By Jeff Balke
By Ben DuBose
By Ben DuBose
By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Calvin TerBeek
By Jeff Balke
By Jeff Balke
He called them "the little houses." They were the shotgun shacks and decomposing Victorians, the flophouses where the panhandlers crashed and the drug dealers weighed rock. Along the crabgrass yards of the Fourth Ward slum, they bred the kind of crime and poverty unheard of in Rich Agnew's Clear Lake subdivision. Yet walking the narrow streets with a realtor, Agnew could hardly see them.
Instead, he saw uniform brick facades reminiscent of new row houses in old London. Sidewalks striated to resemble cobblestones led him past young shrubs planted with cookie-cutter precision. The realtor ushered Agnew through the door of a new model town house, one among hundreds sporting vanity rooms, granite countertops and shiny wood floors.
An uppermost window gave Agnew and his wife a glimpse of the downtown skyline. The middle-aged couple imagined an exciting life of freedom from their commute, lawn mower and energy bills. But they wanted this lifestyle without the chaos of inner Houston's urban hodgepodge; they feared losing the programmed, suburban feel of the Perry Homes neighborhood where they had raised kids.
And that's why Sutton Square, one of Perry's new urban versions of the suburbs, was almost perfect.
"We liked the appearance of the homes that they built," Agnew says. "And we were really sold on the fact that eventually Perry would buy the rest of these little houses and build town homes."
Since the building boom hit inner Houston in the late 1990s, thousands of home buyers have made the same leap of faith. Lured by gentrifying neighborhoods, better nightlife and rising property values, they've moved from distant culs-de-sac into the shadow of downtown, often paying more than $300,000 for skinny slices of wood and brick in new urban villages. Perry Homes is on the leading edge of this trend, advocates say, seeding an urban renaissance one foundation at a time.
The company promises that its homes will be solid, care-free, efficient and economical.
Agnew's new town house was all of those things -- for about a year. In 2002, cracks appeared on the floor of the garage and in the house's bricks and mortar. A pipe in a bedroom wall sprung a leak. Nails poked through tilting drywall, and off-balance doors wouldn't stay open. Thrown up in the span of a few months, Agnew's building was supposed to be warranted from major defects for a decade. But Perry Homes refused to fix most of the problems.
Agnew's real name has been changed; he hopes to sell his house someday, and is afraid his public identification would make that impossible.
Perry Homes agreed through a spokesman to accept a list of written questions for this story but responded a week later that it would not be answering them.
"There's no more trust for Perry Homes, as far as I'm concerned," Agnew says.
Customers aren't the only ones who've lost faith in Perry. Other Inner Loop residents feel equally betrayed. They've escaped the bland suburbs only to see downtown's old oaks felled and bright cottages toppled. They describe a campaign to whitewash the city's anarchic soul. They call it Perry Homogenization.
Few businessmen provoke sharper differences of opinion among Houstonians than Bob Perry. The founder of Perry Homes is the largest private political donor to Republican causes in the nation. Writing checks from his modest home in Nassau Bay, he gives voice to conservative suburbia and inspires nightmares among the left-of-center politicos in the city's urban core.
And he's no less controversial within the camps of his own industry. University of Houston architecture professor Tom Diehl speaks for many in his profession when he describes the 72-year-old former schoolteacher as, simply, "the enemy."
Standing with Diehl in the lounge of the Gerald D. Hines School of Architecture, Celeste Williams giggles. A native of Manhattan who teaches courses on the history of design, she grapples for her own words to describe Perry's town houses. "I can't even call them plain vanilla," she says, "because I love vanilla so much."
Williams climbs into her blue Audi and drives through the Third Ward. The architect has agreed to tour several Perry developments and apply an informal "good neighbor test" -- a measure of how the town houses interact with their surroundings. She comes to a stop at Baldwin Park, where old oaks are hemmed in by a young wall of identical brick facades.
Walking out of the park and into the street, Williams catches simultaneous views of two sides of a new Perry town house. "It looks like two different buildings," she says. The bricks on the front of the house peter out halfway along the side, in favor of siding. Windows are scarce, and their sills don't line up with those fronting the park. It's a classic example of squandering a valuable corner lot: "If you're facing the corner, you have an incredible opportunity to gather both streets to you," she says as a car whizzes by, "and as you can see, that's pretty much lost."
The explanation for the disjointed corner house is simple: Perry has surrounded the park with tract homes. "They're just stamping and then they're just building," Williams says. "It has no site-sensitivity."
Williams climbs back into the Audi and drives past Agnew's house in the Fourth Ward, where her car fits right in. It squeezes past BMWs, which are pulling into prominent garages. But the houses look much the same. And Williams is flummoxed: "If we were standing here and we didn't have the view of downtown, would we really be able to tell that we weren't down a side street down where we just were?"
The distinction once would have been an easy one. The Fourth Ward, or Freedmen's Town, was always one of the city's most unique neighborhoods. Its oldest houses were built by freed slaves using locally fired bricks. Originality defines many other Houston neighborhoods as well, whether it's the Victorian bungalows of the Heights, the fourplexes of Montrose or the experimental ranch homes of Memorial. But Perry is transforming the Inner Loop into a single place.
Squinting at street names through her green-and-purple glasses, Williams cruises through the neighborhood in search of the site of a paved-over pecan grove. She drives in widening circles. "It should be this street," she says, rounding a corner. But it isn't. A self-described visual driver, she's clearly out of landmarks.
Despite the attendant confusion, uniformity isn't solely to blame for the neighborhood's problems. James Howard Kunstler, a frequent lecturer on urban design and the author of the book The Geography of Nowhere, argues that homogenous neighborhoods can be inspiring. He points to the monolithic row houses on London's west side and the mostly undifferentiated avenues of Paris. "The fact of the matter is, nobody is suffering from these houses being identical," he says. "In fact, it's some of the most expensive and desirable real estate in the world, because it's so beautiful.
"The problem with the town houses [in Houston] is not that they're all the same; the issue is that they're the same miserable, low-quality design."
And for that, Kunstler blames the suburbs. The widely spaced lots of the vast urban periphery gave birth during the 1950s to an American pantheon of the ersatz. Fake columns, fake cornices and crackpot pediments looked just good enough, when fleetingly glimpsed from a car booking it to the local strip mall, to seem convincing. And now developers such as Perry are dragging these suburban stage props into the city. Williams slams on the brakes and stares at a wall plastered with three wooden rectangles. "Look at those fake doors!" she says.
Add these insults to a host of others facing pedestrians, and a movie set could seem comparatively livable. Williams leaves her car next to a barren patch of grass -- the neighborhood's only "park" -- and sets off down a narrow sidewalk. She doesn't notice any attractive brickwork or moldings, can see no corner stores or dry cleaners, and encounters no green spaces or monuments. Instead, she's met with the endless, blank stares of street-front garages. Five-foot gates block her from knocking on doors. The residents presumably unlock them to grab bills from a metal agglomeration of mailboxes along the curb. But why else would they?
"If the public realm is not a truly, richly rewarding realm for our spirits," Kunstler says, "then what you will get is the glorification of the private realm. And you will consequently not have any collective neighborhood life."
And that kind of vibrant community is exactly what urban neighborhoods are supposed to offer. It's an alternative to the cloistered life of the suburbs, and few Houston town-house tracts achieve it. Sutton Square is a particularly pathetic failure.
On the way back to her car, Williams passes a man in a puffer coat who is strutting toward one of the Fourth Ward's relic strips of shotgun shacks. She walks faster. But it's the new houses that really scare her. She's afraid nobody will appreciate the community as it ages; nobody will care enough to tend to the cracks.
"When I see a community that's this anonymous," she says, "I'm always spooked that it could go into decline in the future."
On the wraparound porch of a lime-green turn-of-the-century cottage in the West End, Lynn Edmundson listens to nail-gun blasts echo like shots from charging marauders. Nine multistory town houses are rising nearby in the place of three small bungalows. As the director of Historic Houston, a preservation group, Edmundson is the neighborhood's unofficial triage nurse. She examines the cottage's ornate moldings and pristine siding. "There is nothing wrong with this house," she proclaims, turning to glare at the construction across the street. "Except now it's on a property that will be redeveloped like that."
The bulldozers will arrive in a few days, leaving Edmundson little time. Her workers will cut the house in half with a massive buzz saw, load it onto a flatbed trailer and set off on a slow, three-day journey to a farm near Chapel Hill. But without a permit to carry the giant load across a country bridge, the deal could fall through.
Edmundson is used to the stress. Since 1999, she has relocated more than 20 historic homes. And she still can't fathom why Inner Loop residents are eager to see them go. "I think there's a huge value, an unrecognized value, in an older home," she says.
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.
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.
Perry's spokesperson, political consultant Bill Miller, denied a request that Perry respond to questions, and defended the company last month in a short e-mail. "Bob Perry Homes will not be addressing the questions you provided," Miller wrote. "They are a private company who has thousands of satisfied customers."
The realtor also talks about the company's size and experience. She hands out a brochure, which says Perry Homes has supplied homes to more than 20,000 families. Professional Builder Magazine pegged the company's 2004 revenues at $500 million. "They build a very high-quality product," says the realtor. "They do things that other builders don't do, and I'd like to point those out to you as we go along."
The pitch begins with the cabinets, which are built on-site, and moves on to the efficiency of the air conditioner, the importance of the smoke alarms and the niftiness of the programmable thermostat.
Out on the sidewalk, she leads the way past the familiar rows of red-leaf photinia. Gardening is not allowed. "Not outside," she says. "That is the responsibility of the homeowners association. You pay $590 a year."
Workmen are sawing boards inside the last unfinished units across the street. Pickup trucks jut at odd angles across the small rutted yards. The realtor pauses to listen to the screams of circular saws. This is her chance to talk about the guts of the homes -- the unseen workmanship that keeps roofs steady and floors even -- and she pledges complete peace of mind.
Foundations, perennial sources of woe in Houston, are a Perry specialty. Before workers pour them, they test the soil to determine how much it will settle. They later core into the slab to verify that it has hardened to the optimal 30 pounds per square inch. "These are probably some of the best foundations you will ever find," she concludes. "That is one of the things Perry is a stickler about. In fact, if it doesn't meet that core test, they will rip it up and start again."
And buying a Perry home isn't a leap of faith. Perry hires independent inspectors to verify that each town house is built to perfect specifications at every stage of construction, saving home buyers the trouble of doing it on their own. "Usually people don't get their own inspector for new homes," the realtor says. With a Perry home, "most people really don't need to."
Perry is by no means the worst home builder in Houston. In fact, building inspectors interviewed for this story described Perry's construction quality as slightly above average. The company earns four points out of five in J.D. Power and Associates' home-builder ratings. It has built thousands of houses in Harris County, but has been sued here only about 150 times.
Even so, those numbers may not tell the whole story. Perry has used arbitration clauses in his contracts to force aggrieved homeowners to settle out of court. The real number of claims against Perry Homes is hard to estimate, but building inspectors say their experience with the company is uneven.
"With Perry Homes, and all these other big home builders, in some subdivisions they do fine," says Terry Black, owner of the home inspection company Inspection Concepts. "In other subdivisions, they do terrible. It's all about supervision, or the lack" thereof.
Interviews and court records reveal some major scuffles between homeowners and Perry. Paul Laman bought an "Executive Class" Perry town house in Neartown in 1995 and sued Perry over foundation problems three years later. He settled out of court for a confidential sum. "You could take a golf ball and watch it roll throughout his house," says Gerald Johnson, his attorney. "His foundation was pretty bent out of shape."
Debbie Rylander recently bought a new $275,000 Perry house in Waterside Estates in Fort Bend County only to learn nine months later that the home's underbelly was sagging. She spent nearly $50,000 documenting the problems, and engineers told her it would cost at least another $50,000 to fix them. Her neighbor's house has similar problems. She says Perry refuses to make the necessary repairs.
"I could not recommend Perry to my worst enemy," she says.
Other problems with Perry houses are more serious. In 1991, David and Jan Salmons bought a Perry house in Clear Lake and moved in with their baby. They quickly discovered profuse roof leaks. Perry Homes eventually rebuilt the chimney and the leaks stopped, but the moisture caused toxic black mold to form inside the house. Jan developed aseptic meningitis, and the couple feared for the health of their family. They couldn't move, because nobody would buy the property.
"It took a long time to get Perry to acknowledge they had a problem and they had screwed the thing up," says attorney Jerry Gunn, who won a settlement for the family in mediation. "And then they just ignored the rest of the problems in terms of the health of the child."
Inspectors say most problems with tract-home construction result from spotty oversight. Boutique home builders, such as Builders West, usually tell superintendents to police contractors at no more than two projects simultaneously. Bob Hooker, a Builders West superintendent, says another local builder gave him ten times that workload. "With the drive time and just walking in and out of 20 doors," he says, "nobody gives you the time" to do the job.
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.
The Greater Houston Builders Association lobbied hard against the measures, and made it clear why: "They stated, to me at least, that the member that they were responding to was Bob Perry," says a former city councilmember, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "[W]hen the GHBA weighs in on an inside-the-Loop issue, it tends to be because Perry wants it."
The density caps ultimately were raised, and the park fund and garage restrictions failed.
If citizens couldn't have a say in the future of their neighborhoods, maybe they could at least protect the past. The next year, the city's preservationists devised a plan to make it illegal to tear down houses in historic districts. Their proposal would have merely put the same kinds of protections in place that other large cities enacted decades ago. It wasn't controversial -- until Perry got involved.
As the preservation ordinance navigated public hearings, Robert Miller, Perry's longtime lobbyist, went searching for allies to help him kill the bill. And he found God. Upon Miller's urging, the former city councilmember says, Joseph Fiorenza, bishop of the Diocese of Galveston-Houston, wrote councilmembers to say he opposed the preservation ordinance because it could hamper the Catholic Church's ability to replace old buildings. A succession of freaked-out community groups paraded their fears; county officials even worried publicly that they might not be able to tear down the Astrodome. "I called it carpet bombing," the former councilmember says. "Every time we turned around, Robert would have stirred up another big political club-wielding group, and the whole thing collapsed."
But Perry's ambitions went well beyond City Hall. He had expanded his business into Austin, San Antonio and the Metroplex. And he didn't like what he saw in those cities. In 2001, a private arbitration firm found that he evaded fixing foundation problems on a house near Dallas, and commanded him to pay the owners, Robert and Jane Cull, more than $800,000, including $200,000 in compensation for "malicious conduct." Shortly after getting slapped by the ruling, Perry decided arbitration clauses weren't so great, and he stopped using them, consumer advocates say. Changing gears, he launched a campaign to rewire state government.
Perry and his fellow home builders -- most of them self-avowed small-government Republicans -- decided that the solution to their problems was more bureaucracy. John Krugh, Perry Homes's vice president and corporate counsel, served on a task force that helped the Texas Association of Builders design suggestions for sweeping new legislation. The resulting bill proposed creating a new government agency known as the Residential Construction Commission. The commission would set construction standards and help resolve disputes between builders and home buyers. "When I first read it," says John Cobarruvias, director of the Houston-based Homeowners Against Deficient Dwellings, "all I could think was 'What a total, complete disaster.' "
Almost all of the backers of the bill received gobs of construction-industry money. Perry wrote checks totaling more than $50,000 to six of the bill's eight sponsors and authors. He also donated $265,000 to Texans for Lawsuit Reform, which supported the bill. And he spent more than $100,000 on Austin lobbyists. Perry and Richard Weekley, founder of the tort-reform group and part owner of his brother's David Weekley Homes, watched the debates on the bill from the House's third-floor gallery, which towers behind Representative Tom Craddick's speaker's podium. The seats came to be known in Austin as the Owners' Box.
Not surprising, the bill offered almost no provisions to empower consumers. Before a home buyer could make his builder fix problems in a house, he would be forced to hire a state inspector, who would examine the alleged problem and make a recommendation. The builder or buyer would be able to appeal the recommendation to a three-inspector panel. The process could cost the homeowner up to $650 and take up to four months to complete. Even then, the builder still could refuse to make the repairs, forcing the buyer to sue.
"The consumers were never consulted on this bill," Cobarruvias says. "Not one single time did they ask us, 'What do you think?' It was only later in the process that we were able to give comments, and they didn't care about them at that point anyway."
The bill passed, with scarcely any media attention, on a quiet night in June 2003.
The bonanza for Texas home builders had only just begun. Perry and his wife had donated $375,000 to Governor Rick Perry (no relation) by the end of that summer -- more than any other private donor -- and the governor grandly returned the favor. In September, he appointed Krugh, the Perry VP, to sit on the new nine-person Residential Construction Commission. The commission contained four home builders and not a single consumer advocate.
TRCC spokesperson Patrick Fortner says consumers can expect a fair shake from the commission. Of the small number of claims processed by the agency so far, most resolutions have favored the consumer. And if builders lose, they have to reimburse home buyers for the inspection fees. "We are finding that a lot of the builders are just going out and resolving the problem," he says, "because they know if they don't they're going to have to pay that fee."
Even so, Cobarruvias is unimpressed. "Trusting the home-building industry to advocate for the homeowner is like trusting a terrorist to advocate for homeland security," he says. "Their interest is not for the homeowner or the consumer. It's to protect their industry. And they're doing a very good job of it."
For example, the commission plans to set up rules for how private arbitrators resolve housing disputes. Ware Wendell, policy director for Texas Watch, was appointed to the task force five months after it had begun meeting. He's the only member from a consumer rights group. "Forced arbitration used to be the single worst thing about trying to hold a bad home builder accountable," he says. "Now, with the administrative maze you have to run at the TRCC, it's a question as to how many homeowners will actually have the time, patience and resources to persevere on to the arbitration stage, which hasn't gotten any easier."
The commission and the law that created it have destroyed the credibility of Texas home builders, critics say. And for that, they heap much of the blame on home builder Perry. "When he has a defect, he should have enough integrity to stand up and fix it," Cobarruvias says. "And the reason we have this commission is he hasn't done it. He would rather stand behind his attorneys than stand behind his homes."
On a cloudy Saturday afternoon, Agnew stares in disgust at a two- by ten-foot sliver of grass in front of his town house. Perry's home-warranty company commanded him to water this peewee lawn, arguing that the moisture would keep his cement foundation from cracking. But a Perry engineer later said that the water would make cracks bigger.
Agnew heard mixed messages from Perry Homes from the start. He walked inside the house shortly after agreeing to buy it and found the living room chandelier smashed on the floor. A superintendent denied knowing about the damage, Agnew says, until he pressed him into admitting a cleaning crew had left a faucet running in a bathroom, drenching the third floor and turning the ceilings to putty. Agnew moved into the house anyway, trusting that Perry had fixed the problem.
Over the next few months, Perry sent workers to make a string of repairs. They covered nails that were poking through drywall and fixed a leaky pipe connection in a wall. But Agnew says Perry did only a surface job. Two doors in the house now swing closed on their own, making him wonder if his town house is like a callow Tower of Pisa.
Outside, he points to a fissure on his driveway, which began as a schism the width of a credit card and gradually migrated up the drive and into the floor of his garage. Perry injected epoxy into the crack, but that hasn't kept it from growing. "It gets bigger and bigger every day," he says.
Agnew is not a picky homeowner. He complains reticently and a bit timidly. But he lives with his elderly mother-in-law, who can't climb the steep stairs and needs to move into a one-story house where she can walk around. He says two potential buyers who saw the cracked garage floor weren't interested.
"All I want is Bob Perry to fix it," he says.
If only patching the cracks in Perry's neighborhoods were as easy. Indeed, fixing Sutton Square means different things to different people. Agnew and many of his neighbors want to see the last of the little houses replaced with town homes. Yet other local residents want to save what they can of the old neighborhood.
On a recent weekday, an old man pushes a shopping cart through the neighborhood. It's filled not with groceries but with old clothes and wicker baskets. A town-house resident calls out to him: "Are you stealing this stuff?"
No, he says. "They were taking it away."