Whose Property Rights Are Being Protected?
By PATRICIA HART copyright 2012 Houston Chronicle
January 7, 2012 11:17 PM
Shabby plywood, with the obligatory spray-painted tagging, covers what used to be windows and doors to homes at the Winfield I condominium complex in Alief. A giant hole gapes in the parking lot where someone has stolen the cover from a storm drain. Although "parking lot" is too kind a term: A growing heap of unsightly trash is quickly transforming this real estate into a public dump site.
This abandoned complex, which neighbors say is a haven for drug dealers and prostitutes, is a malignancy on a neighborhood, threatening to invade surrounding condos and apartment communities as the ugliness metastasizes and property values decline.
But last summer, the Texas Supreme Court issued a decision that has made it more difficult for municipalities to order demolitions of abandoned nuisances like this one. In its City of Dallas v. Stewart decision, the court claims to protect private property owners from unfair government seizure.
"The question is: whose private property rights?" asked Scott Houston, an attorney for the Texas Municipal League, which has asked the court to reconsider its decision. "The absentee landlord or all the people who live around that property?"
Standing in front of the shabby Winfield I in Alief, there's no question that the property values of this building's neighbors have suffered.
"I worry the children will get hurt," said Elise Van Lum, who lives across the street in the Winfield II condominiums, as we recently surveyed the debris and neglect.
Not to mention her own personal safety, since two bodies have turned up within a block of the place this year - signs of the criminal element taking refuge behind the propped-up plywood.
The Metropolitan Organization of Houston has contacted city officials about razing the building, but its leaders have been told there are limited funds.
"It's penny-wise and pound foolish," says Franklin Olson, a TMO board member. "It reduces property values, and invites criminals. The neighbors are in a fortress mentality."
Clearly, Houston officials know the contagious nature of urban blight. Last May, Mayor Annise Parker announced that the city would raze 400 blighted structures in partnership with the Houston Contractors Association.
"Rather than ignore the sites that are a haven for drugs, prostitution and other crimes, we target them to help increase public safety and the neighborhood's quality of life," Parker said back then.
Now, as the neighbors of Winfield I eagerly await city action against the eyesore in their neighborhood, the Texas Supreme Court has made it more difficult for cities to respond.
For about 10 years, the city of Dallas had been warning Heather Stewart that the rundown house she owned failed to meet building standards. Finally, a city board ordered it demolished. Stewart sued the city, and the Texas Supreme Court ruled that the demolition order amounted to a "taking" of private property by the city. Only an elected judge can rule that a property can be taken, the court said, not an appointed government board.
"It stunned quite a few folks," said the municipal league's Houston of the divided, 5-4 ruling.
Looking for balance
In Houston, the decision prompted the city to stop razing buildings until December, when Mayor Parker created a new city panel to review proposed demolitions. Spokeswoman Janice Evans says the group will permit demolitions only when public health and safety concerns outweigh the risk of a lawsuit.
Clearly, a balance needs to be struck that protects property owners. Just last week, a Houston businesswoman sued the city for failing to notify her before razing two houses she owned. City officials declined to comment on the lawsuit.
But there's a role for government to play in protecting the public from irresponsible citizens. As the municipal league, argues in its request for a rehearing, the Texas Supreme Court's ruling could ultimately limit the ability of cities to control "serious health and other safety risks."
The brief is accompanied by photos that could be captioned "Texas Hall of Fame of Bad Neighbors": a stagnant swimming pool teeming with mosquitoes; an abandoned, battered car overgrown with weeds; a hoarder's possessions spilling across a yard.
Let's hope the court reconsiders. And that the neighbors of the Winfield I condos get some relief soon.