Clarification: Croom was not served with a written eviction notice by Midtown Properties, nor did she allege she had been. She claimed that Gould told her on the phone that he wanted her off the property because she talked to the Houston Press.
Midtown Properties operates 13 boutique apartment complexes in Montrose -- they're some of the loveliest places you can find inside the loop. Tenants pay a higher than average rent, and in exchange they get clean, well-kept and stylish digs with a charm that distinguishes them from neighboring cookie-cutter complexes that spread like kudzu.
There's only one hitch: Jeff Gould, Midtown's vice president, runs a tight ship. If a tenant expresses concern to a reporter about the management of one of his properties, he may try to evict that tenant. So you better shut your goddamn trap.
We hadn't realized until this week that some tenants in Houston have to sacrifice their First Amendment rights, and with the population explosion here, we feel obligated to give the public a heads-up.
This unwritten rule was brought to our attention by former Houston Press employee Brenna Croom, a five-year Midtown tenant. She pays $25 a month, on top of rent, for a covered parking spot. Midtown gives stickers to folks with covered spots, but they're not the kind of stickers that, like, stick. They're not like state inspection stickers that have to be scraped off. They're like oil-change-reminder stickers that tend to peel off after a while.
Croom's sticker fell off at some point, and unfortunately for her, she forgot to note this in her sticker diary. So at 11 p.m. Tuesday, while she was home, her vehicle was towed. Now, there are no red-and-white tow warning signs on the property, which state law requires before a vehicle can be towed. But still, the SUV was towed and Croom was told it would cost $233 to retrieve it.
She voiced her frustration to the Press after management wouldn't give her a break. Sure, her vehicle didn't have a sticker, and it should have. But management didn't dispute that she was a tenant and that she was actually parked in a spot she pays extra for, and, to Croom, it seemed like this was just one of those things on which reasonable people can compromise.
Nah. She was told that rules are rules. At Ranger Tow, though, they gave her a discount, because they understood that this was not a situation where someone was parking in a spot they didn't pay for. In other words, the folks at Ranger Tow were reasonable.
The whole thing sounded unfortunate, so we thought we'd call Gould to find out his side.
"We've got neighboring properties that are...continuously parking their vehicles on our property's parking area," he told us. He said notices are sent out "from time to time" to remind residents to make sure their stickers stay on.
"It's designed to keep, you know, violators from taking resident parking," he said. "It happens all the time." Bottom line: "It's all about the parking sticker." (Which, again, is a good reason why Midtown tenants need to have sticker diaries).
But when we tried to ask more questions, Gould got impatient. We didn't, for example, get a chance to ask about how many vehicles were towed from Midtown properties in the past six months. The owner of Ranger Tow told us that his drivers tow one or two vehicles a year from the property where Croom lives. That's one vehicle every 182-1/2 days, which means we have a different understanding of the word "continuously" than Gould does.
"I don't have time to debate the parking sticker with you," Gould said. "...Policies are policies." We kept waiting for him to fill us in on something Croom was keeping from us -- like she never once paid rent on time in her five years as a tenant; that she converted her kitchen into a meth lab; or that her apartment was the hub of a clandestine international giraffe-hide-smuggling ring. Something to indicate that she was an unsympathetic character.
Instead, Gould told us this: "I'm going to write an article about you, too." (He didn't say where his article would be published, otherwise we'd link to it, because we're sure it'll be a knockout.)
When we asked if he had any questions we could answer for his article, he said, "I'll just make 'em up as I go," and he laughed, because what he said was really humorous. And then, before hanging up on us, he said, "I appreciate the phone call. Take care."
If things had ended there, we would have probably just thought, "Well, that's an odd way for someone who isn't 12 years old to behave," and then moved on.
But about five hours later, Croom told us that Gould gave her the boot. She says Gould told her he did not like the fact that she told a reporter about the parking situation.
When we called Gould the next morning to confirm, he hung up on us.
Since Midtown is a member of something called the Houston Apartment Association, we reached out to them to find out if they have an opinion about one of their members evicting a tenant because she exercised her freedom of speech. After all, the HAA has a "Code of Ethics." In the preamble (seriously, there's a preamble) it states that members should strive for the "highest standards of honesty and integrity" and "seek to provide better values, so that an even greater share of the public may enjoy the benefits of apartment living."
HAA spokeswoman Aimee Arrington told us in an email, "Our policy is to not comment on specific issues between residents and their property managers. We do have a resident relations department that does take complaints about issues ranging from repairs to security deposits." She said there's a "free hotline" and an "online complaint system."
Sure, but we're trying to let the public know which apartment complexes in Houston prohibit free speech here. Arrington -- throw us a bone!
Ultimately, we're not really sure what the HAA does. Like many other associations, its members hold conferences and "EXPOS." To prove it, the website shows smiling HAA members sporting cool lanyards. Members give each other awards, and they lobby for "fair treatment of multifamily properties in federal tax law" and for abhorrent legislation "requiring owners to rent to criminals."
Arrington told us that its code of ethics is "upheld by our ethics committee," which we guess is made up of important people with special lanyards. "If a complaint is made by a member of the association about another member, the committee reviews the matter and makes a determination. That has not taken place in this case."
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Clearly, the HAA's hands are tied. Since no HAA member is complaining about Gould, their ethics committee can't investigate. Which is good for Gould, because the penalty for violating the code of ethics is positively Inquisition-esque. It's even worse than double-secret probation.
"The last time the ethics committee reprimanded (as approved and voted on by our Board) was in 2012, and the punishment was denial of membership renewal," Arrington told us.
Dang, that's steep.
Croom said she'd already planned to give notice August 1, but she has no intention of being unlawfully tossed out before then. We want to see how this pans out, just so we can keep the public informed about the risks of apartment living. And we'll also keep our eyes out for Gould's article.