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When cities do not act, let’s give communities the power to take over abandoned properties

New Habitat for Humanity home next door to condemned house.
New Habitat for Humanity home next door to condemned house.

The problem posed by abandoned, derelict housing where cities have failed to follow through on code violations extends beyond multifamily housing to include single family homes. The Texas Legislature needs to act to give community organizations the power to clean up neighborhoods when cities fail to act.

Back on July 30 I blogged about a proposal several of us have offered to the Texas Legislature to allow community based nonprofit groups to go to court to force derelict apartment developments in receivership.  In response to my blog, Heather Way of the University of Texas Law School (and a Texas Houser Award winner) sent me some photos documenting the problem created by single family houses with repeated code violations in Dallas.  The City of Dallas has failed to follow through to force owners of houses with multiple code violations to be repaired or torn down.  As a result, the quality of life of residents of these communities is adversely affected and community revitalization efforts are being thwarted.

Note the numerous code enforcement notices posted on this house, to no avail.

Consider the problem that Habitat for Humanity faces when they build a new home in a neighborhood filled with abandoned houses with multiple bright red code violation stickers nailed to the front doors.  One or two new houses in a neighborhood cannot overcome the blighting effect of these wrecked houses.  Empty, unsecured houses attract squatters, drug dealers and pose a fire and safety hazard the would not be tolerated by the City in wealthier Dallas neighborhoods.

The City of Dallas lobbyist told a working group empaneled by Texas Senate Intergovernmental Relations Chairman Royce West last month that the problem with non compliant multifamily properties was due to a funding shortage facing major Texas cities.  While I am sure Dallas is facing a funding shortfall, this is really not a very convincing explanation.  The City carries out a lot of functions and sets priorities for its spending.  The truth is that safeguarding the health and safety the predominately low income and minority residents of these neighborhoods just does not get sufficient priority with the City of Dallas. We need to see this for what it is — a legacy of the racism that has long caused the City to ignore the quality of life in minority neighborhoods.

The City of Dallas has not allocated sufficient resources to bring receivership actions against absentee owners of single family houses.

When a city government fails to act to protect the welfare of its citizens, the Texas Legislature needs to step in to find someone who can and will.  Our suggestion is to permit community based nonprofit organizations to go to court and force properties with multiple code violations into receivership. Once the nonprofit owns the property it can repair or demolish the house.

Thanks to the leadership of the Houston Chronicle a light has been shined on the ongoing problem in Houston with derelict multifamily housing.  Last month two children were killed there when a staircase at one of the dilapidated apartments broke loose and crushed them.  In Houston, the city government has begun to take some tentative first steps to address the problem of massively substandard apartment projects.

The residents of low income neighborhoods have lived with the problem of non-compliant substandard housing for far too long.  It it time to get serious and give communities the tools they need to take their fate into their own hands.

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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