Two Months After Harvey, Landlord Evicts Tenants Because of Uninhabitable Conditions

Joyce Powell at her kitchen sink, with ripped-off cabinets and counters.EXPAND
Joyce Powell at her kitchen sink, with ripped-off cabinets and counters.
Photo by Meagan Flynn
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The management ripped out the sinks when they ripped out the walls.

Inside the Legacy Apartments, on Lockwood Drive in Fifth Ward, there is no such thing as privacy or even real rooms on the lower-floor units. In James Jackson's unit, you can see from the kitchen straight into the bathroom. In Joyce Powell's bathroom, she has wedged a towel in a hole in her bathroom wall — stripped down to wood panels and bare pipes — so that the neighbors wouldn't accidentally see her undressing. And in Thomas Babineaux and Julie McGee's unit, like most residents, they had been washing their dishes in the bathtub before they got their sink back. Others washed them in the bathroom sink because the management took their tub, too.

It is in these conditions that the residents of Legacy Apartments say they have been paying rent for the past two months, waiting and waiting on repairs — or at least just walls. Last week, they finally got their sinks back, after the Houston Health Department ordered management to reinstall them. But now the first-floor residents have been hit with another blow: Exactly two months after Harvey made landfall in Texas, the property owner is kicking them out. On October 25, they were given five days to remove their belongings and leave.

"We ain't got nowhere to go. Nowhere," McGee said. "The only thing they did for us was tear off the walls, and that was it."

James Jackson's kitchen/bathroom all at once.EXPAND
James Jackson's kitchen/bathroom all at once.
Photo by Meagan Flynn

Some of the tenants at the Legacy Apartments recently became members of the Texas Organizing Project, and donned teal TOP shirts while sitting in lawn chairs with neighbors in the front parking lot, sharing bad stories about a loved one's trip to the hospital because of asthma and mold or about how they have just been using their microwave to cook, because for a while their stove was disconnected. This is far from the first time TOP has organized after major floods when tenants feel they have been mistreated, said TOP's communication director, Mary Moreno.

"It seems we have to have this fight after every flood, when there's a delay in repairs but the law doesn't really give guidance about what needs to be done in the time between when the damage occurs and when the apartments are repaired," she said. "We just can't keep doing this at every single apartment complex. There's so many."

According to the generic letters stuck to residents' doors, the property owner decided to declare that the damage to the units is "so extensive that your unit has become totally unusable as a practical matter for residential purposes." Under Texas rental laws, landlords can issue the five-day notices only when apartments are totally uninhabitable — but if they're only partially uninhabitable, then residents have the right to ask for a break on rent and compel the landlords to do the repairs through writing by proving the problems are threatening their health and safety. They also have to be current on rent.

Still, Rich Tomlinson, director of litigation for Lone Star Legal Aid, said that in this specific case, the fact that residents have been living in the apartments for two months could be used against the owners legally if tenants, for financial or other reasons, are unable to leave and want to challenge the evictions. "If they were accepting rent, then that’s pretty strong evidence that they thought the place was habitable to some extent," Tomlinson said.

Tomlinson, whose organization has won seven temporary restraining orders against landlords who have issued notices to vacate to tenants since Harvey, said that this is the latest he has seen property owners asking people to leave.

The Houston Press contacted the owner of the apartments, Mark Hurley, who is the registered agent for Lockwood-Legacy Apartments LLC, based in San Antonio. The general operations manager, Michael Rust, returned our call.

Rust said that it took two months for management to issue the five-day notices to vacate because, in the meantime, management was trying to get repairs done but it turned out to be too difficult with residents still living in the units. Rust maintained that management was flexible with rent over the past couple of months (Joyce Powell did tell the Press that management allowed her to pay what she could afford), and that tenants who wanted out of their leases were allowed to move and get their deposits back.

Still, asked about how people possibly could have been expected to pay anything to live in apartments without sinks for up to a month and without tubs, in those cases, for several days, Rust said the plumbing removals were the result of a miscommunication with the contractors who were removing the walls and drywall. He said it was fixed after being brought to upper management's attention — although a citation posted on the front door of the management office shows it was an October 5 order from the city to "install all plumbing fixtures" in the units that apparently prompted the repairs within the next couple of weeks.

"It was a mistake; [the sinks] shouldn't have been ripped out as part of the demo. But again, that just speaks to the difficulty of trying to do repairs like this while people are still in the unit," Rust said. "Maybe we should have given the five-day notice right after the hurricane and not tried to work with people. I don't know. But we're doing the best we can."

Joyce Powell's sink-less bathroom.EXPAND
Joyce Powell's sink-less bathroom.
Photo by Meagan Flynn

Rust said that management will also be flexible about the five-day deadline to remove belongings from the units and move elsewhere — but only to a point. For example, on October 31, crews surely won't be sweeping through the units, rounding up people's stuff and dumping it outside, Rust said, and people who need a little more time to move can have it — but, on the other hand, "I can't just say you can stay there until you find a place, because then they could be there indefinitely."

Which is part of residents' frustration: For two months, they had to do their dishes in tubs and sleep in bedrooms without walls, and now they are being hurried along — whether in five days or slightly longer — to accommodate management's wishes to start the real repairs.

Rust said he disagreed with this characterization.

"This speaks to my broader point: They didn't have to live like that for two months," he said. "Everybody could have gone somewhere else, or if they didn't have anywhere else, we could try to accommodate them."

McGee said that, on the fifth day, when she is supposed to be on her way to a new home, she is having back surgery. She said she is afraid she will be homeless by then, too. The messages of leniency and flexibility did not seem to have been relayed yet to residents, even though in one sentence at the bottom of their eviction letters, the property manager asks those who may have trouble leaving in five days to let the office know.

When the Press, one other reporter and at least three residents approached the management office to talk about the notices, the property manager exited the office, said "no comment," got in her car and drove away.

James Jackson's living room/bedroom.EXPAND
James Jackson's living room/bedroom.
Photo by Meagan Flynn

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