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By Sean Pendergast
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When visitors leave Hobby Airport, they enter a neighborhood of nondescript apartment buildings and strip malls with cash loan stores. Like most gateway corridors, this area is neither the best nor the worst spot in the city. But Houston officials think the place needs a makeover and they're offering as much as $25,000 per unit to upgrade apartment complexes using federal and city funding.
Great deal, right? One minor problem: The most dilapidated complex around has no apartments, just condominium units. It doesn't qualify for assistance.
According to residents in nearby Glenbrook Valley, the condominium known as Thai Xuan Village has been falling apart for years. They say the place is a firetrap with numerous building code violations.
Last month, these neighbors took their complaints to Mayor Bill White and several other city officials at a large community meeting. As it turned out, they weren't telling the mayor anything he didn't already know. White believes Thai Xuan Village is in "unacceptable" shape. Several of his top building experts have visited and, according to initial reports, the units have major structural problems that seem to be beyond repair, he says. The mayor has known about bad conditions at Thai Xuan Village for years. He just didn't know what to do about them.
"It's one of the most difficult problems that Houston faces," he said in an interview with the Houston Press. That's because Thai Xuan Village isn't your average condominium complex. The 1,400 residents are nearly all Vietnamese, and they've formed a tight-knit, law-abiding community. Over the years, residents have added religious structures and a specialty Vietnamese convenience store up front. But general upkeep, apparently, has never been a priority.
White doesn't want to condemn Thai Xuan Village and disperse the people. But at least one city official believes the complex needs to be torn down.
"I want to find a way to legally demolish those [buildings], and move people out quickly," said Councilwoman Carol Alvarado, whose district includes Thai Xuan Village. Alvarado said her office had received general complaints about the complex's appearance. But until the recent meeting, she said, she didn't realize the extent of the problems.
Demolition was just one idea floating around this past month. The mayor called on representatives from the Vietnamese community, city officials, social organizations and others to discuss possible solutions this past Monday.
Residents heard rumblings about the mayor's concerns a few weeks ago. The mayor contacted State Rep. Hubert Vo to serve as the liaison between his office and Thai Xuan Village. On March 17, Vo and the complex's lawyer, Tammy Tran, met with residents from Thai Xuan Village and other nearby Vietnamese complexes. "We rush in because we vow to make the elderly feel that they have us. They are not alone. They are not to be easily intimidated," says Tran.
Immediately after the meeting, Tran began organizing volunteers to plant flowers, repaint and begin gradual improvements at the complex. The first gathering was last Saturday; there will be more in the coming months. That's "Phase I," says Tran. Later on, they'll address the larger problems with the complex.
Tran was floored by the mere possibility of demolition. The Vietnamese community takes care of its own, she says. They'll work with the mayor and fix the problems.
Perhaps you've seen Thai Xuan Village. Any driver taking Broadway Street from Hobby Airport can't miss it. Look for a building with rickety balconies and mismatched shingles. One side of the roof sags.
For two years now, resident Hung Phem has served as Thai Xuan's leader, assisting with building safety and generally serving the community. He bought his home here in 1993. Now Phem has three kids and his wife owns a nail salon. He considered moving to Friendswood, except his parents won't budge. Others have left, only to return -- they say it's really boring "out there."
"They look around and it's just, wall, wall, wall, wall," say Phem. "They turn on the TV, they don't know what they saw."
The Houston Press has already chronicled the history of Thai Xuan Village. ["A Tale of Two Cities," by Josh Harkinson, December 15, 2005]. In 1993, a company called Paragon Trading sold former apartment units to residents without replatting the buildings as condos or transferring the deeds, according to the article. Several years later, the company went bankrupt. Residents wound up in court and eventually won the deed to their complex.
Today, many central spaces are in rundown condition: There are gaping holes in stairwells and corridors, and a hall window has no glass. But peek into a few units, and there's clean, fresh tile.
Chat Truong, a former colonel in the South Vietnamese army, has lived here for 12 years. In that time, he has added new tiles, fixed up the veranda and painted his home. Truong said Phem was an attentive manager, and he pointed out a recently fixed balcony. But others were less satisfied with the buildings' appearance.
"The insides are nicer; we fix everything. No one takes care of the outside," says resident Huong Nguyen.
There are a few obvious exceptions to that statement. On the south side of the complex, there's a new courtyard with a statue of the Virgin Mary standing below a sign that says "God Is Love" in Vietnamese. Only 30 percent of the residents are Catholic, says Phem. With a few outside donations, they raised $60,000 for this new facility.