FEBRUARY 13. 1987/MONTROSE VOICE 3
Abandoned Buildings Draw Ire
of Civic, Business Groups
By Sheri Cohen Darbonne
Following what Houston Fire Department arson investigators say is the fifth
suspicious fire in a few weeks time to
start in a vacant building on lower Westheimer, representatives of local business and homeowner organizations are
waging war against negligent property
owners and non-responsive city agencies they say are carelessly allowing the
hazardous open buildings to proliferate
in the neighborhood.
A house at 203 Westheimer, the
former site of an Oriental "modeling
studio," burned for the second time in
less than three weeks Monday afternoon, Feb. 9. Fire engines and other
emergency vehicles blocked access via
Westheimer to the Southwest Freeway
Milam ramp and the downtown corridor
for over three hours.
The house and a nearby building at
108 Westheimer, also vacant, were the
scene of two fires which started separately on Jan. 14, according to arson
investigators. Five lower Westheimer
arson cases are currently being investigated, and the fire department has not
found reliable evidence to connect the
fires, investigator Butch I^ewis said.
Fires in vacant buildings are usually
considered arson because, in the
absence of electricity and appliances,
there is generally no other reason for a
fire to start, Lewis said.
Open buildings on lower Westheimer
pose a particular hazard because ofthe
number of transients in the area, Lewis
Local attorney Sharon Weintraub
approached the Neartown Businss
Alliance Wednesday, Feb. 11, urging
support of an aggressive letter-writing
campaign intended to "scare" owners of
potentially dangerous buildings into
cleaning up and boarding up their properties as required by city ordinance.
Weintraub spoke as a representative
of "The Coalition of Montrose Organizations," an action group including
members of NBA, The Greater Montrose Business Guild and two area resident organizations, Neartown
Association and the Avondale Association.
The coalition had drafted a letter several weeks earlier, urging property
owners to take action within 10 days to
bring their property into compliance
with the laws and warning that owners
have been held liable for criminal acts
occurring in unsecured buildings, Weintraub said She added, however, that
she did not feel the letter should be sent
out until the neighborhood groups
decided on a definite follow-up plan of
Gail Ramsey, who at first suggested
the NBA endorse the letter and facilitate its immediate mailout, withdrew
her motion on the condition that the
coalition or a special committee meet to
discuss action on the letter prior to the
next alliance meeting in March.
"Otherwise, I withdraw under protest," Ramsey stated. "We have been
around with this(vacantbuildingissue)
for the past six months, and if we don't
do something now, there will just be
more buildings burning until next
John Daniel told members he had
spoken with Luke London of the Houston Department of Public Works, who
he described as the city contact for dangerous buildings in the Montrose area.
London assured him he would get
involved in investigating specific cases
of hazardous conditions if they are properly reported and documented, Daniel
Daniel agreed to invite London to the
March 11 NBA meeting.
A major problem exists in contacting
of City Councilman George Greanias,
said complaints received by Greanias
are turned over to the health department for investigation.
"The first step is to ask the owner to
board it up. If that doesn't work, the
owner may be ticketed," Phillips said.
Phillips cited financial constraints of
Total laiun maintenance
• Trash Remoual
• Chimney Sweep
• Tree Serutce
• Stumps Removed
• Complete Sprinkler Systems
the owners of abandoned, burnt-out
buildings as complete, up-to-date,
records of the property holders seem to
be rare or non-existent. Many of the
properties have changed hands many
times, and some owners are foreign corporations or individuals who cannot be
traced. Even the police and fire departments do not have complete lists ofthe
"We have a partial list, that's all,"
Sgt. D.V. Williams, supervisor of the
Neartown Police Community Center,
said. "We have a lot of problems with
these vacant buildings when vagrants
break in or go into an open building.
Officers go in and chase them out, but
they come right back when the officers
leave," he explained.
"If we could contact the owners, we
can put these vagrants in jail," Williams said, noting that many would stay
there because they would not be able to
pay the $800 bond for criminal trespassing. "But they can only be arrested with
the owner's permission ... if we can't
contact the owners, there's nothing we
Lewis said the arson investigators
working on the recent lower Westheimer
fires don't know who owns the property
at 203 Westheimer.
Vernon Black, administrator of the
Houston Health Department's Office of
Housing Conservation, which enforces
many ofthe building ordinances, said it
is not difficult to use county tax records
to determine who is paying taxes on the
property. Delays are due to the fact that
every mortage holder, lien holder, and
anyone else with a possible interest in
the property must be notified before any
action can be taken, he said. It is these
"owners" who are sometimes hard to
find, and this is one reason it takes time
to respond to dangerous building complaints, according to the administrator.
"The city must allow due process to
everyone with an interest. Otherwise,
we're liable to suit subsequent to a
demolition by someone saying they weren't notified." Black said.
Terry Phillips, who works in the office
the city and the escalating rate of property abandonment in Montrose as other
reasons for the continuing problem.
"We have only a certain number of
men who tear down buildings ... they
are literally being abandoned faster
than we can tear them down," Phillips
Getting permission to tear down a
building is cumbersome because of the
legal restrictions, he added.
Black said there are currently at least
25 cases of code violations in some stage
of investigation in the Montrose area.
But neighborhood forces insist the
city is unnecessarily sluggish in enforcing its own laws when it comes to
vacant Montrose buildings.
Warren Duncanson, a member ofthe
Avondale Association, said he is
"spearheading" a group of neighborhood property owners who are investigating the legal possibility of filing
class action suits against negligent
holders. Duncanson said the area's
"ghetto look" due to the abandoned
properties has made it impossible for
him to lease out a retail space he owns
on Westheimer. Other property owners
have had similar problems leasing or
selling what would otherwise be considered good locations for new business,
Rock "N" Horse
Help Us Celebrate Our
Sat. Feb. 14
Champagne Fountain and Food
(ALL GIRL BAND)
with Shannon, Susan, Susan,
Open Tue.-Thurs. 4pm-2am
Narene Kee. owner
1411 Taft IW-*____J) 522-2190