If you happen to live in Houston, you may have heard about the Ella Square Apartments building that was bulldozed last week. And you may have read about the city knocking down the Candlelight Trails condominium back in September. In both cases, the city’s mayor, Annise Parker, was there. And at Candlelight Trails, she even operated the excavator.
What you may not have heard is that these actions were not just symbolic occurrences. The Cypress Times reports that under Mayor Parker, the city has demolished 910 dangerous buildings in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2010, and has since removed an additional 400 dangerous buildings. As Candlelight Trails and Ella Square prove, troublesome apartment buildings haven’t escaped the Mayor’s sight, either. And some in the industry are applauding that.
In the past year, the city of Houston, with the support of the Houston Apartment Association (HAA), has created a Multifamily Habitability Unit whose aim is to coordinate apartment oversight between multiple city agencies. The new venture was necessary. In the past, one city agency might visit a property because of trash problems and another might inspect structural issues. But often, there’d be no coordination or follow up between agencies, so problems would linger and a bad apartment could turn into a slum.
“We had a fractured system between our building inspectors, mechanical inspectors, police, the fire marshal, and all of that,” says Andy Teas, vice president of public affairs for the Houston Apartment Association “There was never enough coordination when they a truly had bad property.”
Fixing the Problem
With the HAA realizing there was a problem and Parker’s focus on dangerous buildings, the stage was set for a systematic way to address apartment problems. Now everyone who owns a property in the city of Houston with three units or more is required to register with city.
Once they register, they’re put on a list, and the city will go through and do a systematic inspection of every property, starting with properties that didn’t register and then going to properties that never received certificate of occupancy. Then it will be moving through the stock from older to newer. The mechanical, structural, and plumbing inspector will come out at the same time and the fire code inspector will follow within 30 days.
“The main focus wasn’t to do anything new or create new requirements, other than to register with the city, but to coordinate enforcement in a more logical way so that the city can could keep track of what each inspector required and what work needed to be done,” Teas says.
Some apartment owners have complained about Houston’s rush to enforcement. “The city of Houston is all over the apartment market,” said one apartment executive familiar with the market who didn’t want to be identified for this story. “I think if they had their way, they’d tear everything down.”
Teas thinks the habitability program will eventually help those who are operating above board. “Our hope is that it will catch the ones [apartment owners] that need to be caught,” Teas says. “If you have a fallen-down slum across the street from your Class C property, they’re scaring away your residents. It’s hard to turn a property around when there’s a slum across the street.”