Sunday, April 13, 2008

H-Town Lifestyle: Algae-Filled Pool Included

Chronicle birddog Matt Stiles---who’s single-handedly transformed the state Rep. Hubert Vo narrative from one of happy-ass “multiculturalism” and “local Democratic resurgence” to that of "venal, office-abusing slumlord”---is on the scent of other sub-standard apartment complexes and has solicited tips from readers on the newspaper’s politics blog. This is a noble endeavor, but it’s possible Stiles may have inadvertently booked himself solid for the next several years. Just pinpointing the actual owners of some of these hellholes could be a life’s work.

The finely detailed and descriptive comments* affixed to Stiles’ posting confirm that there’s nothing like the topic of “crappy apartments” to arouse the local populace. You don’t have to be a really perceptive sort to see that many of the bright-line social divisions in Houston---over crime, schools, “changing” neighborhoods---neatly align with the divide between apartment renters and owners of single-family homes and townhouses (and while race and/or ethnicity is a factor in these divisions, class is the underpinning). This is partly due to the proximity of subdivisions to sprawling complexes, a phenomenon that we assume is somehow linked to the city’s lack of zoning (but one that, come to think of it, we’ve noticed in other, newer-type Sunbelt** cities). But mostly it’s because landlords allow these places to go down the toilet and become magnets for crime and gangs. The saving grace of the unfashionable (meaning “zoned to mostly suck-ass schools”) neighborhood where we lay our head is the lack of nearby crappy apartments---the closet complex, adjacent to the neighborhood, is small and well-tended and is or apparently was owned by the former mayor Lanier, while the other, larger complex in the vicinity was run by the late Harold Farb, who had a sterling rep for upkeep (or so we always heard).

We’ve long contended---in barrooms, on Metro buses, while walking our dog late at night---that the signature Houston residence is not the River Oaks mansion or the Heights cottage or the Westbury suburban rambler or the Randall Davis “loft” apartment or the Pulte Home in the Outer East Jesus Subdivision (we just love the ones with paddle boats on the man-made “lakes”) but rather the one- or two-bedroom unit in a two-story complex, usually but not always situated outside The Loop, that was constructed anytime from the late 1960s through mid-’80s and whose population typically has gone through one or more pronounced demographic shifts: say, from all-white to mixed to mostly black to predominantly Hispanic (it’s a safe conjecture that all but a tiny percentage of the city’s illegal population resides in complexes similar to the one described earlier in this sprawling but grammatically flawless sentence). Lots of these places sport the same the dusty-brown brick veneers, which always bring to our mind the adjective “dowdy” (no “curb appeal”), especially when we’re driving down a street like West Airport that seems to be lined with mile after mile after such complexes.

Judging by the pictures Stiles has posted of Vo’s tenements, we have to say that over the years we’ve walked into, walked through, knocked on doors in and run away from worse. They certainly aren’t typical, but neither are they unusual. Owners continue to stuff people into these places long after their expiration dates. Frayed wiring, backed-up plumbing, punched-out wallboard, garbage piled high in the hen-scratch “courtyards” and rampant graffiti are just some of the non-advertised amenities. Not to mention the pools with what looks like bayou water. (And you gotta love the toilet under the stairs---that’s playground equipment.) And as we’re periodically reminded, these places regularly go up in flames.

Yet these are people’s homes. We’d bet that Vo himself once lived in a small apartment after arriving here (and before settling in this modest Alief homestead---in his district!---and undertaking construction of this Mexican drug dealer’s fantasy of a mansion***). It’s probably the middle-class suburban liberal arts major in us, but it always blows what’s left of our mind when somebody tells us they’ve lived in the same small two-bedroom apartment for “eight years” or “15 years” or “all my life” (if a kid). Stiles interviewed a 58-year-old woman named Tomasa Compean who’s lived in her one-bedroom unit at the Vo-owned Northpoint Apartments for 18 years (probably predating Vo’s ownership by no telling how many previous owners). Compean

pays $450 a month and has never received new carpet or paint. White powder bug poison outlines her baseboards, and a leaky faucet has left a large patch of rust and mildew in her tub, which apartment officials have covered only with paint.

"There are a lot of defects in the apartment," said Compean, speaking in Spanish. She also complained about a lack of security at the complex. "The worst things are the roaches and mice. That's just too much."

In a city intent on adorning itself with Floridian baubles and trinkets, it doesn’t seem like it would cost much to see to it that Hubert Vos do a little better---just a little!---by the Tomasa Compeans.

*Our favorite: “The Princeton Club apartments on Memorial near Dairy Ashford has vacant apartments that are still full of rotting garbage (and maggots and roaches) months after they are vacated. There are squatters living there too since about half the apartments are vacant. I lived there for almost a year, and was robbed 4 times not counting the bike that was stolen after I left it outside my front door for a few moments to go inside for a drink.”

**Serviceable, descriptive term that seems to have fallen out of use.

***What’s with these Democrats who turn out incumbents and then
build these huge homes? Being a state rep pays, what, 7K or so a year?

****As in Richard.


Robert Boyd said...

Interesting post. I was directed this way by Swamplot.

In my first year as an MBA student, I did a marketing project using sales data from a dollar store chain that has lots of local stores. We decided to see if there was any correlations between the success of a given store and the demographic profiles of the people in its zip code. There was some slight racial correlation and income correlation, but by far the biggest predictor of sales at a local dollar store was the percentage of renters that lived in a given zip code.

As a apartment dweller for my entire adult life, this distressed me somewhat. I felt better when I actually went to a branch of dollar store in question and realized how awesome it was.

Anyway, I strongly suspect that renter versus owner is the strongest single demographic correlation in all kinds of behaviors (whether "bad" behaviors or neutral, like shopping at the dollar store).

Slampo said...

That's intersting, but it seems like income would be the overarching correlative here. Not that there aren't all sorts of expensive apartments and lots of middle- and upper-income renters who don't want the hassles of home ownership (which we thoroughly understand), but the vast vast majority of renters are people of very modest means seeking affordable space (and a level of comfort in residing in proximity to people like themselves). A large percentage---like almost all---of Houston's low-income populace is concentrated in apartments, which is why all these dollar stores locate in storefronts within walking distance of these conglomerations of complexes. They are awesome.