The Dead Zone

He called them "the little houses." They were the shotgun shacks and decomposing Victorians, the flophouses where the panhandlers crashed and the drug dealers weighed rock. Along the crabgrass yards of the Fourth Ward slum, they bred the kind of crime and poverty unheard of in Rich Agnew's Clear Lake subdivision. Yet walking the narrow streets with a realtor, Agnew could hardly see them.

Instead, he saw uniform brick facades reminiscent of new row houses in old London. Sidewalks striated to resemble cobblestones led him past young shrubs planted with cookie-cutter precision. The realtor ushered Agnew through the door of a new model town house, one among hundreds sporting vanity rooms, granite countertops and shiny wood floors.

An uppermost window gave Agnew and his wife a glimpse of the downtown skyline. The middle-aged couple imagined an exciting life of freedom from their commute, lawn mower and energy bills. But they wanted this lifestyle without the chaos of inner Houston's urban hodgepodge; they feared losing the programmed, suburban feel of the Perry Homes neighborhood where they had raised kids.

And that's why Sutton Square, one of Perry's new urban versions of the suburbs, was almost perfect.

"We liked the appearance of the homes that they built," Agnew says. "And we were really sold on the fact that eventually Perry would buy the rest of these little houses and build town homes."

Since the building boom hit inner Houston in the late 1990s, thousands of home buyers have made the same leap of faith. Lured by gentrifying neighborhoods, better nightlife and rising property values, they've moved from distant culs-de-sac into the shadow of downtown, often paying more than $300,000 for skinny slices of wood and brick in new urban villages. Perry Homes is on the leading edge of this trend, advocates say, seeding an urban renaissance one foundation at a time.

The company promises that its homes will be solid, care-free, efficient and economical.

Agnew's new town house was all of those things -- for about a year. In 2002, cracks appeared on the floor of the garage and in the house's bricks and mortar. A pipe in a bedroom wall sprung a leak. Nails poked through tilting drywall, and off-balance doors wouldn't stay open. Thrown up in the span of a few months, Agnew's building was supposed to be warranted from major defects for a decade. But Perry Homes refused to fix most of the problems.

Agnew's real name has been changed; he hopes to sell his house someday, and is afraid his public identification would make that impossible.

Perry Homes agreed through a spokesman to accept a list of written questions for this story but responded a week later that it would not be answering them.

"There's no more trust for Perry Homes, as far as I'm concerned," Agnew says.

Customers aren't the only ones who've lost faith in Perry. Other Inner Loop residents feel equally betrayed. They've escaped the bland suburbs only to see downtown's old oaks felled and bright cottages toppled. They describe a campaign to whitewash the city's anarchic soul. They call it Perry Homogenization.

Few businessmen provoke sharper differences of opinion among Houstonians than Bob Perry. The founder of Perry Homes is the largest private political donor to Republican causes in the nation. Writing checks from his modest home in Nassau Bay, he gives voice to conservative suburbia and inspires nightmares among the left-of-center politicos in the city's urban core.

And he's no less controversial within the camps of his own industry. University of Houston architecture professor Tom Diehl speaks for many in his profession when he describes the 72-year-old former schoolteacher as, simply, "the enemy."

Standing with Diehl in the lounge of the Gerald D. Hines School of Architecture, Celeste Williams giggles. A native of Manhattan who teaches courses on the history of design, she grapples for her own words to describe Perry's town houses. "I can't even call them plain vanilla," she says, "because I love vanilla so much."

Williams climbs into her blue Audi and drives through the Third Ward. The architect has agreed to tour several Perry developments and apply an informal "good neighbor test" -- a measure of how the town houses interact with their surroundings. She comes to a stop at Baldwin Park, where old oaks are hemmed in by a young wall of identical brick facades.

Walking out of the park and into the street, Williams catches simultaneous views of two sides of a new Perry town house. "It looks like two different buildings," she says. The bricks on the front of the house peter out halfway along the side, in favor of siding. Windows are scarce, and their sills don't line up with those fronting the park. It's a classic example of squandering a valuable corner lot: "If you're facing the corner, you have an incredible opportunity to gather both streets to you," she says as a car whizzes by, "and as you can see, that's pretty much lost."

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Josh Harkinson