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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.
"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.