Inside Moldy, Largely Destroyed Houston Apartments, the Rent Is Due [UPDATED]

Inside the bedroom Arthuro Martinez used to have.EXPAND
Inside the bedroom Arthuro Martinez used to have.
Photo by Meagan Flynn
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Arthuro Martinez is sleeping on a couch, without cushions, in the middle of his largely destroyed and musty apartment. Carlos Adolfo Rubio and his wife, Gloria, are sharing one mattress with their two children, after losing just about everything else. And Maria Soto says no matter what room she and her kids sleep in — two of them have autism — there is mold growing on the walls. There is mold growing on all of their walls. But the rent is due.

The three families live in ground-floor apartments at St. James Place on Fondren, not far from Brays Bayou. It will be Maria Soto’s third time buying new furniture in three years; she has grown accustomed to repeat flooding in her apartment — but never like this. For all the families, the water lines on their walls, blackening with mold, are at their waist. Kitchen appliances are broken or sound like they are going to explode. The TVs are in the trash, and so are mountains of clothes and shoes, sofas and chairs, tables and dressers.

But still the rent is due. It is due even if they decide to move elsewhere to escape the mold, each person told us. (The Houston Press visited the St. James Place Apartments property management office for information about the rent collection policies, but we were told the property manager was unavailable and would call us with answers. We did not hear back.)

“They told me I have to pay, and that if we don’t, there will be an eviction,” Soto said (she added she had until the end of the month, but Martinez and the Rubios said they had no such leniency). “I have to pay for other stuff. I have to pay for clothes for the kids, shoes — all the shoes got wet. I have to buy new shoes for everybody. I’ve been looking for a new apartment for a week, but it’s so expensive everywhere. And a lot of places say they don’t want evictions.”

The Texas Organizing Project spent all day Thursday canvassing the dozens of St. James Apartments units, informing residents of a know-your-rights session the group held in the evening. At door after door, residents had questions: When was the apartment complex going to repair their units — did they have to pay rent first? Are undocumented immigrants eligible for FEMA assistance? Could they just move away without paying rent, and avoid a blemish on their credit since their apartment was a bomb? (Probably not.)

Rich Tomlinson, director of litigation for Lone Star Legal Aid, said Texas rental laws are written in a “very landlord-friendly way.” The landlords, granted plenty of discretion to decide how accommodating they want to be to tenants, are required to make repairs only if the tenant is current on his rent and the conditions are threatening the tenant’s health or safety. Tenants must also demand the repairs in writing. Tomlinson said that in major flooding situations like these, landlords or tenants can only legally break their leases if the apartment is “totally uninhabitable.” Which, he said, “ultimately is in the eye of the beholder.”

“If it’s ‘totally unusable for residential purposes’ — what that means, I don’t know,” Tomlinson said, citing language in the law. “If the place is a huge wreck, you can argue it’s totally unusable. But there can be disagreements about that. Landlords might say it’s not. And you owe the rent until the lease is terminated.”

Even if the landlord were to agree that a place is uninhabitable, Tomlinson said, that can also cause serious problems for tenants. Recently, Tomlinson said he heard from various tenants who were given just five days to leave their uninhabitable apartment because the landlord decided the damage was serious enough to take the units off the market in order to do repairs. For those tenants, the question became, now what?

They became among tens of thousands of people in Houston doing the same exact thing: seeking shelter.

“There’s not a lot of other options,” Tomlinson said. “There’s a very limited amount of stock of affordable housing out there. But if the other option is the landlord wants you to stay, they don’t want to recognize you trying to terminate the lease, and they want you to pay rent.”

Mitzi Ordonez and Bob Gomez with TOP said they were going to ask the St. James Apartments management to sign forms for residents who want to move that simply state that they broke their leases because they experienced severe flooding — not because they’re bad tenants.

During a public hearing at City Council’s Wednesday meeting, Mayor Sylvester Turner urged landlords not to evict flood victims just trying to get back on their feet. “This is not the right time to evict them, and there’s not adequate housing for them to go to if they’re evicted.”

As we reported last week, only 10.9 percent of Houston’s 639,000 apartment units were vacant just before Harvey hit, with most, 26,000, being upscale luxury apartments, according to data compiled by Apartment Data Services. Andy Teas, vice president of public affairs for the Houston Apartment Association, said estimates of flooded units have ranged from between 40,000 to 100,000 units. And Houston Housing Authority CEO and President Tory Gunsolley said it may be nearly impossible to find a $600-per-month apartment given the immense pressure on the city’s affordable housing market.

While neither Soto or Arthuro Martinez is having any luck, Gloria and Carlos Alfonso Rubio (who asked that we not use their real names) managed to find a spot for $810 a month. They put all of their money toward the deposit and first month’s rent, so they will not be moving in with any new beds or clothes or TVs or furniture, unable to afford any of it. They lost one car and paid $500 to fix the other, too. Since they are undocumented, they will not be receiving any cash assistance from FEMA, they said.

They have been cleaning the mold in their apartment with bleach, scrubbing the floors with soap and water, compiling their whole lives into mounds of garbage to be thrown away later, once everything has dried and is therefore lighter to transport. Before inviting TOP inside, Gloria says she wants to tidy up first. She apologizes for the mess, as though it’s her fault.

Inside, she runs her finger along the moldy water lines, saying, in Spanish, that she and her family have started to get sick, like the Sotos have. She says they can’t tell the management they are moving to a new place. Because they don’t think they can pay this month’s rent, and they fear the broken lease will end up ruining their credit — but they just had to get out of here, Gloria said. She gestures to what was once a living room, what was once a kitchen, saying, “This is the way they want us to live?”

Update, September 12: The Texas Organizing Project said in a news release that, over the weekend, TOP members organized at the apartment complex, joined by City Councilman Michael Kubosh, and the owner showed up with a cleaning crew and agreed to all of the tenants' demands. Those who want to move will be able to get out of their leases without losing their apartments or blemishing their records and those who want to stay will have their apartments repaired. TOP also found hotels for six families with particularly bad mold problems in their apartments.

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