By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Southwest Gardens is a ghost town of some 90 units that exist as a reminder of how bad things can get in Fondren Southwest. Located about 100 yards from a church playground, the complex was a Galleria of drugs and prostitution, according to city officials and local residents.
A mountain of debris from the fire rises out of the parking lot and is visible from West Airport Road. Dumpsters overflow onto the cracked, pitted driveway. Gaping holes pockmark the buildings.
Many units are empty and boarded up, but some contain possessions left behind in haste or out of neglect. Rain-soaked hymnals are neatly stacked on a staircase outside one unit. A scooter and a baby carriage lay on their sides beside abandoned microwaves and washing machines. A few cars are left in the parking lots, windows smashed and tires flattened. Stray cats weave in and out of the rubble, but they're not the only signs of life.
Trespassers gain easy access through broken windows and unlocked doors. In one second-floor unit, a bag of Ramen noodles, clothes stuffed into a tied-up bedsheet and pillows on a stained mattress are signs of a squatter. A bullet rests on the living room counter.
Southwest Gardens is what the city's Forfeiture Abatement Support Team calls a "nuisance property."
Operating out of the HPD's narcotics division, FAST uses the state's civil practice and remedies code to scare neglectful owners into compliance. Representatives of the city's narcotics squad, neighborhood protection division, fire marshal's office and city attorney's office target properties with habitual problems -- drugs, gangs, gambling, prostitution and firearm violations.
FAST member and Assistant City Attorney Savita Rai says the team has closed 26 complexes citywide and is targeting eight in Fondren Southwest. FAST has 1,000 investigations continuing citywide.
The law gives FAST the muscle to close noncomplying properties for a year and to make an owner pay associated legal costs. Owners may also post a bond to guarantee they'll prohibit onsite crime for that year, or risk jail time and a fine if they don't. Rai says that owners voluntarily comply 80 percent of the time.
But these investigations move slowly. When FAST first looked at Southwest Gardens around two years ago, the property was already notorious for drugs. "It was basically a narcotics Stop 'N Go," Rai says.
Assessing fault for the problems can be difficult, due in part to the complicated ownership arrangements. Southwest Gardens' condos had many buyers, often lured in by the potential for profits from units priced between $5,000 and $11,000. The complex was overseen by an owners' council that contracted with a management company to run the complex. Or at least that's how it was supposed to be.
In 1998, ex-Houston cop Wanda Seals became council vice president and the council contracted with Juande Iyamu to manage the property. Iyamu also sat on the board of directors. Seals owned about 30 units and Iyamu, a former council president, was the first lienholder on many others. Charles Daughtry, an attorney for later council members, says Iyamu was Seals's boyfriend.
Rai says FAST focused on Southwest Gardens two years later, when Seals became council president. She tells of contacting Seals to suggest ways to combat the drug infestation, but Seals never took action and the problems worsened. She says she couldn't locate Seals for another meeting, and Iyamu was "always coincidentally out of the country."
Around January of 2001, then-Houston parole officer Cecil Osakwe became the council president and hired Austin Property Management. Rai says she had no success with the new council either.
Then came the June 2002 fire. By the end of July, the fire marshal declared the complex a fire hazard and ordered the problems fixed by August 8. Tenants had been living without water service for two or three months and had jumped electricity from adjacent properties to their units, creating a jungle of live, exposed wires, Rai says.
The August deadline passed and the city kicked out the tenants, with the city and charities helping to locate temporary shelter for them.
Meanwhile, Seals and Iyamu sued Osakwe and the council for "making them slum landlords," according to their attorney, Helen Mayfield. That suit alleges breach of contract, negligence and deceptive trade practices.
Mayfield says the city harassed Seals without reason and that Seals spent $51,000 in her and her kids' savings on maintenance fees that the council misappropriated.
As Mayfield puts it, "The place went to shitsville" under the new council. She also says the city harassed Seals because she's black, but she has no explanation for why she says the city never harassed Osakwe, who's also black.
Seals says she did everything in her power to comply with the city. She says her onsite manager was vigilant, but neither she nor Mayfield mentioned in interviews that the manager was Iyamu.
The new council's attorney, Daughtry, says Iyamu left Osakwe and his manager no money to clean up the decrepit property. The council's insurance company paid it $220,000 for damages from a 2000 fire, but funds were diverted from repair budgets, Daughtry says.
A trial is set for December to sort out the allegations. But it is obvious that mismanagement on someone's part created a haven for criminals, forced about 100 people out of their homes and left Fondren Southwest with a rotting clump of buildings.