Eight buildings have been closed down in 2016 in the Spring and Klein area by the Harris County attorney’s office, with the bulk of them lining
FM 1960. And lawsuits are pending on two more, following stricter enforcement of what the county refers to as nuisance buildings.
Nuisance buildings are defined by the habitual activity that occurs on the property. Problematic buildings in northwest Harris County that are brought to the attention of the attorney’s office include motels, game rooms and massage parlors with habitual offenses of drug activity, aggravated assaults, robberies, prostitution, endangerment of children and gambling, said Celena Vinson, deputy managing attorney for the county attorney’s office.
“Discharge of firearms is a big one,” Vinson said. “Around a lot of bars and hotels, residents complain they are constantly hearing gun shots. It’s a real nuisance for people living around those places.”
Texas statute states if a building is considered a nuisance, it is supposed to be closed for a year, Vinson said. Cooperative landlords will often evict tenants to eliminate the nuisance along with the agreement they will not lease to another business that conducts similar activities.
“We have some who unfortunately don’t want to cooperate, and we move forward and get injunctions against them or restraining orders or a default judgment,” she said. “Sometimes we have landlords who cooperate, and we work with those landlords.”
The Houston Northwest Chamber of Commerce has a history of battling nuisance buildings, such as with “Love Louetta,” which focused on nuisance properties.
“We are supportive of the efforts of citizens to eradicate problem properties, and we work to attract new buyers or developers to the property if there is an opportunity,” said Barbara Thomason, Houston Northwest Chamber of Commerce president.
Thomason said recent efforts to eradicate nuisance buildings are due to Larry Lipton, local business owner and chairman of the Houston Northwest Chamber of Commerce monthly public safety forum.
Allowing nuisance buildings to participate in criminal activity guarantees the steady deterioration of the community, Lipton said.
“When we have nuisance buildings that attract homeless and attract crime and that reputation gets out, clearly both business and homeowners are affected negatively,” Lipton said.
Lipton has championed the effort to eradicate nuisance buildings for the past 10 years because of the crime that is associated with them. He said legitimate business owners benefit when a lawsuit is enacted against a nearby nuisance building.
“After the lawsuit, the business owners can instantly see a difference,” he said. “Because they’re right there, they can immediately see differences, and they’ve been dramatic.”
For eight years, Sharon Vaughn has been the manager of Victor’s Deli on FM 1960, situated in front of Champions Lodge, a motel that is being sued for nuisance activity.
She said the frequent car and foot traffic that comes and goes at the motel sometimes interferes with the restaurant traffic. Vaughn worries that customers are turned off by the presence of panhandling and other activity that is present as a result of the motel.
“One day on a Saturday, I had a judge call me,” Harris County Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman said. “He and his family ate at Victor’s Deli with a lady in the parking lot propositioning people.”
In September, the county attorney’s office filed suit against Champions Lodge to petition for nuisance abatement, and since the deli has seen a marked improvement, Vaughn said.
The owner of Champions Lodge, who chooses to remain nameless, said he has improved security measures at the motel as a result of the lawsuit.
“We have a security guard working at night,” he said. “We installed direct lights, and we have camera system. We are making a lot of changes so that it’s been very quiet.”
The attorney’s office often makes suggestions to landlords to make their properties safer, such as asking that a law enforcement officer be hired to secure the properties or to prohibit short-term rentals of the properties.
Vinson said county law enforcement officers are trained to mitigate crime on properties through an environmental designer and can make suggestions of cutting hedges, putting up lights or hiring security guards.
She said the county attorney’s office has been tamping down on nuisance buildings for five years.
“We’ve ramped up our efforts because word has gotten out that combining civil enforcement and criminal enforcement is the best way to solve the problem,” Vinson said.
Law enforcement works with the county attorney’s office and the health department to reach a conclusion with the property owner to fix the problem through the legal process,
“If there is violation of state law, we will contact the owner of the property,” he said. “If it’s unsecure property, we coordinate our efforts with the health department.”
An unsecure property is one that has broken windows or open doors where it is easy to gain access, he said.
“If you have dilapidated and rundown buildings, it invites criminal activity and things that are illegal,” Herman said. “Trespassing, drug use, prostitution—[criminals] go to these locations.”
Helping in these efforts, the Harris County Precinct 4 constable’s office has ramped up its investigation of questionable businesses—primarily sexually oriented businesses and gambling parlors—since the creation of the Regulatory Enforcement Unit in 2009.
When it began in 2009, the division logged 268 charges regarding nuisance buildings. By 2014, that number had been reduced to 72. So far this year, there have been 16 charges.
“Once we started the unit we made many cases and filed a lot of charges,” Herman said. “It got to the point that many massage parlors, game rooms and spas moved away from Precinct 4 into other precincts.”
He said as a result, precincts 1 and 5 now have regulatory enforcement units as well.
“They also try to open up again out here under a different name,” Herman said. “But we get right on them.”
Harris County Sheriff Ron Hickman said dialogue with building and property owners is an important part of the process regarding nuisance abatement. Long before the county attorney files suit against a property owner, the property owners are contacted to make sure they are aware of the problems on the property and are given an opportunity to remedy the situation.
“[Dialogue] is one of our more successful tools in dealing with nuisance locations, whether it be an abandoned building or piece of vacant property where that spot eventually becomes a centerpoint for criminal activity,” Hickman said. “Run-down and abandoned buildings and ramshackle motels all contribute to the area’s crime problem and usually attract a fair amount of illegal activity as well.”
Nuisance building eradication on FM 1960 is especially problematic due to the ubiquity of abandoned buildings that are not maintained by the owners, creating a public hazard that attracts crime, said Kevin Roberts, who was elected as the new state representative for District 126 in November.
“My legislative staff is researching Texas law to see how such nuisance buildings are addressed in statute,” he said. “My intention once I have a better understanding is to meet with our Harris County attorney and other relevant local officials to see, if anything, what we might do to remedy this issue.”
Roberts said prior to being elected as state representative, he worked with the community and its leaders to brainstorm ideas on how nuisance buildings might be repurposed to transform to an asset to the community.
“Beautification efforts have a long history in our community, but the remaining abandoned and dilapidated buildings are a huge concern as our community focuses on improving our visual image,” Roberts said.