When Christina Douglas’s ceiling fell onto her kitchen floor in July, she had had enough. She called management immediately and asked them to please come see her apartment. “Look up there and see my ceiling,” she told the management representative. “I have no ceiling.”
A pipe had burst and everything had fallen right through, which wasn’t all too surprising, given that Douglas and her husband and their newborn had been having sewage problems since they moved in on January 1. They couldn’t wash the dishes in the sink because it was contaminated with raw sewage that came up through the drain. They almost had a fire once because they had no smoke detectors to warn them they'd left the stove on while they were asleep. They had no doorknobs. They had to rent a carpet cleaner and clean the apartment themselves because all three times their apartment flooded with sewage, management never followed through on any promise to help them fix the problem. Mushrooms started growing up through the floors, and Douglas’s two dogs got deathly sick from eating them.
“My experience at Crestmont Village hasn’t exactly been the best experience of my life,” 25-year-old Douglas said, laughing at her understatement.
Finally, with the help of the city, she and her family will be moving into a single-family home on Scott and Clover. On October 8, a judge ordered that the Crestmont Village apartment complex be shut down because of its deplorable conditions and that all the residents be moved out by the end of the month. To accommodate the residents in their move, Mayor Annise Parker promised the city would pay for their security deposits and first month’s rent. Uber is providing free rides for them to go look at other apartments, Metro is offering free bus passes and the city is also providing free moving assistance. “We’re doing everything we can to get them out,” said Jocklynn Keville, public information officer with the city’s Housing and Community Development department.
The assistance has been long awaited. The city’s legal action against Crestmont’s owner, Abraham Vaknin, began more than two years ago. In 2013, after receiving more than 200 calls from residents requesting service, the city obtained a temporary injunction against Vaknin effective between January and October 2014 — presumably enough time for him to bring the complex up to compliance with city codes. Parker acknowledged in a press conference last month at Crestmont that the city considered shutting it down at that point. But it decided to give Vaknin a chance.
He complied with nothing. Douglas says residents have experienced everything from broken plumbing, no hot water, no electricity, sewage coming up through their sinks and tubs and ceilings falling through, as in her home, to rats, raccoons (yes, inside), roaches, ants, bed bugs and even a snake that came up through one resident’s toilet. “We got a whole zoo going on out here,” Douglas said.
And at every turn, the occupants were met with no help as conditions only deteriorated. Douglas remembers the night the snake came up through her neighbor’s toilet and the mother of a two-year-old rushed out of the apartment with her child to tell management. The woman in the office, Theresa Gutierrez, was just leaving. “And she told her, ‘I’m off-duty. I can’t help you,’” Douglas said.
The city finally got involved again last month when it learned that residents had been living without any electricity for several days. Their food had spoiled. Many did not have the money to go grocery shopping.
That’s when Parker called a press conference and put Vaknin on her wanted list, threatening to arrest him if he ever showed up within Houston city limits. The city turned the lights back on and began footing all the utility bills. The Houston Food Bank and the Red Cross came by and provided food. Anticipating the court would move to shutter the complex, the city started offering moving assistance immediately, Keville says. By the time the judge issued the order on October 8, occupants in 60 of 115 units had already taken the city up on its offer, and they are set to move to 20 different properties. (Keville did not provide a list of them.)
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But with a total lack of proper paperwork and management, Keville says, it hasn’t necessarily been the smoothest process. A week after Parker promised the residents the city would take action against the owner, the city mistakenly started spray-painting “V’s” on doors to indicate vacancy when people were actually still living there. Sixty out of 115 units is the best guess, Keville says, because paperwork documenting who lives where and how many people live in each unit is missing. The city is also concerned about freeloaders claiming to live there and needing assistance who actually don’t. “It has not been the easiest project to work on, I can say that,” Keville said. “When you have ownership and management that is just not operating at the highest level to begin with, we run into all kinds of problems.”
Another barrier is assisting residents who have either past evictions or convictions on their record, because many apartment complexes will not take them. Keville says the city is vouching for them and encouraging managers to take them in. The city has also begun compiling a list of complexes that would accept them. Before residents can move into their new homes, a city inspector must give the property a green light.
"The city has never intervened in this manner before, but we are aware that the situation is not unique," Janice Evans, chief policy officer and director of communications at the mayor's office, said in a statement to the Houston Press. "Various avenues are being studied, and it is the administration’s intent to take the issue to City Council’s Housing Committee for a discussion about ways to handle and prevent similar situations in the future."
Douglas said that, unless the city stepped in with financial assistance, she and her husband would have had to continue living there. Douglas was supposed to move out in July — but that's when their ceiling fell through. Management told them they would not be getting their deposit back, citing the damage and $1,100 in late fees over the past several months at $100 per day. Of course, there was no paperwork to prove it.