By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Such supervision might not have mattered as much 15 years ago, when many houses were still built by trained craftsmen who had risen over a lifetime though the apprentice system. Those days are over. "Now it's like, if I need a framing crew and I'm five guys short, I stop down at the corner and pick up five day laborers and take them," says Donald Lawson, owner of VIP Home Inspections. "We see so much new construction where, if [workers] are a half-inch off on a rafter cut, hey, they just leave it. You see these guys out here working and they've got the two-by-four -- the lumber -- over their knee, and they're just kind of eyeballing it and cutting it."
Lawson discovers building code violations in nearly every house he visits. "The craftsmanship has been going downhill," he says. Well-trained inspectors regularly find overbored wall studs, exposed fasteners in roofs, and windows installed with only a handful of nails. He says he recently detected probable leaks in windows installed in a Perry town house; Perry wanted to do a quick recaulking and forget about it.
Some architects believe the problem is cultural. Perhaps more than any city in the United States, Houston fashions itself as a mecca for inexpensive housing. The region consistently ranks among the most affordable major urban areas in the nation for home buyers. "I think, at least in the present, Houston has really bought into the idea that this is the place where you can get things the cheapest," says Rice University architecture professor Stephen Fox, "and that is promoted as a great virtue of Houston, without understanding the price you pay for cheapness."
Some building inspectors say new houses in Houston are so shoddy that they're dangerous. When Hurricane Alicia swept through Houston in 1983, it brought 125-mile-per-hour winds. "If that storm would have come through now," Black says, "you would have seen probably 25 to 30 percent of the houses that are up right now on the ground."
Black, who describes himself as a staunch conservative, isn't the kind of Perry critic to ramble on about aesthetics in the manner of artsy architecture professor Williams. But his concerns about building quality have led him to even starker conclusions. "I like to believe that, in some of these subdivisions," he says, "we're building tomorrow's slums today."
Of course, not every aspect of a Perry town house is cheap. The wood frames might be thrown up by a guy off the street and the foundations might crack, but the same houses often come with granite countertops and stainless-steel stoves. "I consider it to be ostentation that seeks a perceived social status," Williams says. "In Europe, it's about education and good design. Here, it's gobbledygook extras for instant gratification."
Perry town-house buyers ultimately may pay a steep price for their preferences. Unlike suburban homes, most town houses share walls and foundations with their neighbors, which means owners can't simply tear them down in 30 years and sell the property for the land value.
But home buyers also may be convinced they're purchasing quality houses when they have no way to know what they're getting, Black says. A city ordinance passed in October gave builders the option of using their own inspectors, instead of city inspectors, to certify that houses comply with codes. The realtor touts Perry's "independent" inspectors, yet those inspectors may have a conflict of interest, Black says.
"These inspectors that work for these builders, they are not going to make it rough on the builder," he says, "because the builder won't hire them again. It's their gravy train."
Black is one of the city's few independent building inspectors who doesn't rely on repeat business from builders and realtors. He says his standards have prompted some realtors to ban him from inspecting their houses. "People need to know what they're getting into, and they don't," he says. "They're just lambs for the slaughter."
Better inspections might have saved buyers such as Agnew and Rylander thousands of dollars. But by 1998, Houston's freewheeling housing market already had netted Bob Perry millions. Selling 1,102 houses that season, he became the second-largest home builder in the city -- up from the seventh-largest just two years earlier.
Perry turned 67 the next year. Many people in his position would have retired. Not only did Perry stay at the helm of the company, but he plowed his profits into the political system, bent on rewriting state and local laws to earn himself and his friends in the home-building industry even more money.
To many of Houston's more established residents, 1999 looked like the cusp of the apocalypse. The president of the Houston Homeowners Association preached against "Perry Crap Homes." Freedmen's Town fell. And the historic preservationists foretold a future without history. If ever there was a time when the city needed saving, it was now.
Outrage in the Inner Loop spawned some modest ideas at City Hall about how to keep the developers in check. Neighborhood groups launched a campaign to amend the subdivision ordinance. They wanted caps on density, limits on endless rows of garage doors facing streets and a new rule requiring developers to contribute to a fund to purchase community parks.