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Unsanitary living conditions force El Terreón residents to move

By LOURDES VAZQUEZ
March 6, 2010 at 10:03 p.m.
Updated March 6, 2010 at 9:07 p.m.

Residents were forced to move out of El Torreon apartments due to lack of running water that leads to unsanitary conditions.

A foul smell permeated the almost-empty El Torreón apartment complex.

The building at 1303 E. Colorado St. lacked water for more than a month. Residents could no longer flush their toilets or even bathe.

When the city of Victoria deemed the building falls short of minimum housing standards, it gave residents a week to find new homes.

This complex is yet another example of substandard local living conditions that forced city officials to reconsider their policies and residents to seek help.

Lacking water

Jason Anderson, a Leander man, owns the El Torreón apartment complex. He stopped paying the building's water bill in August, according to the city.

Anderson owed more than $17,500 as of February, city records show.

The city shut off water to his complex on Jan. 25. Two weeks later, the city placed a lien on the property and sent a substandard building notice to the landlord. The letter requested a thorough inspection of the building and warned Anderson he might have to repair, demolish or secure the complex.

Lynn Short, the city's public works director, said he has threatened only three other landlords with shutting off water because of past due bills.

Unlike the others, Anderson failed to establish a plan to pay his past due water bill, Short said.

"We have turned over the bill to a collection agency," the public works director said.

Rick Madrid, a building inspection official, visited the complex. Despite shoddy flooring in some units, the building's structure otherwise appears safe, he said. He found unlocked apartment doors and missing air conditioners, which left gaps for squatters.

Some residents who lived in the 21 apartments left immediately after a Feb. 23 letter notified renters that they would have by March 2 to find a new home.

Without water, however, Madrid said the property would quickly become a health and sanitation violation. "As time passes, it will just worsen, I'm afraid," Madrid said.

Facing homelessness

When residents learned on Feb. 23 that they had one week to find a new home, many panicked. Three residents, however, still remained in the complex early last week.

"We're going to be homeless if we don't find a place soon," said Deborah Hood, 55.

"I don't know which way to go," said H'Janna Schmidt, a 73-year-old who has lived at the complex for 10 years. "I'm barely making it."

Schmidt's problems compound, she said, because she must find available government subsidized housing.

Ray Miller, the city's deputy director of building services, said that throughout this process his office remained in contact with Mid-Coast Family Services.

Mid-Coast already helped some residents to relocate to places such as Summerstone Apartments on North Ben Jordan Street.

Schmidt, though, said she can't afford Summerstone's rent. Jim Welvaert of the Gateway Project and Ginny Stafford, Mid-Coast's chief executive officer, took Schmidt to look at alternatives.

Because Schmidt receives federal assistant, her search for subsidized housing is complicated.

"People can't double-dip," Stafford said. "It's been a real challenge."

Eva Canales of Girling Health Care provides care and water for Schmidt, who is disabled.

"She cries a lot," the care provider said. "She's worried."

Larry Smith, a former El Torreón apartment complex resident, relocated to Summerstone. On Tuesday, he filed a $1 million lawsuit against Anderson and Anderson Management, the landlord's company.

"The landlord knowingly and intentionally collected money without planning to pay the water bill," Smith said, "It's theft. It's actually theft."

Smith's lawsuit alleges Anderson violated the landlord-tenant lease agreement and engaged in illegal conduct by subjecting him and others to cruel and unusual treatment.

"I'm just tired of dealing with slumlords," Smith said.

The landlord talks

Anderson admits he was wrong to avoid paying past due water bills, but said some of Smith's allegations - that Anderson failed to make repairs, for example - are unfounded.

"Basically, anything that needed to be repaired on the property was repaired," Anderson said. "The electricity was turned off because of a short."

Anderson said he was unaware as of this week that three residents remained at the complex beyond the March 2 vacate deadline.

"I was under the impression that everybody had moved," he said.

The city continues to work with Mid-Coast and other agencies to ensure the remaining El Torreón residents find replacement homes.

As complex residents vacated, security problems have moved in. Miller said vandalism and theft crimes increased El Torreón in recent weeks. Someone tried to steal Schmidt's air conditioner, for example.

"The critical thing is we don't want it to become a nuisance," said John Kaminski, the city's director of development services. "Code enforcement has already served the owner with a notice requiring him to secure the vacant units."

Anderson said he received a letter informing him he'd incur the city's costs to secure the building - boarding windows and doors - if he did not.

Victoria County court documents show Anderson was once sued by the county for $7,900 in 2006 unpaid taxes for El Torreón, but the case was later dropped.

If code violations mount, the building moves closer to condemnation.

City Attorney Thomas Gwosdz declined comment on possible legal action against Anderson.

"We are looking at options to protect our interest and in that of the outstanding bill," Gwosdz said.

Schmidt, meanwhile, finally found a new home at another local apartment complex.

"It's going to be big enough where I'm going, I can get out the bell collection and all my other collections," Schmidt said.

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