No air conditioning, rotting floors, sagging ceilings: This is how some Longview renters live.
The winter chill was creeping into old Sam Harris’ bones. To fight the draft, he nailed boards across the outside of his windows, and he stretched a wide, blue tarp across an exterior wall of his shotgun shack.
“Well I tell you, it’s awfully cold, and I put that up to make it warmer,” Harris said. “That wind blows hard.”
His neighbor, a welder named Mike Auston, used a different technique to seal off the elements. He lined a doorway and part of his floor with duct tape. Even so, when he pulls back the carpet, daylight peeks through the gaps between the floor and the wall.
“The reason I got this house is I couldn’t afford another one,” said Auston, 58. “It beats living out on the street, but that’s about it.”
Auston, Harris and two other tenants live in four 88-year-old shotgun houses on a 0.37-acre lot beside a set of railroad tracks, in a mostly abandoned area west of downtown Longview. They rent the homes from Joe Collier, a landlord who owns many low-end properties in poor areas of town.
COVERING THE RENT
Collier is a friendly older gentleman who attends the right church and is a longtime volunteer. He has coached generations of youth-league baseball players. He has deep ties to the people who matter.
His tenant Sam Harris is 70 years old, deaf and mostly blind. To help him pay the rent, Collier often hires the old man to pull grass and weeds around the rental properties. “He hates grass,” Collier said. “He can feel it, but he can’t see it.”
While pulling up weeds beneath a shade tree one afternoon, Harris said he did not know how much rent he pays. The other Brown Street tenants said they are charged $400 a month. In April, a young tenant named Kevin Hoffman came up with the more than $400 for his girlfriend’s place, next door to Harris.
“I was baffled when she told me how much she pays,” he said. “It’s obviously just a shed with electricity.”
To demonstrate, he sat on the toilet and rocked wildly, sloshing water onto the floor. The sink appeared to balance on a rusty drain pipe, and Hoffman said the water heater had fallen through the rotting floor, allowing cats and vermin to climb into the house. At the top of the heater, a loose vent filled the bathroom with hot air. There was no air-conditioning, he added.
Hoffman, 23, had come home that morning to find that someone had broken in the night before. The intruder had crawled through the kitchen window.
“There’s no locks, and it comes off pretty easily,” Hoffman said, and he pushed in the window to prove it. “They didn’t take anything. I don’t know what they were looking for, but the place is ransacked.”
Tall and lanky, and — for some reason — wearing traditional ninja footwear, Hoffman said his girlfriend had been arrested a few nights earlier for driving after they both had taken a hallucinogenic cough syrup called Triple C. He was on his way to a pawn shop to pull together the bail money.
“Today’s her birthday, so I’m going to try to get her out,” he said.
Philip Boepple, the fourth tenant of the shotgun shack community, was having a bad day, too. That morning, Boepple had been fired from yet another job. A recovering alcoholic with a history of mental illness, Boepple said he was fighting the urge to drink away his disappointment.
“I’m 53,” he said. “I’m trying to keep myself going, but I’m not going to be retiring when I’m 65. Sometimes I scream my head off at God because it seems he doesn’t want me to get ahead,.” But on the other hand, “I know that if I had a brick for every time he’s helped me, I could build a pyramid.”
One of the biggest helps to him in the past six years has been his landlord and former employer, Joe Collier.
“I was in a homeless shelter in Fort Worth in 2003. I got into Longview and stayed in a motel the first night,” Boepple said. “I called around and got in touch with Joe Collier. I said, ‘I don’t have a job yet, I’m on unemployment, and I’ve got references.’ He rented me a place right away. Then he put me to work a month later.”
Boepple has lived in the shotgun shack for nearly six years, and he said he worked for Collier’s furniture store until it went out of business in December 2004.
“It was a great job,” he said. “I wish they’d reopen. I really do.”
On the outside, Boepple’s house appears no different than the others, with a crumbling front porch, faded walls and a tin roof. But the immaculate interior is decorated with bright, bold colors. Origami and construction-paper dioramas line the shelves — whimsical distractions from a corner of ceiling that is caving in.
Boepple composes songs and scribbles his thoughts with a black marker on his refrigerator. Unlike the other tenants, he’s got an air-conditioning unit, and he jokingly claims to be the only guy on the south side with blue toilet water. A former piano tuner and house painter from Vermont, he’s thinking about livening up the exterior with a splash of orange and yellow trim.
“It’s a pretty exotic little house,” he said.
The county appraiser values the entire Brown Street property at $15,090. Each of the four shacks is 460 square feet, including the front porch, and each is appraised at $2,200. In the course of a year, the tenants will pay far more than that in rent — assuming they pay it.
Collier said three of the four tenants were behind on their monthly rent. With inconsistent tenants and aging properties, he said his profit margins are narrow.
“I should sell them, but finding a guy to buy them — you can’t find the guy,” he said. “People go into it and don’t know how to keep them up. They walk away from them — and there are gobs and gobs and gobs of these homes sitting vacant.”
If the tenants don’t like their living situation, they should just move.
That’s a common argument among landlords, according to Kevin Cummings, the city’s director of development services. The reality is more complicated, say local and state housing officials. They say people with criminal records, poor credit history or mental illness have few options for safe, affordable housing, pushing them into less desirable conditions.
Before moving into the shotgun shack on Brown Street a few months ago, Auston said he was sharing a room with three other men in a Longview shelter for ex-cons, despite having been released from prison seven years earlier. He has no criminal record in Gregg County. Harris, meanwhile, has a long record of theft convictions, and Hoffman talked openly about his marijuana and cough syrup abuse.
“Most landlords will not rent to people who have a criminal history, and that’s understandable,” said John Henneberger, co-director of the nonprofit Texas Low Income Housing Information Service. “A lot of people don’t want to live in an apartment down the hall from somebody who’s got a criminal background. But the bottom line is everybody’s got to live somewhere.”
Galanda Anderson, the director of the prison outreach home where Auston had been staying, said a lack of housing is the No. 1 problem for her clients.
“You wouldn’t believe how many people have been in the program and done well, and when it’s time to get an apartment, that’s the biggest discouragement,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if you’ve been clean for two years. When you have to seek out places that don’t check, they tend to be in a slummy-type area, or their needs can’t be met.”
A couple of weeks went by. Auston was resting his feet on the front porch after a long day’s work.
Boepple was building a speaker box, and Harris was still pulling weeds in the yard. With summer fast approaching, Harris had been thinking about taking down the plastic tarp to let the breeze into his house. The boards over the windows would stay, however, to keep out the riffraff.
Next door, Hoffman’s girlfriend, Courtney Mitchell, was out of jail and out of money. After arguing with Collier about her unpaid rent, she said she found an eviction notice from Collier taped to her front door:
“IF YOU MOVE WITHOUT PAYING WHAT YOU OWE ME!!! I WILL BE TAKING THIS TO THE J.P. COURT AND HAVE PAPERS SERVED ON YOU AT YOUR JOB AND THEN GET A JUDGMENT AGAINST YOU AND HAVE RECORDED ON YOUR RECORD AT GREGG COUNTY COURTHOUSES!!”
It instructed her to vacate the premises by Wednesday, giving her one day to move.
“ANYONE IN THIS UNIT AT THAT TIME IS TRESPASSING AND WILL ARREST FOR BREAKING AND ENTERING AND WILL BE PROSECUTED TO THE FULLEST EXTENT OF THE LAW!!!”
Mitchell, 21, claimed to have withheld rent because of problems with the property, such as the absence of a smoke detector and loose electrical wiring. “If this place caught fire and somebody died, it would be his fault,” she said.
The young couple said they weren’t sure where they would go after the Brown Street shack. Hoffman had just been hired by a convenience store, so they were hoping to be on their again feet soon. Mitchell thought the eviction might turn into a blessing in disguise.
“I’m glad,” she said. “It’s kind of forcing us to go somewhere better. We’ll probably go find the cheapest motel we can, because if it costs too much we’ll never be able to save up enough. We’ll have to stay in some crack motel until we can get a better place, but it’ll never be another Collier home.”
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Monthly rent and utilities for Longview’s estimated 12,700 rental units:
Less than $200: 1.6%
$200 to $299: 2.9%
$300 to $499: 16.5%
$500 to $749: 49.9%
$750 to $999: 17.2%
$1,000 to $1,499: 5.0%
$1,500 or more: 2.5%
No cash rent: 4.4%
Source: U.S. Census Bureau’s 2005-07 American Community Survey
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Renting versus owning
The monthly median costs for housing in Longview, including utilities:
Own (with mortgage): $1,060
Own (no mortgage): $355
Source: U.S. Census Bureau’s 2005-07 American Community Surve
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Sidebar: Business of low-cost rentals a thorny issue
Little rent houses dot the older neighborhoods of Longview.
They are loosely regulated, and many are cheap — especially the ones with sagging floors and no air conditioning. They may not be much, but some of Longview’s poorest residents say they’re thankful to have found a home they can afford.
“It’s cheaper than living in a motel, and you don’t have to deal with the neighbors,” said Duane “Sparky” Goodwin, who pays $100 a week for a one-bedroom place on Texas Street.
As in most cities in Texas, Longview regulates rental houses with the same ordinances it uses for owner-occupied properties, said Kevin Cummings, the city’s director of development services.
“As an individual renting a house, you have the power of economy to walk away from it if you don’t like it,” said Cummings, who oversees building inspections and code enforcement. “You can vote with your feet. The market will bear whatever the market will bear for whatever type of structure is out there.
“That’s the typical small-government answer — why should we interfere with the market when an individual consumer can decide if it’s doable or it’s not doable? The other side of the coin is that OK, you need to protect the public, and we do that with individual rental houses much like we do with individual-owned houses.”
For instance, Cummings said, city employees enforce property code violations such as sewage leaks and structural problems that range from collapsing roofs to electrical fire hazards.
However, the city’s building standards coordinator says it can be difficult to identify problems that aren’t visible from the street.
“The property maintenance code is in effect, but you need the approval of the lessor and lessee to come out and look at a house,” said coordinator Paul Attaway.
That policy took effect in the late 1990s after landlords sued the city and its inspectors to halt more aggressive inspections of properties, he said. Among landlords whose properties might have structural issues, Attaway added, “I don’t think there are too many guys that would be willing to let you go in and look at it.”
It’s not always in renters’ best interest to voice their concerns, Attaway said.
“Many people are afraid to complain,” he said. “They’re afraid they’ll get evicted, which is generally true, because the landlord — all he’s got to do is not renew your contract for whatever reason.”
No rental home ordinance
Though the city inspects apartment units every year, Longview and most other cities in Texas do not have specific ordinances for single-family or duplex rental properties. If standard housing codes are properly enforced, municipal officials and low-income housing advocates say a single-family rental ordinance isn’t necessary.
“It gets discussed every once in a while,” Cummings said. “It tends to happen when something bad happens, being a police matter or an accident, a structure that has some type of failure (such as) a roof leaking on somebody. We tend to get complaints from individual renters when something happens to whatever they’re renting, whether it’s a duplex, apartment or whatnot, and we do make the owners aware of those complaints, and if it’s an apartment we’ll investigate it.”
Added Attaway, “We just sort of leave that whole thing alone. I don’t mess with it.”
Attaway’s office does inspect single-family rental properties from time to time, he said. If a building has been vacant for 30 days or more, he explained, the city inspects the property before power is restored.
Some landlords have found a way to bypass those inspections, though.
“Most people that rent don’t mind having to go through the (inspection) process, but the ones that don’t want to have the city looking at it will leave the electricity in their name,” instead of requiring their tenants to sign up for it, Attaway said.
Longview landlords who register the utilities under their own names say they do so because they rent to lower-income tenants who might not stay in a property for long or who can’t afford to pay utility deposits — or because the inspectors would require costly cosmetic repairs that would be damaged again within weeks.
Landlord Mike Collier said he provides the utilities for some of his properties. At his West Tyler Street office on Monday morning, Collier fielded a call from a person who was planning to move into one of his homes where the power and water were not included in the rental rate.
“Now, make sure you have enough to cover the deposit on the utilities,” Collier instructed.
He said he often coaches his tenants to manage their finances. If property taxes and other expenses keep rising, he added that he will soon be forced to raise rent, a move that many of his tenants cannot afford.
“They’re just surviving,” he said. “If I’m taking their last dollar, where will these tenants go?”
Collier said he earns about $2 per day on his cheaper units. He and other landlords say if they spend too much money on their rental properties and raise the rents correspondingly, they will price out their poorest tenants.
“People have got to understand we don’t do this for charity,” Collier said. “I’m an investor. That’s how I put food on the table for my family.”
He said many of Longview’s biggest landlords have gotten out of the business or have shifted their focus to more lucrative middle-class holdings. Another local landlord, Vernon Stanmore Jr., agreed that net profits are small for landlords who maintain lower-end rental properties.
“I try to help anybody who comes through. I try to keep my prices where families can handle it, and I maintain the properties I have. I don’t like slums. The money I get, consequently, there’s not a lot left to pay anybody to manage the properties.”
At the rent homes
On a recent afternoon, a hand-stenciled sign invited people into a duplex on South 12th Street. The home is owned by Collier’s brother, Joe, who leaves his vacant homes unlocked during the day so potential tenants can have a look around.
Inside, freshly vacuumed strips of carpet lie side by side beneath a striped sofa and coffee table. Linoleum peeled from the tilted floor of the kitchen between grease-stained walls.
The name “Joe Collier” was scrawled on the refrigerator to deter theft. Joe Collier, 71, is well known among low-income tenants and city officials. He has dozens of rental properties in the city, including many that he inherited from his late father Frank Collier, who founded the now-defunct Collier Furniture store on West Tyler Street and who once owned numerous properties in Longview.
Back outside the 12th Street property, duplex neighbor Beverly Cook was tending her manicured lawn. Cook said her husband is a maintenance worker for Joe Collier, and they have lived there for five years in the wooden house with peeling beige paint.
“It’s all right. Nobody bothers me, and I don’t bother them,” she said. “It’s not as bad as a lot of people are making it.”
Packed dirt suffices for the yards in some of Longview’s lower-end rental properties, but Cook’s front yard is full of lush, green grass. A pink rose bush is blooming near the driveway.
“Every little while we get a hardhead, but other than that we mind our own business,” Cook said. “We don’t have no problems. I just tell them to stay off the grass.”
In another Joe Collier home, on Texas Street off East Marshall Avenue, “Sparky” Goodwin was repairing a computer at the aging house, adorned with a brick facade and green loveseat on the front patio. His only complaints were the tilting kitchen floor and occasional standing water near the back door.
“I’ve been living in motels and apartments for most of my life,” said Goodwin, 44. “They rent these so quick, it’s hard to get one. They stay pretty well full.”
The electronics repairman said he doesn’t have a driver’s license or birth certificate, and it is difficult to find a place that does not require background checks.
“I managed to get in because people know me. That’s about the only advantage I have,” he said. “I’m caught between a rock and a hard place until I get enough money to get it situated.”
Providing safe housing
John Henneberger, co-director of the nonprofit Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, said it’s important for cities to keep an eye on lower-end rentals. When they are unsafe or unsanitary, he said, the impact can be felt throughout a community.
“When you’ve got a slum property, you can’t be assessed very much on the tax rolls, but there’s still a demand for city services,” he said. “The property doesn’t pay its own way.”
He said it’s up to government leaders to enforce property codes and to attract decent, affordable housing.
“The solution is to see there is an adequate provision for good quality, affordable housing so people aren’t forced into slum housing,” Henneberger said.
“A lot of people say that’s just the way it’s been for a long, long time, but increasingly we’re understanding that all of society pays the cost for these types of living conditions. It’s much cheaper in the end, especially when children are involved, to get folks into a decent, safe, affordable unit.”
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Sidebar: Pair makes rundown houses worth living in
An ambitious plan to rebuild 87 rundown houses in South Longview appears to have paid off for a Henderson real estate partnership.
The homes once belonged to Johnnie Watts, a local landlord who died in 2007. In the late 1990s, Watts successfully sued city inspectors to halt aggressive tactics that would have forced him to clean up his rental properties.
“He was a notorious slumlord king,” said Johnny McCune, an area homebuilder.
In 2005, Watts’ health was failing, and McCune and his business partner, the barbecue baron Harold Sadler, were looking to expand a house restoration business they had begun two years earlier in Henderson.
“We made an offer and bought them, and man I didn’t know what I was getting into. Every single one of them was rotten,” McCune said. “We only paid $11,000 apiece for them, though, so we felt like we got a good bargain. We started one at a time, putting roofs on them, shoring up the bathrooms, making the floors solid, updating the wiring.”
Four years later, all but two of the properties have been refurbished and rented or sold.
“I don’t know if you’d call it restoring them,” McCune said. “More like patching them. They were in pretty bad shape, but we spent a lot of money on them. and they are livable now.”
Of the two remaining houses, one is at 306 Davis St., on a block with such a reputation that members of a drug ring had taken to calling themselves “Davis Street” and “300” before many of them were arrested in a federal sting a year ago.
“It’s right in the middle of a drug area that’s been gutted by the prostitutes and drug dealers, so I’ve got to really go in and rebuild,” McCune said. “Once we get that one cleaned up and rebuilt, we rent it to some good people, and normally it turns out to be good people who move in.”
Another property being restored, at 520 Idylwood Drive, was at the center of Watts’ lawsuit filed in 1997 and settled in 1999. Watts argued city inspectors violated his right to due process when they condemned the property after inspecting it without obtaining a warrant or his consent.
Today, the home sports brown vinyl siding, a new roof, new windows and a new floor, drawing compliments from the neighbors.
“It was in pretty bad shape before,” said James Washington, who lives next door. “You wouldn’t even know it from the old house. It’s a totally different house.”
McCune said the monthly rents on his properties range from $120 to $650. The business sold 13 houses to another investor and has financed the sale of 10 homes to individuals.
“We try to give people a chance to own their own property. We charge 10 percent down or they can rent to own,” he said. “But if I keep them, it’s no big deal because we’re collecting rent from them.”
Watts’ family could not be reached for comment.
Cleanup of his houses has not been cheap, McCune said.
“We ended up spending another $1 million for repairs on those 87 properties, but in those four years we’ve taken in the money on rents. It’s been a good deal. It’s paid my salary and Mr. Sadler’s interest.”