and MICHELE REESE
Sitting in her West Oakwood Street apartment recently with the gas oven on high, 71-year-old Ethel Foley braced against the biting cold. Sunlight filtering through a nearby window warmed her face as she sat reading her Bible.
“I'm too old to have to worry about moving, but I have to find some other place to live,” said the woman, whose heater was not working. “God will take care of me.”
Ms. Foley said the city of Tyler's housing department cut her apartment complex from a program that subsidizes rent with federal dollars.
Virginia Kennedy, the apartment's owner, said thieves had stolen copper tubing for heating, air conditioning and plumbing. All but two units were vacant, and she was awaiting costly repairs to be completed.
The definition of substandard includes homes without a working kitchen or plumbing, but not homes in bad repair.
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Many of the homes are infested with rats and have crumbling walls, broken windows, ceiling holes from water leaks and black mold.
“I slept in a tent in Iraq with bombs going off, but I didn't have to worry about rats attacking me like I do in this apartment,” Elizar Ortiz said of an apartment his family rents on North Border Avenue.
As for Ms. Foley's displacement, Ms. Kennedy said she had tried for months to move the woman, but she did not want to go.
Ms. Kennedy said Ms. Foley hasn't been paying her rent, and the city of Tyler quit paying the subsidy for the apartment, which rented for $750 per month.
“It's hard to put a little old lady out on the street,” Ms. Kennedy said.
But despite Ms. Kennedy's reasons, the city said it had no choice but to cut the property from the program due to substandard conditions.
HOME, SOUR, HOME
“I have been in some places where you could see the ground through holes in the floor, holes where the rats had chewed through the walls, and raw sewage was backing up into the bathtub,” said Christina Fulsom, executive director of People Attempting to Help. “As bad as the conditions are at some of these places, those living there are afraid to say anything for fear things could be worse.”
Ms. Fulsom, whose agency provides assistance for rent, utilities, food and other needs, said PATH case workers daily see tenants needing home repairs or seeking medical treatment for black-mold exposure.
Studies show 33,000 Smith County residents living in poverty, with many paying more than they should for living costs, she said.
Fair market rent for a two-bedroom residence in Tyler is $750, which would be tough for a minimum-wage worker to pay, she said.
Ms. Fulsom explained that government standards show individuals or families should pay about 30 percent of their annual income. Paying more than that can cause them to be cost-burdened, she said.
Poor credit or criminal histories also factor into renters finding affordable and decent housing.
“If you have good credit, then you can get a better place to live,” Ms Fulsom said. “Some of these people have been through circumstances that have cost them their credit, and they have to live where someone will take a chance on them. There are some out there who will capitalize on hardships of others.”
The HUD survey indicates there are 9,510 residences out of 21,075 rental units in the county where the tenants are cost-burdened, meaning they are paying more than 30 percent of their annual income for rent.
Ms. Fulsom said the underlying problem is the lack of affordable housing in Smith County and surrounding areas.
PATH assists with rent and utility payments, but Ms. Fulsom said each year brings more clients needing help.
“We have a shortage of decent affordable housing in the area, and we desperately need more,” she said.
Ms. Fulsom said clients have attempted to get help for electrical bills from her organization but have been turned away because the bill is in the landlord's name.
“We have seen people whose bill is really high, but we cannot help them because the bill is not in their name, and our funding specifies that as a requirement,” she said. “Many of these places have one meter for multiple units, and the landlord tells the tenant how much they owe, and it can be extremely high for each unit.”
While some renters are victims, others perpetuate the problem by trashing rental property.
“Next time that landlord is going to take a chance on someone, they aren't going to invest monies to fix up the house,” Ms Fulsom said. Others are afraid to voice concerns due to fear they will be evicted and become homeless.
Burns, who has 12 Smith County properties ranging from $475 to $925 in monthly rent, said he has become well-acquainted with the industry's ups and downs.
“It's a fine balance to find the perfect tenant for each property,” he said. “You cannot discriminate, but you can protect yourself a little by taking the time to find out about each applicant.”
Burns said he uses judicial websites to check for criminal histories and civil cases and calls references to make sure the applicant is employed and trustworthy.
Burns, like many landlords, knows how a bad tenant can destroy a property, and he recalled an incident years ago in which a tenant moved in additional people, some of whom were wanted by law enforcement. The situation escalated with a Smith County SWAT team moments away from firing tear gas and flash grenades into Burn's property before the fugitives surrendered.
But after the tenant was arrested, Burns found torn window screens, holes in walls, used syringes and what appeared to be narcotics in bedrooms, including where the tenant's children had slept.
“You just never know what you are going to get until it happens,” he said. “Most people rent a place and take care of it, but some trash it, and that can cost a lot of money in repairs to make ready for the next tenant.”
Ms. Kennedy said she vacated everyone in the apartment units where Ms. Foley lives after burglars took copper water pipes.
Ms. Kennedy, who owns almost 100 rental properties in Tyler, said the copper theft left Ms. Foley's building without heating or air conditioning.
“The unit was a water-chilled unit, so when they stole the copper, they left the water running on and flooded apartments,” she said.
Ms. Kennedy declined to address complaints about conditions at some of her other properties, where tenants questioned why she will not fix water leaks, crumbling walls and black mold that can cause respiratory illnesses.
“I was instructed by my attorney over the weekend not to talk about this,” she said.
Ms. Kennedy said she has had no complaints from tenants.
One tenant, Blanca Garcia, a homemaker who lives with her family of four in one of Ms. Kennedy's properties on Baron Street, pointed to her buckling ceiling that leaks when it rains. The family's bathroom is covered in black mold, and water leaks caused a bedroom wall to collapse. The woman said the mold sickens her family.
Her daughter, Aisha, threw her hands up and said the family feels victimized. “We pay more than $700 each month, and she can't even fix the mold problem,” she said. “My mother scrubs the walls with bleach about three times each week, and it keeps coming back. The landlord needs to do something.”
Some tenants, who claim the homes or apartments they rent are substandard, are paying in excess of $800 per month compared to homes in good repair going for about the same monthly amount.
Ms. Kennedy said she keeps her properties in good repair and that she is not price-gouging anyone.
“If any of these people have a complaint, they haven't called me, so I find it funny that they would tell you and not the person who owns the property,” she said. “I guess this is why my attorney told me not to talk about this.”
At the Ortiz home, the war veteran said his family of eight is looking for another place to live, but the family's economic situation makes it hard to find an affordable place. The person identified as the landlord noted that the family was allowed to live there despite there being eight occupants.
Ortiz said he understands the landlords made certain concessions, but he said his family should not have to hang food from the ceiling to keep rats from eating it or have to worry about the ceiling collapsing. Ortiz said he has complained to the landlord, but his requests were ignored. “They don't do anything to fix it, but when it comes to rent, they want it, and if you are late one or two days they are following you asking, ‘Where's my money?'”