Moving On

Continual crime, aging apartments and new activism collide as the fight for Fondren Southwest's soul rages onward

Apartment complexes began changing ownership about once every two years, often going to out-of-state owners less interested in the property's condition than the amount of their investment returns.

Many managers lowered leasing standards, looking the other way at tenants who were gang members, drug dealers and other undesirables. The prevailing theory: "Trash pays cash."

During the 1980s, the local white population dropped from 74 to 41 percent. Drawn to the area's 20,000 low-rent apartment units, the black population exploded from 14 to 41 percent, and the Hispanic population jumped from 8 percent to 12 percent.

Hurst coordinates a meeting of apartment managers.
Troy Fields
Hurst coordinates a meeting of apartment managers.
Anti-gang director Garcia believes change can occur without "heavy-handed police tactics."
Troy Fields
Anti-gang director Garcia believes change can occur without "heavy-handed police tactics."

Some of the complexes became known as hotspots for drugs and prostitution. Gangs like the Southwest Cholos, the Latinos and the 8900 Gang marked their turf outside the apartments. Gunplay marked boundary disputes; innocents died by stray bullets or in sport shootings.

By the early 1990s, apartment owners and other residents began a counter-offensive of their own. In several high-profile cases, homeowners in the Southmeadow subdivision sued the owners of the West Fondren and Village of the Green apartments for negligence contributing to constant criminal activity. The subdivision residents said the owners didn't hire security guards, screen tenants or provide lighting. The homeowners collected a multi-million dollar settlement and used it to buy and raze both properties.

Apartment managers began tightening tenant screening and adding new security measures along with off-duty police patrols. Managers, officers and residential groups started sharing information and taking coordinated steps to solve problems.

By the mid-1990s, property values were rebounding and more middle-class minorities moved in. In 1998, the area had its own police division and advocates who pressed City Hall for more assistance in their efforts.

Leaders sensed that they might be on the way to winning the war over Fondren Southwest. The strides were apparent when West and her husband, a mechanic, began considering a move four years ago. With one small child and another on the way, the family needed more space than their Bellfort Southwest apartment could offer.

For their price range, Pointe Royale was the most appealing (this year, rent for the two-bedroom unit is $520). The sprawling, 516-unit complex was clean, spacious and seemed to be safer than other complexes they saw.

In fact, their new home had been the notorious Tiffany Place of the 1980s, a complex that cops and hustlers knew simply as "TP" -- a prime place to score drugs.

In 1996, the Kansas City-based Cres company bought the complex and did more than just change the name to Pointe Royale. A spokeswoman says it poured $2 million into the 19-year-old complex, hired off-duty police for security and gave them an apartment to use as an on-site substation. Managers implemented a curfew for juveniles to cut down on loitering and used an application processing firm to weed out prospective tenants with criminal records.

West's family still held the dream of owning a home -- they'd enrolled in a housing grant workshop at the Houston Area Urban League. But they were happy with the complex, at least for the first two years.

The type of tenants started to change, she recalls. Turnover increased. More residents had problems making rent, and the management reacted with evictions and by nailing boards over doors and windows of those units. West says she felt like she was living in a slum.

Longtime residents got the uncomfortable sensation that the complex was slipping back into the earlier, desperate days of life at "TP" once again.

"The last thing we need in the Fondren Southwest area is another apartment complex," Ruth Hurst tells the Citizens Advisory Committee at the September meeting in the Fondren police station. Hurst is the committee president and the most vocal watchdog in the area.

A tall woman with a broad face and authoritative voice, she is an imposing figure. She knows all the cops, apartment owners and managers and has a photographic memory of every nook and cranny in Fondren Southwest. Her constant contact with managers tells her whether dealers are still working near the Shop 'N Carry on Dumfries and Sandpiper, or if they've moved to another corner.

Looming over a podium, Hurst grows upset as she tells the 11 homeowners and a few cops in attendance about an apartment complex under construction on Gessner. Soon, Hurst will have to add these apartments to her master list of 97 multi-family dwellings in Fondren Southwest, a spreadsheet she says people would kill for. She's got the names and numbers of owners and managers and won't share them with anyone. Let others do their own fieldwork is her philosophy.

The advisory committee is only the first meeting of the night led by Hurst. After an hour of planning Fondren station fund-raisers and "Fun Day in the Park" family activities, she'll convene the Crime Awareness Committee meeting, where the audience relays sightings of drug pushers and prostitutes.

With a black Magic Marker in hand, Officer D.J. Hardy stands by an easel-mounted pad of paper and records the complaints. He flips the sheet from last month's meeting (notes on trash, speeding and the Gessner-Creekbend intersection dubbed "Prostitution Lane") and listens to a fresh round of reports.

Hurst says she's going to let Hardy run the meeting, but, as usual, she's got a lot to say. There are 18-wheelers illegally parked on Dumfries where dealers hide their stash. She complains about a complex owner who won't agree to have the trucks towed.

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