) Establish a division in the Houston City Attorney’s office with adequate staff to take landlords to court who ignore orders from building inspectors to repair apartments.  Seek jail time for landlords who willfully violate repair orders.

Mayor White, in response to the newspaper publicity about the lack of inspections, announced one month ago that the city would hire more inspections and change the current system from one that only inspects apartments in response to complaints or (incredibly) at the request of the landlord to a system the inspects on a regular cycle.  This is a step in the right direction.

But this process is expected to take several months to get up and running.  Enforcement needs to begin today.

More importantly, there are a number of landlords with large numbers of outstanding citations that have ignored orders to make repairs.  The city should give these landlords a 24 hour deadline and if they don’t make the repairs then take them to court and seek criminal convictions and jail time.

The present lack of consequences for violating the law does not seem to be adequately corrected in the mayor’s new plan.  To start, the city must assign a sufficient number of attorneys in the city attorneys office to prosecute the slumlords. Hiring more inspectors to write citations will not be useful if the citations are not enforced.  Aggressive enforcement of recalcitrant landlords by city attorneys should include asking judges to jail non compliant landlords.

Next on my list of recommendations…

3) Condemn and demolish at city expense the worst apartments and provide the tenants relocation assistance.

4) Establish a tenant relocation fund to relocate tenants from apartments that threaten their health and safety while repairs are made.

Laws are on the books that permit Texas cities to condemn and demolish the worst apartments.  Yet most cities don’t use these powers even in the most extreme cases of slum housing.  The reason — it takes time for city attorneys to go to court and condemn the offending properties and it costs cities money to pay for the demolition.  So the implementation of an aggressive demolition program depends on the mayor and city council having the will to pay for it.

Along with demolition the relocation of the tenants should be paid for.  This requires additional money from the city.

I’m not going to let go of this issue until the City of Houston gets serious about this problem.  I’ll explore more of my twelve proposed solutions in depth tomorrow.

I started my commitment to housing justice for people and communities with low incomes in 1975 in Austin's Clarksville community. These years of working side-by-side with dedicated community leaders to find solutions to housing and community development challenges have taught me some things and I’m learning new things every day.

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