The Dead Zone

Houston buries its Inner Loop past under bright new shiny Perry Homes town houses

Fifty years ago, this neighborhood just east of Memorial Park supported a thriving street life. People ate dinner, drank cocktails and chatted with their neighbors on porches fronting green lawns. Yet the residents here gradually became poorer. In 1968, during the height of white flight from the inner city, Perry Homes was founded. It offered the fleeing urbanites affordable, spacious suburban houses filled with modern amenities such as dishwashers and central air-conditioning.

And thanks to cheap land and permissive building standards, the suburban dream of an acre, a dog and an oversize living room soon was open to almost everybody. Many black and Hispanic buyers began moving in the 1980s into formerly outlying neighborhoods such as north Spring Branch, while whites migrated even farther out. The neglected West End and other inner-city neighborhoods became full-blown ghettos.

Yet suburbia also began showing cracks and tatters. Perry and other developers built hundreds of houses in the early 1980s next to the former location of Brio Refining, a petrochemical-laced Superfund site near Ellington Field. The residents sued over health concerns and won more than $200 million from an insurance consortium. Hurricane Chantall hit the Texas coast in 1989 and wreaked havoc on poorly installed storm windows in 400 Ryland Homes (see "Closing Costs," by Brad Tyer, October 29, 1998). And leaky synthetic stucco used in the late 1990s by Life Forms Homes in The Woodlands caused pervasive mold problems in numerous houses.

A sinking foundation has left Debbie Rylander's Perry 
Home riddled with cracks.
Photos by Daniel Kramer
A sinking foundation has left Debbie Rylander's Perry Home riddled with cracks.
A sinking foundation has left Debbie Rylander's Perry 
Home riddled with cracks.
Photos by Daniel Kramer
A sinking foundation has left Debbie Rylander's Perry Home riddled with cracks.

Eventually some suburbanites began eyeing the neglected Victorians, which were in miraculously good shape.

Edmundson opens the cottage's heavy front door, walks past a glass window carved into the form of a dragon and steps inside. The ceilings tower over 11 feet and the wood floors exude a deep reddish glow. The frame has been built with oversize hardwood studs. She walks back outside and points to the cypress siding. Dense, termite-resistant and nearly impervious to rot, swamp cypress was once standard-issue for home exteriors in Houston; now most of the trees are gone. "This house is built with such far better materials than you can get today," she says.

Older homes also were built with an acute sense of Houston's limitations. The cottage's front yard sucks up rainwater, but water falling on the town houses across the street has nowhere to trickle but onto Washington Avenue. Flooding is an increasing problem on the street, and in much of Houston. Thanks to dense town-house redevelopment in Freedmen's Town, archeological sites next to the historic Yates Museum flood whenever it rains, says the museum's director. Weather experts are calling for action before it's too late. "If we're going to have high density, we need to look at the relationship between the high-density living and the rainfall we have," says Joseph Goldman. He is a meteorologist and the founder of the Houston-based Center for Storm Research. The only way he can see that happening is "to have more parks, more places where we are exposing the soil."

Or people could just give up on town houses and spend their money fitting 19th-century bungalows with DSL and central air. Edmundson says renovation can yield one of the best housing deals in the city. The cost to fully update a Victorian is roughly $50 per square foot. Factoring out lot value, the same square footage in a three-story Perry town house in Memorial Heights sells for more than twice as much.

Yet Edmundson admits older houses come with hassles. They usually cost more to heat and cool; old roofs may need patching; and lead paint on the walls can poison small children if it's not capped or removed. Town houses also open doors to a more "urban" lifestyle. Zero-line lots don't require a green thumb. Third-story windows offer stunning views. And an elevated remove from the street provides a sense of security to new inner-city residents worried about crime.

But why do Houstonians choose Perry? The company has plastered the city with billboards, yard signs and "open house" banners. Perry's ubiquity undeniably has created a mystique. Part of that image seems to suggest that, if so many people are buying Perry houses, they've got to be high-quality.

A typical Perry town-house tour goes like this: An "open house" sign directs cars off a busy street and into a Perry subdivision, where the realtor greets walk-in guests just inside the door of a new model home. She grabs a glossy folder from her office -- a carpeted garage -- and leads the way up silent stairs, through an airy living room and into a spotless kitchen.

Built a short distance from downtown, the house looks well constructed, if a bit sterile. A plate on the counter offers a stack of fake croissants, and the oak floors are so glossy they seem plastic. Yet the edges of most moldings intersect, the drywall behaves, and the doors close snugly. The town house probably will go for nearly $300,000.

The saleswoman asks: "How much do you know about Perry?"

Born during the Great Depression in a one-room shack in rural Bosque County, Perry owned a pet pig. His friends called him Bobby, and his father, a school principal, eventually rose through the ranks of Baylor University to become vice president of student affairs. The younger Perry taught school for a few years and is said to have joined the military before founding Perry Homes. Other home builders say he runs the business like a unit of the Pentagon.

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