When I pulled into a parking spot in front of the leasing office at Park Lane Villas, 1710 Woodward Street, I saw a big group of people, mostly Mexican women and kids, and a cop car. I stared at the cop as I got out of my car and he glared back.
I sat down in a chair inside the waiting room as the apartment manager shuffled papers around inside her office. I’d talked to her earlier about an apartment: $710 a month for a two bedroom in a crappy complex owned by David Andrews out of California.
“I’m Brandon,” I told her. “I called about a two bedroom earlier.”
“OK,” she said. I gave her my information. “So why are you moving?” she asked.
“Oh,” I hadn’t thought about this yet, “my lease is up and they’re raising my rent.” She wrote that down.
She bent down and pulled some paper out of a file cabinet. “We have a two bedroom for $730 a month. It’s available. Would you want to see it?”
I told her yes and she took my ID. We walked past the group of people, the cop car was gone, and they stared at me.
“Why was there a cop here?” I asked.
“There was?” she said.
“I don’t know,” she said, “I’ll have to look into that. We don’t get many police around here.”
As we got to the door of the two bedroom apartment that I was supposedly going to rent, I noticed a giant cockroach. “This unit is leased, but they’re all the same,” she explained as she opened the door.
The first thing I saw when I stepped into the musty apartment was the water-damaged carpet in the living room and the little bugs hiding in the cracks between the carpet and wall. The little legs were sticking up from the gap and I could see some of them moving.
The kitchen was big. A lot bigger than the one I have in my apartment right now. In the bathrooms there were some dead cockroaches and a grasshopper. The two rooms were in about as good of shape as the living room. I didn’t really want to dig around in the carpet or closets in case those bugs I saw were actually bed bugs.
“How do you like it?” she asked.
“It’s nice,” I told her. “And it’s a lot cheaper than my place now.”
It wasn’t nice, though. And it wasn’t cheaper than my place now. I just felt bad enough going on this tour and seeing the slum-like conditions that people with less luck than me have to live in. I didn’t need to be a total asshole and rub it in anyone’s face.
“Do you live in the complex?” I asked her on our way out.
“No. I live in Pflugerville.”
We walked past the laundry room and she pointed at it. “There aren’t any washer or dryer connections in your apartment, but we have a 24-hour laundry room. There are 14 washers and dryers ... there’s plenty for everyone.”
Back in the office I got my ID back. I told her this was the first place in a long string of complexes I was checking out and that I’d keep in touch.
The unit was pretty bad and it wasn’t even the one I was going to be renting. How bad could mine have been? A hundred bucks says it didn’t have working AC, but I didn’t really want to find out.
Open Records requests showed that a man filed a complaint against Park Lane Villas with Austin’s Code Compliance division after having no working air conditioning for five months. An inspector had to come out to get Park Lane’s management, Asset Plus, to fix the problem. Considering that I’ve seen portable AC units in a lot of the windows at other apartment complexes, it’s obvious that very few people know what the City’s Code Compliance division is or does.
Code Compliance is in charge of making sure that buildings and properties in Austin are properly maintained within the law. Most of what they do is go after people who won’t mow their lawn after years of neighbors’ complaints, but they also step in when a tenant can’t get their landlord to fix problems with a property they’re renting. These sorts of serious problems include things like infestations (bed bugs, cockroaches, rodents), water leaks, and structural problems.
Structural problems are what led to the fiasco at Wood Ridge Apartments, also owned by David Andrews and managed by Asset Plus. A spokeswoman for the Code Compliance division told me that a 9-1-1 call came in after some residents noticed a second-story walkway buckling and about to collapse. The Fire Department showed up and called in Code Compliance. The residents in the building were given ridiculously short amounts of time—some people said they only had 20 minutes—to get some of their belongings out of their apartments. A chain link fence was put up around the building and the walkway collapsed.
Thanks to Code Compliance, nobody was hurt or killed, but a lot of the evicted families had nowhere to go and were forced to live in the parking lot. They asked the management for answers and help, but management was holed up in their office, not saying shit.
Now, repairs are being made to the buildings and some families are being allowed to go back inside their homes.
When Code Compliance investigators thoroughly inspected the complex, they found 760 violations. And that was only after inspecting about two-thirds of the total units. Clearly, David Andrews put very little priority on making sure his tenants had a safe, clean, and properly maintained place to live. The Code Compliance records gotten through Open Records requests show a history of infestations ignored by management, broken air conditioning in the summer, no heating in the winter, electrical problems, holes in the walls, leaks in the roofs ... one of the more disturbing cases involved a family with an 8-year-old kid who were “being bitten profusely” by bed bugs. The management wouldn’t “do anything about it” or even “let them move to a different apartment on premises.”
The residents at Wood Ridge were being taken advantage of. Their homes’ distant owner lives in the furthest place from the Wood Ridge slum—in La Jolla, California, a beachfront suburban resort community where an average home goes for around two million bucks.
I wondered if there weren’t places worse than Wood Ridge. Places that were silently ticking until something big and horrible happened, putting poor, minority renters on the street. The following is the compilation of Open Records requests made to the City of Austin Code Compliance Division for records about violations and complaints against some of the most run down and slummy properties in Austin.
Another shameful California-based landlord is Allen Ginzburg, out of Aptos, CA. He and a business partner, Leslie Ginzburg, own Bainbridge Villas at 3603 Southridge Dr. in 78704. In 2011, Bainbridge Villas received four violations and six complaints. Half of the complaints were concerning infestations.
The most frantic complaint was made in Aug. 11, 2011, when a woman called the Health Department complaining about a bed bug problem so bad that she’d barricaded off one of her apartment’s rooms. “Bedbugs are eating through the sheetrock,” the report read. “Caller says she and other residents are getting bit and they are coming through the walls, causing structural damage.”
A Code Compliance investigator inspected the apartment and found the room barricaded off. He talked to management, who confirmed that the tenant had been complaining about the problem for two months. Even though they should have fumigated months ago, that’s what the law says they have to do, management explained that the tenant had broken some apartment rules and had been a problem in the past.
Two days later, the apartment was fumigated. When the investigator showed up to check on the tenant, he found her “upset” due to the problem having gotten worse. She demanded that the management re-fumigate and they wouldn’t.
Unfortunately, in complexes like Bainbridge, where many of the tenants are immigrants who don’t want any trouble and are generally people who don’t understand how Code Compliance works, cases get filed anonymously. Without an apartment number or a way to contact the tenant reliably, Code Compliance can’t do their job and cases get dropped. From what I’ve seen, another big reason why so many Code Compliance complaints get dropped is fear of landlord retaliation. Although retaliation is illegal under Texas law, it is extremely common. I found out about our next slum through a retaliation lawsuit.
The Austin Tenants Council refers a lot of people to Code Compliance when they come asking for help. After all, it seems like most problems with landlords come from a refusal to maintain a property. The Texas Property Code makes it illegal for a landlord to not maintain a property. Since Code Compliance is in charge of inspecting these types of cases, Code Compliance often ends up in the middle of a housing rights war. But the Tenants Council doesn’t deal with the state of a property. What they do is help tenants stand up for their rights, especially in cases involving minorities.
The Housing Rights Advocate is a quarterly newsletter put out by the Tenants Council. In it, they highlight cases against landlords and give details about their outcomes and the law.
The Spring 2012 newsletter featured a fair housing case update: Joe Sanchez v. Wickersham Green. Sanchez went to the Tenants Council’s Fair Housing Program after “enduring months of harassment” by management. He filed a fair housing complaint against Wickersham Green and eventually won a $175 settlement. When he went to the office to pick up his check, the manager tried to illegally evict him. Soon after, Sanchez fell back on his rent and the manager, two maintenance men, and two cops came and pounded on his door, demanding he let them in so they could take his property to pay his rent – a.k.a. perform a landlord’s lien. (The law says this can only be done peacefully.) He refused, but the cops told him that if he didn’t let them in, they’d break in through the sliding glass door on his balcony. Even though what the officers threatened to do was totally illegal, Sanchez let them in, knowing they would’ve done it.
I requested the Code Compliance records on Wickersham Green to get a picture of what kinds of conditions Joe Sanchez and people like him were, and still are, living in.
In 2011, Wickersham Green racked up 19 violations from a mere four Code Compliance complaints. One of the cases, filed on June 16^th^, 2011, started as a complaint describing “mold, overgrowth, rotted wood, broken glass, many things and I have pictures.” An investigator arrived and went to inspect the unit. When he arrived, he found the broken windows, “regular furniture out in the weather,” a water leak in one of the buildings, and broken railings at another one. When he spoke with the tenant who filed the complaint, he found that she “was emotionally disturbed” and was being evicted. Wickersham Green was given 15 violations for this case. Notices were sent to both Wickersham Green’s management and its owner, James P. Conroy all the way in Yorba Linda, California – the richest city in Southern California, if not the whole USA.
Code Compliance followed up with the case six months later and found the old tenant moved out, unreachable, and a new tenant living in the unit. Apparently, the property had been cleaned up to the point where Code Compliance was satisfied because they dropped the case. The remaining three violations given to the complex in ’11 came from two cases: one was your typical bed bug infestation and the other was a roof leak. In the roof leak case, another violation was sent to James Conroy.
Another complaint from earlier this year showed the context of total tenant-landlord warfare that these cases exist in. On March 8^th^ 2012, a complaint came in from a Wickersham Green renter who claimed that there was mold in the bathroom, the ceiling fan was falling down, the cabinets were falling apart, that there was an infestation of roaches, and that the management knew about the problems, but refused to do anything about them. The complaint also said that in the times that management actually came out to fix things, the problems were “just painted over” and that when their outside deck ceiling was coming down, “they had just put a board over it, not fixing the issue.”
When the investigator showed up at the unit, nobody answered the door. He took photos and talked to management who gave them their side of the story: the tenant had fallen behind on their rent and they’d been trying to evict him/her for two months. They explained that they were aware of the problems, but every time they tried to get into the unit to fix anything, the tenant wouldn’t let them in.
Obviously, James Conroy wasn’t running a tight ship over at Wickersham Green. His LLC that owns the property, Wickersham Greens, LLC, isn’t in good standing with the State of Texas, according to the Texas Taxable Entity database. This usually means that someone hasn’t been filing tax forms correctly, if at all.
I decided to go check out Wickersham Green myself to see if any of those complaints had any meat to them or if Conroy and Co. had actually fixed up the property.
One of the first things I saw when I drove up was a pair of old homeless men pushing grocery carts full of garbage through the complex. The Wickersham Green sign was covered in graffiti, there were abandoned couches and broken down appliances littering the edges of the complex, some of the ground-level air conditioners looked like someone took a baseball bat to them, and then there were the buildings themselves ... yes, those.
From what I’d read in the compliance records, I’d expected some seriously slum-like conditions at Wickersham Green. But I wasn’t really expecting this level of disrepair. Some of the balconies were so rotten that they were literally falling apart. The railways and stairwells were crooked and slumped. On one of the buildings there was a part of the roof that seemed like it was separating from the siding, creating a giant sagging hole. There were pieces of the siding and roof that’d been patched up by ancient pieces of wood. The place was literally falling apart. A creek that runs through the complex, which supposedly used to actually be nice, is dry and full of garbage.
I read the pieces of paper that management had posted around the complex. They were warnings that “proper swim attire” had to be worn in the pool and that anyone caught without it would be banned from the pool for life. I walked by the pool and saw kids swimming in full clothing, shoes and all.
On my way back to my car, I walked by some sort of a storage shed that was connected to one of the buildings. There were two holes in the roof: one was totally open and exposed, and the other had a crappy warped piece of wood covering it. I was glad that I didn’t have to live there. At $755 a month for a two bedroom apartment, more than I’m paying now, I’m lucky that I don’t have bad credit, an eviction, a lack of citizenship, or anything else that would limit my housing search to such a horrible place.
ONE HELL OF A SLUM (WITH A NICE VIEW): CANYON OAKS
My e-mail inbox blew up for several hours as complaint records flooded in. I’d filed an Open Records request on 1601 Royal Crest Dr., 78741, home of Canyon Oaks Apartments, which are managed by Premier Property Management and owned by a collective of California and Texas based slumlords working with the gigantic & convoluted CT Corporation. I’d hit some kind of a horrific jackpot.
Canyon Oaks is an enormous complex made up of over 20 buildings that sit on top of a hill overlooking East Riverside and the downtown skyline. Although the view is impressive, the condition of the apartments is far from it. When I walked through Canyon Oaks, I found boarded up windows, second-story bridges and walkways patched up with plywood and caution tape, and leaning railways. There was shitty graffiti all over the buildings that faced the street, just blocks away from East Riverside. The roof of the mail area looked like it was sinking in and some of the boxes where the electric meters were, looked like they’d come crashing down if you touched them. But this was just an outsider’s view. Code Compliance records described a much more detailed and sadistic living experience.
In 2011, Code Compliance handed Canyon Oaks 19 violations. That’s not including the survey they did of the entire complex on November 3^rd^ of that year. I was sent screenshots from their database: there were pages upon pages of entries that listed an apartment number followed by “substandard conditions.”
The complaints aren’t pretty, either. Of the 19 cases that ended in violations, four of them referenced recent burglaries. In one of the cases, an investigator found a window boarded up, and people still living inside. This was due to a previous robbery and the window hadn’t ever been fixed. This is a fire hazard because if you take away the window, the door would be the only emergency exit. The other three violation cases were over three separate tenants who’d bought and installed burglar bars to put over their windows. Like the plywood over the windows, this is also a fire code violation. The investigator told management about this and the bars came down, trading one safety for another.
The most serious case, in violation terms, came in from 3-1-1 as a complaint about a “dangerous roof structure ... being supported by an unpermitted post.” An investigator showed up and saw that a support beam holding up a breezeway between two of the buildings had deteriorated and was being held together by a piece of wood they’d thrown on it. The investigator spoke with the property manager who said she’d get right on the repairs. They blocked off the area, as it was in danger of collapsing on someone. It took Code Compliance five months to get ahold of the manager due to her being “out of state” and another three months to get the repairs done. By the end of the case, Canyon Oaks received five violations.
There were six complaints mentioning a serious bed bug infestation in the entire complex. Unfortunately, these people were the hardest to follow-up with. Many of them didn’t return calls from the investigators and some of the tenants moved before the case could get going. Because of this, most of the infestation complaints ended without violations.
These complaint reports painted a truly disgusting picture. “Rodent infestation—open dumpsters—unhealthy living conditions for all tenants,” read one report. Another person’s complaint read, “They have bed bugs. The entire property is infested with them (585 units). They give the tenants something that looks like milk and told them to put alcohol in it to treat the bed bugs. But it doesn’t seem to be working.” This case was dropped because the tenant didn’t give any contact information. Another complaint described a tenant who’d lived with bed bugs for six months, while the management ignored his fumigation requests. It took an investigator six days to contact the tenant, but by that time, the apartment was vacant and awaiting yet another victim. Another resident went straight to the top and tried to complain to the Austin City Council, but was referred to Code Compliance. This tenant actually followed-up with an investigator who got management to fumigate the apartment and put weather stripping on the door. Three violations were given to Canyon Oaks for this case, but they seem to have all bounced off their bureaucratic armor. The following year (2012), things seem to have gotten way worse and we’re not even through the summer.
As of June 16^th^, 2012, Canyon Oaks has collected 22 violations and they get even worse than infestations. 14 violations were handed out over separate cases of tenants living in apartments with broken windows. Three violations were for serious “electrical hazards.” Another two complaints, possibly the most disturbing and proof that the ownership really do not give a shit about what kinds of things their residents are paying rent to endure, concerned sewage problems. One complaint from January 23^rd^ read, “Sewage coming onto property—happens 3 to 4 times a week.” The inspector came out and found the sewage leak. Then, again on June 15^th^, another sewage complaint came in: “pool needs to be checked. There is an open sewer line and no one is fixing it ... damaged cracked end of pipe and human body fluids run out of the pipes to the property.” As of the writing of this article, almost two weeks after the complaint, Code Compliance has talked with management who said they’d inspect the grounds for the leak. The tenant who filed the complaint wasn’t home and the investigator left a business card. For anyone else interested in following this one, the case number is CC-2012-059954.
The online reviews of Canyon Oaks tell the same story: break-ins, fights, nasty infestations, mold, water leaks, rats, and a management team who does not give a fuck.
I called the office asking about their rent prices and wasn’t surprised that they were the cheapest I’ve found, so far. A large two bedroom two bathroom runs $699 a month, no vacancies. While that might seem cheap to some of the readers, remember that 42% of people living in Austin pay more than a third of everything they make in rent. This especially extends down to places like Canyon Oaks, where people are living in some of the worst apartments for a several hundred dollar discount off fair market rents.
But price doesn’t justify the kinds of conditions that the people in Canyon Oaks are forced to live in. It’s even worse when you consider that people at Wickersham Green are paying even more for equally shitty housing. These Code Compliance complaints go beyond having a “nice” place to live. Nobody necessarily has a right to that. This is all about basic human health and safety, something that the owners seem to care so very little about that it’s disgusting.
The whole time I was doing research for this, I wondered two main things: why don’t more people call Code Compliance and why can’t Code Compliance really fix the problems? Unfortunately, these questions aren’t simple. If people knew that Code Compliance inspectors aren’t cops and that they’re not there to evict them, then maybe people would be more inclined to pick up the phone, dial 3-1-1, ask for Code Compliance, describe the problem, and tell them their name, phone number, and apartment number. Without this information, Code Compliance can’t even try to help and the complaint will fall dead on the floor.
That said, it seems that the Austin Code Compliance division has very little power, even in the narrow window of authority they do have. It didn’t seem to help when Wood Ridge collected those violation notices. They just ignored them until something deteriorated to the point of collapse and then the tenants had to suffer for it.
Even though, technically, there are consequences for violations, the cases are handled by a separate agency that makes rulings on cases and possible fines. When I asked how often fines are handed out for the Code Compliance violations, the spokeswoman was very apprehensive about both the question and saying anything remotely concrete. They don’t have any hand in that aspect of the law. All they can do is give out slips of paper.
When I talked to Code Compliance on the phone, they told me that money was being allocated for a new unit within the division that will be responsible for inspecting older multi-family complexes as a whole. Although the change is still at least a year off (money is still being worked into the 2013 budget and then training would have to be done) it could be a big change. Right now, when a tenant calls in a complaint, the individual apartment unit is treated as its own separate case, unless there are obvious problems with the property or building. Things like bed bug problems, which spell out “infested” for everyone in the apartment building, are treated individually.
It would be great to see this new Code Compliance division actually be able to clean up some of these slums. By “clean up” I mean force the owners to bring the standard of living at these places up to a reasonable level for a city that’s trying to bill itself as the “most livable.” I’m not going to hold my breath on that, though. Anyone who’s seen the raw volume of vertical growth both in building sizes, and rents, has seen the power that real estate has over this city.
Unfortunately, the most likely end for places like Canyon Oaks and Wickersham Green (rumor has it that David Andrews is selling Park Lane Villas) will be demolition and displacement of its residents. But before the time comes for these owners to make even more money by selling, they’ll sit on the properties, doing nothing to improve them, until someone forces them to do it. Until then, they’ll be lounging in the California sun, enjoying life, while their tenants are being eaten alive by bed bugs in Texas.