November 30, 2023

Furniture Bank

Swing Your Furniture Bank

Thousands found on publicly-owned properties

One evening in January, Valerie Wicoff, 42, and her husband were heading out for dinner when they saw a group of strangers scurrying out of the long-vacant two-story brick building next to their house in a quiet East End neighborhood.

It was not the first time Wicoff or her neighbors spotted suspicious activity inside the city-owned property at 1417 Telephone Road that has been steadily deteriorating for years. The awning over the entrance has partially collapsed, and wood planks are scattered around the sizable lot. A rusty staircase leads to a broken window on the second floor, which, Wicoff said, squatters have used to enter the building. On the wire fence, a yellow piece of paper informs the city that it has violated its own nuisance law.

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“We’ve lived here for eight years, and sometimes we see people with hard hats and city emblems come here and look around, but nothing ever gets done,”  Wicoff said. “It’s right on our doorstep. We just want the city to do something about it. We just want to be safe.”

Across Houston, residents live next to blighted properties that their owners fail to maintain. In thousands of cases, those properties are owned by local governments.

Since 2017, city inspectors have found more than 3,700 nuisance violations on properties owned by public entities — the city of Houston, Harris County, the state of Texas, school districts, Metro Transit Authority, and a host of others, including parks boards and housing authorities — according to data obtained through a public information request.

Of those, 1,172 were on properties owned by the city of Houston. The nuisances included overgrown grass and weeds, debris and dangerous buildings, and unsanitary conditions causing insect and rodent infestations.

The properties were acquired by the city for rights of way, flood mitigation and other purposes, according to Mary Benton, a spokesperson of the Mayor’s Office, who added that most are undeveloped lands. Houston’s General Services Department, which manages the city’s properties and addresses maintenance and security issues along with third-party contractors, consistently reviews its processes to find ways to improve, she said.

Other public entities found to have repeatedly broken nuisance codes include the Harris County Flood Control District, Midtown Redevelopment Authority and the Houston Land Bank; the three have combined for nearly 1,500 violations, records show.

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After a violation is found, the owner is given time to correct the issue. If the owner does not make substantial efforts to comply with the nuisance ordinance, inspectors can issue a citation and refer the case to Houston Municipal Court, Department of Neighborhoods spokeswoman Evangelina Vigil said. The neighborhood department is responsible for inspections and code enforcement.

Nearly half of all nuisance violations lead to citations, Vigil said.

Records, however, show only about 10 percent of violations on government-owned properties — 391 out of 3,698 since 2017 — moved on to the citation stage.

Responses vary

The city has been cited only six times since 2017, despite having more than 1,000 violations. The vacant building on Telephone Road, for example, received a violation notice 14 times in the past six years for such infractions as unsafe building structure and visual blight, but a citation was never issued.

A resident rides her bike next to a vacant building that has received more than a dozen notices for nuisance violations in the past six years on Friday, Jan. 27, 2023 in Houston, TX. The building at 1417 Telephone Road, which once housed a school, is owned by the city of Houston.

A resident rides her bike next to a vacant building that has received more than a dozen notices for nuisance violations in the past six years on Friday, Jan. 27, 2023 in Houston, TX. The building at 1417 Telephone Road, which once housed a school, is owned by the city of Houston.

Raquel Natalicchio/Staff photographer

Vigil said the department’s 45 code enforcement officers follow the same procedures for every owner, although it is easier to notify governmental contacts and work with them to bring properties into compliance.

“Every case is evaluated on a case-by-case basis, so varying factors affect how we approach extensions and citations,” Vigil said. “Our goal is to remedy the violation and the most effective method many times is owner compliance… In most instances, the responsible department corrects the violations after we have notified them for compliance. This negates the need for citations.”

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In some situations, however, the city neither fully fixed up its properties nor paid a fine for persistent problems.

In one case in the South Acres-Crestmont Park neighborhood, a small strip of undeveloped land near a row of houses on Sandrock Drive has received 15 notices from the Department of Neighborhoods since 2017 for unkempt weeds and rubbish. The city of Houston, which owns the land, never got a citation.

A strip of land owned by the city of Houston, next to 12102 Sandrock, has been the target of several nuisance violations regarding about debris and overgrown grass. Photographed on Friday, Feb. 3, 2023 in Houston.

A strip of land owned by the city of Houston, next to 12102 Sandrock, has been the target of several nuisance violations regarding about debris and overgrown grass. Photographed on Friday, Feb. 3, 2023 in Houston.

Karen Warren/Staff photographer

Tree branches, car tires, discarded furniture and a variety of other garbage are spread across the rectangular lot. Jerome Hall, 47, who has lived a couple of houses down the street his whole life, said the area has been changing for the worse.

“I know that belongs to the city,” Hall said, gesturing to the cluttered lot. “Before, they’d come, cut the grass and pick up all that trash. But I haven’t seen them out there much in the past two, three years. Now, it’s real bad. I don’t walk through there at night. Somebody could be in them bushes. They need to clean it up.”

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The city is not the only public entity that struggles with property upkeep. The Harris County Flood Control District is second to the city in the number of nuisance violations, 661, in the past six years.

Many of the complaints are on tracts obtained through the home buyout program, according to Sheldra Brigham, a spokeswoman for the flood control district. Under the program, the district purchases eligible flood-prone properties to remove them from the flood plain and now owns 1,200 buyout properties. It spends approximately $450,000 a year to maintain them, Brigham said, including mowing the grass once a month during the growing season from April to November.

“Part of the Buyout Program includes the removal of the residential structure from the lot once Flood Control purchases the property,” Brigham said. “It is the Flood Control District’s goal to remove structures from buyout lots as soon as possible to avoid nuisance and maintenance complaints.”

The Midtown Redevelopment Authority, created by the city to develop the Midtown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone, has been notified of 491 nuisance violations in the past six years on the hundreds of vacant lots it purchased as a part of its affordable housing plan.

A neglected lot in a residential neighborhood in south Houston, for instance, has been written up for untrimmed trees encroaching on the public right-of-way and a neighbor’s property since before the redevelopment authority acquired it in 2018. 

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Records show the property was issued four violation notices and three citations in the two years after it was purchased by the authority. A municipal court judge ordered the authority to pay a $434 fine in 2020. The lot has received another two violations notices and a citation since then.

In response to such infractions, the authority has hired two landscaping and lawncare contractors and now spends about $1 million a year on lot maintenance, said Todd Edwards, the authority’s real estate asset manager.

“We’ve prioritized working closely with (Houston Public Works) to quickly address issues on the sites, such as illegal dumping or other forms of illegal occupancy,” Edwards said. “Many of our sites now have ‘No Trespassing’ signs.”

Tired of waiting

The Houston Land Bank, a local government corporation, owns 425 properties across Houston. Keeping the lots in compliance is a strenuous and costly task, Chief Executive Officer Christa Stoneham said. Last year, the land bank removed approximately 340,000 pounds of debris, more than 200 tires and multiple abandoned vehicles from the corporation’s lands, she said. 

Still, the number of nuisance violations associated with Land Bank properties remains high. Since 2017, the land bank has had 341 nuisance violations.

In the Settegast neighborhood in northeast Houston, for example, a land bank-owned residential lot between two houses on Tommye Street was written up more than a dozen times between 2018 and 2020 for such infractions as using the land for open storage of dead trees or other large, unsightly objects.

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Stoneham said the Land Bank has tried to develop closer relationships with inspectors and maintenance service providers to quickly address concerns. She said the corporation now has a designed person to work with the Department of Neighborhoods. Staff also have posted “No Trespassing” signs at some properties and offered a phone line for neighbors to report violations.

In her East End neighborhood, Wicoff said she worries about what goes on inside the abandoned building next to her house.

Benton from the mayor’s office acknowledged that several incidents have occurred at the building under the city’s ownership.

“Due to this building’s designation as historical, the city is coordinating efforts among various departments to maintain this property,” she said.

Wicoff, however, said she and her neighbors are tired of waiting on the city.

“We don’t want to see the building demolished. We love the character of these old buildings, but it’s been such a long-standing problem,” she said. ”We would love to see the city turn it into a community center. Whatever they decide to do, the community would embrace it. But they need to do something.”

Reporter Mike Morris contributed to this story.

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