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"Religion is stronger than anything else" here, he says. He's tried to raise money to fix the exterior. He often asks residents to fix their individual units, but they refuse. "My job is just to upgrade and make the sale, but some people, they don't got no money," Phem says. "Some people, they old, they don't have a job, they don't have money. They can't fix it."
But Phem says he does his best to maintain the complex anyway. Residents pay a $117 monthly condo fee, and there is 24-hour security, he says. Phem didn't have a chance to defend Thai Xuan Village before city officials at last month's meeting. No one informed him about the gathering, he says. He looked surprised to learn about his neighbors' complaints. He never hears from the people of Glenbrook Valley.
Neighbors say they have been fed up for years. According to several members of the Glenbrook Valley Civic Club, Thai Xuan Village is like a mini Vietnamese nation state smack-dab in the middle of Houston. Residents live by their own laws, and no one intervenes.
"It was in bad condition two years ago; it was in bad condition ten years ago. And every mayor has just passed it along and not done anything about it," says Shannon McNair, a civic club board member.
The quiet, winding streets behind Broadway are lined with mid-century modern houses and neatly trimmed lawns. Residents here believe they're paying the price for Thai Xuan's dereliction.
"It's killing us on property values to have that junk right there," says Robert Searcy, a local real estate broker and civic club board member.
McNair says Thai Xuan Village erupts in fireworks for the Asian New Year every February. Smoke blankets Broadway and cars have to turn on their brights just to see through the smog. She wonders why the city doesn't get serious about enforcing fire codes: Last summer, there was a fire just up the road at another Vietnamese-owned complex. Three children died, according to Houston Police Department spokesman Sgt. Nate McDuell.
In 2000, a fire marshal visited Thai Xuan Village to administer a full inspection, according to Houston Fire Department records. There were several problems, including issues with access roads, exit signs and fire doors. Every violation was corrected in less than two months. Since then, there have been no major inspections. Fire marshals ticketed two people for fireworks around the Asian New Year last month.
The Neighborhood Protection Corps, a division of HPD, is supposed to fine for "dilapidated, decayed, unsafe, unsanitary or substandard conditions" and "walls that lean or buckle," according to its Web page.
Thai Xuan Village has had no violations since November 2003, says spokeswoman Jodi Silva. Assistant Chief Brian Lumpkin, who leads Neighborhood Protection Corps, says his division is mostly concerned with abandoned buildings and cars, high weeds and graffiti, although it does identify structural problems. In his two years at Neighborhood Protection, Lumpkin says he never encountered a scenario quite like Thai Xuan Village's: The place has no narcotics or prostitution problems, and everyone's paying their taxes -- and yet, the neighbors are upset. In short, he's seen much worse.
"There's definitely no real [thought] that 'Hey, we're going to go after this -- this is the most important thing to our city right now.' It's not. It's one of those more complicated problems that didn't happen overnight," he says.
Already, the Vietnamese community has begun to offer support to Thai Xuan Village. On March 19, an anonymous donor wrote a $5,000 check to the complex, says lawyer Tran. Every day last week, an announcement about the complex aired on Saigon Radio Houston, KREH 900 AM. Three times a day, listeners heard about the volunteer event scheduled for last Saturday, according to a Saigon representative.
But Vo thinks the community can't tackle this project; it's far too big. Vo, who owns several apartment complexes, says he walked the perimeter of Thai Xuan Village when he was there mid-March.
"I believe the structure could be okay, maybe some railings need to be fixed," he says. "But the face-lift of the property needs to be done." After a quick examination, he said the project would cost well over $100,000.
On Monday, community leaders, city officials, three Thai Xuan residents and lawyer Tran sat down to discuss the complex with the mayor. The residents agreed to meet with officials from the fire department to discuss fire safety and fire drills, according to Mayor White. Thai Xuan Village will also hire a private inspector to work with city housing officials to further examine the roof and structural, electrical and mechanical systems.
"I think it will work out," says Tran. "We just need to make sure that everyone in the neighborhood understands each other."
This past Saturday, several hundred people, residents included, went to work, repainting the complex's front gate and lines in the parking lot, and using water pressure cleaners on surfaces around the complex, says Tran. The elderly residents -- the former Vietnamese soldiers -- need to feel the community's presence, she says.
A more thorough evaluation of Thai Xuan Village should be done in six weeks, according to the mayor. If major reconstruction is required, there needs to be a financing plan, with contributions from private investors and residents. Public funding may not even be necessary, the mayor says.
Once all these things are done, the mayor says, Councilwoman Alvarado -- has she changed her mind? -- said she would organize a meeting between adjacent civic clubs and the complex's leaders.
And one, surely, big relief: Demolition was off the table, the mayor said.