Out of Order: Houston's Dangerous Apartment Epidemic

Date
2018-02
Authors
Way, Heather K.
Fraser, Carol E.
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Houston is a city of renters, with more than 420,000 rental housing units and the third highest number of occupied apartments in the country. Many of these apartments, however, are unsafe and deteriorating. Following decades of weak building standards and feeble code enforcement, Houston is now in the midst of a dangerous apartment epidemic. The city’s dangerous apartment epidemic is fueled by hundreds of substandard apartment complexes as well as large volumes of apartments with habitually high levels of violent crime. For example, at one apartment complex in Southeast Houston, 284 major crimes were recently reported in a single year—an average of one major crime every 1.3 days. As with several other areas of the City, this part of Houston is riddled with a heavy concentration of high crime apartment complexes, harming not only the tenants of those properties but the surrounding neighbors. Houston’s low-income African-American, Hispanic, and immigrant residents bear the brunt of these dangerous apartment conditions. Dangerous apartments disproportionately impact these residents’ physical and mental health and, when unaddressed, have led to catastrophic outcomes for Houston’s most vulnerable tenants, including the deaths of children and adults.When Hurricane Harvey struck in August 2017, the flooding increased both the scale and severity of dangerous apartment conditions in Houston—and, in particular, amplified the city’s severe deficit of safe and affordable rental housing options for poor tenants. Prior to Harvey, Houston was already the third worst city in the country when it came to the availability of affordable housing for extremely low-income households. Now, after Harvey, these tenants are even more likely to be trapped in unsafe housing, with no access to safer housing alternatives.For decades, city leaders have been aware of Houston’s dangerous apartment epidemic, and around ten years ago, the City deployed a number of new programs and policies to address apartment safety conditions. Despite these efforts, the City’s record of addressing tenant safety is grim. In our evaluation of the City’s current apartment safety programs, we found the resources invested in apartment safety to be severely inadequate. On top of that, we found the implementation of the programs to be flawed, fractured, and improperly managed. Fortunately, there are many opportunities to improve Houston’s programs for addressing dangerous apartments. With the right leadership and commitment, Houston can do much to avert future tragedies and improve housing conditions for thousands of the city’s renters.

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