By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
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By Sean Pendergast
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By Jeff Balke
By Ben DuBose
Heather Mickelson leaves work on a Monday afternoon and drives home to her ritzy condominium in Tremont Tower, the new six-story monolith of steel and neon-red stucco on Westheimer. She owns a unit there. But not the building's security guard.
Mickelson, 27, catches his attention at the door to the lobby.
"Hi, I need to get in," she chirps matter-of-factly.
"You're not allowed access," the guard scolds, blocking the door and shaking his head. "I told you that last time."
"I just need to get something from my unit," she says.
"I still own the property," she reminds him, smiling at how ridiculous this is.
"Well, I'm sorry," the guard says. He explains, as he has before, that the "association" has instructed him to ban her from the lobby, the stairs and the elevators. "That's the rules they told me," he says. "You're not allowed."
Every week for nearly a month, Mickelson and the guard have had the same face-off: The blond executive assistant walks up to the door of her building and asks to get in. She hasn't committed crimes or thrown wild parties. She's up to date on her homeowners association fees and doesn't even own a pet. Other people just like her live in the same upper floor of the same building. They come and go as they please. And yet, like a persecuted character from a Kafka novel, she's mysteriously turned away.
"Is there any way I can just check my mail?"
"Heather, you are not allowed on the property," the guard snaps. "I'm going to call the cops."
Effectively homeless, Mickelson has nothing left to lose.
"Call the cops," she says.
Hundreds of condo units pop up in tall buildings and exclusive Houston zip codes every year. Their owners are well-educated transplants -- people with good jobs, good credit and good upward mobility. People just like Mickelson.
Mickelson worked after college for a travel firm organizing corporate parties on-site in London and Paris. She relocated to Houston in 2003 for the cheap real estate. A few months after landing a well-paying sales job at Hilti Tools, she was driving down Westheimer and noticed the incomplete shell of a new condo tower. She was hoisted up on a construction elevator and glimpsed an elegant panorama. A few months later, she signed a contract for a $224,000 fourth-floor unit and moved in. She hired an interior designer, who painted a wall green and yellow -- a prophetic color scheme.
Yellow lemons with green plastic leaves, it turned out, were a favorite prop of Jordan Fogal, a.k.a. the Lemon Lady. She appeared outside the condo almost daily wearing Chanel sunglasses and waving a placard that said, "Tremont sold me a lemon." Her town house in a nearby subdivision was leaky, visibly sagging and full of mold. The builder, Jorge Casimiro, is the managing partner of Tremont Tower L.P. -- the condo building's developer -- and serves as president of its homeowners association. (Casimiro also was appointed by Harris County Judge Robert Eckels last year to the Harris County Housing Authority.)
Mickelson trusted Casimiro and thought Fogal was a crackpot. "She was really not my favorite person at the time," she says. The condo owners assumed the Lemon Lady, a middle-aged Republican, would sue Casimiro and win a bundle. And in the meantime, she was unfairly lowering their property values.
But Mickelson's apartment was depreciating on its own. She noticed a large crack in her granite countertop. Workers delivering a refrigerator scratched her wood floors. Men belatedly dispatched to seal her weathering patio arrived only to be shocked by nearby power cables and hospitalized. They left the wet sealant glopped with footprints and scraps of scalded T-shirt, which the managers wouldn't remove. Worst of all, the smell inside the condo was increasingly musty. Mickelson got headaches and nosebleeds and began sleeping some days for 18 hours straight. An inspector hired by the condo's builder, Turner Construction, visited the apartment, drilled a hole in the wall and decided there was no mold. Even so, Mickelson's doctor advised her to move out.
The day she carted off a load of her possessions to a hotel, Mickelson finally stopped and listened to Fogal, who was waving placards and lemons as usual. Fogal said Mickelson's symptoms sounded a lot like her own. And that's when it hit the young condo dweller: Maybe the Lemon Lady had a point. "I felt guilty almost for thinking the opposite before," Mickelson says. "But I probably would not have believed her until it happened to me."
Fogal explained what Mickelson was up against. Even though documents showed Casimiro's Tremont Tower L.P. was supposed to warrant the condo for a year, he was unlikely to fix anything, she warned. And because of a clause in her contract, her only recourse against him and the builders of the condo was through the commonly used American Association of Arbitration, which the Better Business Bureau and other consumer groups describe as being biased against homeowners. Put simply, Mickelson was screwed.
She fought back with her only loaded weapon: a yellow Magic Marker. Mickelson adorned the window of her condo with drawings of lemons. And that's when the relationship between Tremont Tower and the Lemon Ladies really went sour.