This week, community leaders of the Sunnyside neighborhood in Houston released a report that shines a light on some of the dangerous apartment conditions that too many renters in Sunnyside endure — conditions that are exacerbated after Hurricane Harvey.
The report was authored by Professor Heather K. Way and her team at the The University of Texas School of Law Entrepreneurship and Community Clinic. Professor Way worked with leaders of Sunnyside for more than a year to investigate why so many renters endured such dangerous conditions, including raw sewage seeping into apartments, pest infestations, mold, and collapsing roofs.
Professor Way and Sunnyside leaders learned that calls to the city for help were getting lost in a confusing and disjointed web of city departments that were supposed to address these problems. While the report focuses on 10 properties in the Sunnyside neighborhood, it is likely that many renters across the city face similar problems.
Watch the Sunnyside press conference where the report was released.
Researchers learned the following from their multi-month investigation:
- Finding 1: The City rarely sends inspectors out to apartments to investigate tenants’ reports of unsafe apartment conditions and closes cases without ensuring the issues were addressed.
- The City responds too slowly to tenants reporting unsafe apartment conditions and fails to follow up on tenant reports of safety issues when there is an ongoing landlord-tenant dispute or the caller is not a lease-holding tenant. Spanish-speaking tenants reporting safety issues often face longer delays when trying to get city officials’ help.
- Finding 2: Houston’s Apartment Inspection Programs Contain Five Core Defects
1.) Houston’s proactive inspections of high risk apartments for unsafe building conditions are conducted too infrequently. 2.) Houston’s proactive inspection programs exclude many multifamily rental properties, with the result that these properties receive little or no city oversight. 3.) Houston’s Multi-Family Habitability Division does not inspect the interiors of units during its programmatic inspections and thus fails to identify and address major health and safety issues at apartments. 4.) The Multi-Family Habitability Division fails to adequately monitor and enforce code violations identified in programmatic inspections. 5.) Houston’s distribution of inspection programs across different city departments is inefficient
Residents of Sunnyside described their experience in apartments with mold and leaking sewage. One woman, a mother of a toddler, related that there was so much mold in her apartment, it was making her son sick. When she told her landlord about it, a crew arrived only to paint over the mold.
The report offers solutions to these issues, one of which is a nonprofit advocacy group that can help tenants to understand their rights and provide a voice for tenants in local policy decisions. At the formal release of the report, Sunnyside leaders and organizers from FIEL called on the community to organize and demand that the city take action.
Here are additional recommendations discussed in the report.
Recommendation 1: Provide protections and resources for tenants to address dangerous apartments.
Recommendation 2: Increase resident and community access to apartment safety information and engage the community to assist with tackling problem rental properties.
Recommendation 3: Overhaul the City of Houston’s databases for health and safety violations at apartments.
Recommendation 4: Reform the City of Houston’s proactive apartment inspection and registration programs.
Recommendation 5: Consolidate city oversight and enforcement of health and safety issues at apartment complexes.
Recommendation 6: Strengthen the City’s enforcement of health and safety standards at apartment complexes, especially against repeat offenders.
Recommendation 7: Conduct an Audit of the Police Department’s Apartment Enforcement Unit and F.A.S.T. Programs to Determine Opportunities for Improvement.
Recommendation 8: Adopt cost recovery policies for problem rental properties.
Recommendation 9: Strengthen the Houston Housing Authority’s property standards for complexes renting to tenants with Housing Choice Vouchers.
You can access the report, fact sheets, and information about the UT Law Entrepreneurship and Community Development clinic here.
The full report is also available below.