While the national eviction moratorium was in effect over the past year, At-Large Houston City Councilmember Letitia Plummer knocked on doors across the city, educating renters about their rights under the pandemic eviction policy. While going door to door, she witnessed people living in deplorable conditions, she said.
Now, Plummer is workshopping an inspection reform proposal to target dangerous or below-standard apartment conditions, which could become a city ordinance if approved by council.
Under Plummer’s proposal, all multi-family property owners who don’t make repairs requested by tenants and the city will be charged a $250 annual fee until all issues are resolved. That money will go towards hiring or training more inspectors. Her plan would also make certain landlords subject to a training program aimed at putting them in compliance with city and state housing laws.
The proposal stems from two amendments to the city’s 2022 budget Plummer tried to pass in June. Instead of passing the amendment, Mayor Sylvester Turner referred it to a council committee for further discussion, saying that he supported the measure and committing to bring an ordinance to council within 90 days.
More than four months later, the council’s regulatory and neighborhood affairs committee heard the proposal at Tuesday’s meeting.
Currently, multiple city departments are responsible for different types of apartment inspections — the health department, fire department, police department, and public works department.
Houston Public Works has a staff that conducts habitability inspections for 4,500 apartment complexes over a four-year cycle, but housing advocates say four years is too long between inspections. The department receives 350 service requests monthly from 311 callers, who typically report problems like a lack of air conditioning in summer, heat in winter and hot water.
The Houston Fire Department’s Life Safety Bureau has an additional 14 inspectors, and the Houston Health Department employs two environmental investigators to respond to around 200 service requests monthly from 311 callers, often related to mold, rodent and air quality problems. Under city ordinance, apartment owners are required to provide minimum standards of sanitation and protection of public health.
The apartment inspection reform proposed by Plummer would aim to improve coordination between departments by developing new risk-assessment profiles for multifamily properties, increasing the number of inspections and creating a method of sharing data across agencies.
There are about 427,000 occupied rental units in Houston, according to Plummer’s office — more than half the city’s total occupied housing stock. Of those, 32% are Class C apartments — older properties in fair or worse shape, in need of maintenance. Almost 10% of those units are in Class D properties, which are the oldest and in the worst conditions. At least 100,000 renters live in Class D apartments, according to Plummer’s office.
Some members of the public told council members about deplorable conditions they’re living in with their kids.
One mother spoke in favor of stronger inspections, crying as she told council members in Spanish, assisted by a translator, that she’s tried to hold her landlord accountable for the conditions of her home but is afraid of retaliation. The apartment smells like mold and Clorox, she said, describing the conditions as unjust.
Keith Downey, a community leader in Kashmere Gardens, said he visited a neighbor whose apartment still had mold even after the landlord said it was rehabilitated.
“You could smell the mold, and she said ‘I can’t live here with my children,’” Downey said. “We have storm after storm after storm. If we’re inspecting apartments every four years, storms don’t wait that long.”
Others raised concerns about the $250 fee itself. District I Councilmember Robert Gallegos questioned whether it should be higher for larger apartment complexes, and one member of the public worried that the fee would just be passed along to renters. Plummer acknowledged both concerns, and said she would consider both in the final proposal.
Meanwhile, Andy Teas, vice president of public affairs with the Houston Apartment Association — an organization representing apartment owners — called on the council to improve coordination of inspections rather than imposing a penalty.
“The key, I think, to making our situation better lies more in better communication than it does in creating new fees,” Teas said.