Spaced City

Living Without Hot Water in the Fourth-Largest City in America

The large pot on the stove in Verna Billberry’s kitchen has become more like an appliance necessary for basic living rather than cooking.

Around dinnertime, when her husband calls on his way home from work and says he would like to take a bath, she fills the pot with water and waits for it to boil. Then later, when she needs to bathe each of her three young children before bed, she boils and reboils and reboils and carries it to the tub like a woman lugging water from a well.

It has been this way for a month — no hot water, for an entire community of people living at Garden Oaks apartments on Houston’s southeast side. Every now and then it will come back for ten or 15 minutes, a fleeting luxury, maybe four days out of the month. But mostly it’s the slow, disappointing drip from the faucet, no matter how many times residents complain to management or to the city.

Just outside Billberry’s front door, her neighbors gather and rattle off complaints until they are talking over one another. No air conditioning. Mold in the cabinets and under the sink and lining the tub. A gaping hole in the ceiling from which buckets of rain pour. Broken stoves. Broken windows. “And they’re still paying rent,” said Courtney O’Brien, a resident who also has no hot water.

Which is probably their most resounding grievance: How are they paying upwards of $500 a month to live like this in the middle of the fourth-largest city in America?

One neighbor is Marcus Hickey, who had moved to Garden Oaks from Crestmont Village, an apartment complex that was in such squalid condition that the city shut it down, sued management and helped relocate all the residents last fall by paying their deposit, first month's rent and moving expenses. At Crestmont, residents had been living without electricity for weeks. Their food had spoiled. Sewage was coming up the drains in their tubs and sinks. Their ceilings had fallen onto their kitchen floors. Finally, then-Houston mayor Annise Parker intervened.

“We were thinking that we’re gonna be somewhere where we can finally start living again,” Hickey said. “And to come down here, and the things that’s been going on…it’s discouraging…I can’t put it in words.”

Garden Oaks is owned by Fat Property, a leasing company that seeks to purchase run-down, distressed apartments and fix them up. It purchased Garden Oaks about five months ago, said Fat Property President Cody Lutsch in an interview Friday, and management was immediately overwhelmed with a slew of maintenance requests that it's still working on, he said.

As for the hot water, Lutsch said management had just recently sent plumbers out to fix a problem with the boiler’s ignition, and that residents should see relief. The previous day, he fired the man who for the past several months had been Garden Oaks’s onsite property manager, who had allegedly been neglecting residents’ complaints — “It was like talking to a brick wall,” Billberry told us. The promise of new management coming in to shape things up is something Billberry and her neighbors are clinging to, hoping things will be different this time.
“That tells me you’re finally taking us seriously and not just sweeping it under the rug,” one woman said, declining to give her name for fear of eviction. “Before, I felt violated as a person. I felt like they thought we were poor black people here, and that we don’t know any better, or that they could do whatever they want to us.”

That same day, her water had turned brown. “The kids couldn’t even brush their teeth.”

Like several residents, she went to the main office to meet the new woman in charge, listing off the problems she’s had since moving here last fall that still have not been resolved: broken shower, a shaky foundation that makes it feel like her second-floor apartment is a cruise ship, and, like most of her neighbors, no hot water. Or, in her case that day, no water at all.

Something about the new manager made her feel like this time things might actually change, she said. 

“I said, 'How do I feel when my kids come home from school and can’t take a shower? How do I feel when they wake up and it’s cold, and you still have no hot water? That makes you feel like you can’t keep them safe,'" she told us. "Nobody should have to live like that.” After running through the list of problems, she said, the property manager started to cry.

Though the plumbers have come to repair the boiler, Verna Billberry said when she turned on her kitchen faucet, she waited and waited, but the water came out lukewarm. Again, she put the pot on the stove.