Lofty Aspersions

The eviction notice arrived on a Tuesday, crisp and white and bearing the signature of Randall Davis.

The developer had had enough of tenant Jay Seegers, and told him so in the most obvious way possible -- by ordering Seegers out of the roomy, New York-style apartment he had rented at Davis' Dakota Lofts for three years.

Seegers' crime, it seems, was one of insolence. Disgusted with the leisurely pace of maintenance at the pricey downtown warehouse-turned-apartment complex, he had paid a visit to management offices one Thursday to complain about a planned $50-per-month rent increase.

There, according to Davis' version of events, things got ugly. Seegers shouted at operations manager Ginger Byrd in such a threatening manner that she felt compelled to call 911, Davis says.

Other reports indicate the only one doing any shouting was Byrd, and that the encounter was amicable until the manager lost her temper -- a development that tenants claim occurs frequently. Whatever the case, police left after determining that the peace had not been breached, and Seegers went back to his apartment. Later that evening, he quietly signed a new lease accepting the rent increase, and forgot about the incident until the following Tuesday, when the eviction notice arrived.

Seegers has since come to an agreement with Davis that will allow him to remain in his loft.

"The matter has been resolved to my satisfaction," he says grimly.
But the incident, which Seegers refused to discuss, has taken on a life of its own, serving as a rallying point for a group of Dakota tenants who now are in open revolt over what they claim is a lack of responsiveness, and in some cases outright abuse, by Davis' management.

"That's when we got a group of people together and said, 'This bullshit has got to stop,' " explains Anne Marie Leahey, leader of the newly formed Dakota Lofts Tenants Association. Leahey, an administrator for a local securities brokerage, says tenants are disgusted at paying anywhere from $675 to $1,475 per month -- about a dollar per square foot -- for nonexistent service.

"You have to understand, this is not a cheap place to live," says Leahey. "And what are we paying for? It's not the great view -- I have this lovely view of a dumpster. It's not the neighborhood -- you can see the HPD motor pool that's in back of the building. We pay for service. But this superior service Ginger [Byrd] says we get -- it just doesn't exist."

"Service, in the three years I've been here, is far below what I'd call quality," adds Gil Perales, another Dakota tenant.

At least 22 residents of the 53-unit complex have joined the tenants association, formed solely to combat what they say are pervasive health and safety problems at the Dakota. The association, which held its first meeting on May 19, basically wants Davis to live up to his press.

Indeed, the developer has been hailed as a visionary in some quarters for spearheading the revival of residential life in and around downtown. So far, Davis has renovated three older buildings into loft-style apartments -- the Dakota, his first project, at the site of the old Bute Paint Factory at 713 William; the Tribeca Lofts on the south end of downtown near Montrose; and the Hogg Palace at Louisiana and Preston. Last week, he announced he had received commitments to partially finance his most ambitious project to date: the multimillion-dollar purchase of the dilapidated Rice Hotel downtown, an architectural landmark he hopes to turn into even more loft units.

But the disaffected tenants at the Dakota say Davis should take care of what he has. A petition signed by association members requests action on a laundry list of problems they say are endemic, including a lack of fire extinguishers in the hallways, stairwells that are blocked with trash, security codes for entry that haven't been changed in three years and an open sewer line in the basement parking garage.

A recent tour of the lofts revealed obvious contrasts between the lobby, with its cutting-edge art and industrial-chic ambiance, and the non-public areas of the building. In the basement, the jagged edge of an old sewer pipe was sealed by nothing more substantial than a wad of cleaning rags. Near the telephone junction box, a bright red sign pointed to a nonexistent fire extinguisher. Sprinkler system lines, hidden under layers of pipe insulation, were encrusted with corrosion and rust. A first-floor fire escape door, intended to be part of a vacuum-sealed stairwell, would not stay closed. A side door leading from an outer patio into the first floor couldn't be locked shut.

"When we tried to be nice, nothing got done," says Leahey. "Every time I would stand up and say something, they'd offer to let me out of my lease. My response to them is, I don't want to leave, I just want to get these things fixed."  

But Davis maintains there are no maintenance problems at the Dakota, and he dismisses the tenants association as representing no more than a handful of malcontents.

"Their complaints are bullshit," he says. "If there's a problem, the fire marshal can tell me about it."

And tenants who aren't happy can move, Davis adds, because "the management style will not change." And it's not like Davis has to be worried. The lofts hover near 100 percent occupancy, and tenants who leave can be quickly replaced, he notes.

In publicly challenging Davis, Leahey has taken the lead in an area few other tenants dare to go. Many Dakota residents contacted for this article refused to allow their names to be published, fearing they would be asked to leave their apartments. Leahey is convinced that, because she has gone public with her concerns, she will not be given the opportunity to sign another lease when her current lease expires.

Davis confirms that the leases of the complainers will not be renewed. However, a new state law that went into effect January 1 forbids a landlord from evicting a tenant for, among other things, giving a landlord a "notice to repair." The law also forbids a landlord from evicting a tenant solely for complaining about conditions at the property. When asked how this law applies to his tenants, Davis at first went silent, then claimed he wasn't familiar with the legislation.

"Their attitude is, do it our way or leave," Leahey says.
Davis, meanwhile, claims to be unconcerned by the brewing revolt.
"If you print this, it's going to do me no harm," he says tersely. "I have 20 years in this business. I have nothing to say to the Houston Press if the Press thinks this is a story."

In addition to renovating the Rice Hotel, Davis has announced plans to build Metropolis, a loft-style condominium project near River Oaks. He hopes to persuade several of his current tenants to pony up an average of $200,000 each for a unit there. But Davis seems to have alienated at least part of the natural market for Metropolis. Though he has wooed tenants in his current buildings with a series of parties designed to sell them condos, some Dakota tenants are saying thanks, but no thanks.

"Most of the people who live here can afford to buy a home," says Leahey. "But knowing what I know, there's no way."

"If this place had only been run properly.... " sighs Dakota tenant Stephen Stovall.

"He cut every single corner he could cut in the construction of this thing," says Stovall. "Knowing his attitude, I would not buy [at Metropolis]. I'd like to find a comparable place that was managed properly and move there. I applaud his vision, but not his technique."

In the two years Stovall has lived in the Dakota, he has coped with a variety of vexations -- mostly of the crawling kind.

"For about the first year, I had fleas [in the loft]," he says. It took a year and several visits from the exterminator to get rid of the infestation -- but Stovall's problem didn't end there. Now, he says, the antique cypress-wood beams that generate part of the appeal of the lofts are slowly being devoured by an army of termites.

"At one time, I kept their spoor in an old drinking glass," he says. "I was going to take it in and pour it on their [management's] desks." Exterminators hired by Davis' company have told Stovall that the only way to remove the termites is to remove and replace the beam itself. On June 14, a pest control worker told Stovall the termites had eaten away so much of the beam it was in danger of falling.

"They've told me before that there are termites, but this is the first time they've looked scared," Stovall says.

Stovall claims he has informed Dakota management about the suspicions of the company-paid exterminators several times, but Davis denies he knew of the problem.

"He's lying," says Davis flatly. "He never called the office."
Stovall disagrees. "I reported the problem three times previously," he says, "but then I just gave up. If [the beam] falls and doesn't kill me, I'll own the building."

Residents are hopeful that a spate of recent improvements to the public areas of the Dakota, including painting the brick skirt around the parking area and waxing the lobby floors, will lead to more substantive improvements elsewhere. But others believe the areas not seen by the general public will probably not get much better.  

"This is the same cosmetic stuff they do every year," says one tenant, "but after the leases get signed, it's back to total disrepair."

Sighs another tenant, "It's like painting the toenails on a foot with gangrene.

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