Monday, October 18, 2010

Debunking the Myths about Proposition 1

If you live in Houston, you’ve probably heard about Proposition 1 – a piece of Municipal legislation on the November 8 ballot that would create a dedicated fund for the repair of Houston’s infrastructure. I moved here in 1998, and I’ve yet to see a more desperately needed piece of legislation.

Unfortunately, a groundswell of opposition has formed to Proposition 1, and they’re hard at work spreading misinformation about it. As a supporter, I feel it is my duty to correct them.

Myth # 1: Proposition 1 is just about drainage. Actually, Proposition 1 is about ALL infrastructure under the City’s control. That includes storm sewers, and ROADS. Our City is riddled with pot holes that do severe damage to vehicles.

I’ll pause and let the first myth sink in, because it really is the most important – and the one everyone overlooks (including four members of City Council). Whenever you drive over a pot hole or have to replace the shocks in your car, think about Proposition 1 and how nice it’d be if we could FIX HOUSTON’S ROADS.

Myth # 2: Proposition 1 is a tax. In fact, Proposition 1 is an assessment on impervious cover. You might own ten acres on the outskirts of Houston, but you’ll only pay for the part that’s paved over. The reason for this is that impervious cover contributes to flooding, and also requires curb-cuts for road access to your property.

Myth # 3: We already pay a tax for the Harris County Flood Control District; we shouldn’t have to pay an assessment for the same thing. Harris County Flood Control handles big, regional stormwater detention and drainage facilities. But those big facilities are fed by a network of smaller, City owned storm sewers, open ditches and culverts. The City does an abysmal job at maintaining these facilities – and usually their excuse is that they don’t have the money. Proposition 1 would take away that excuse.

Myth # 4: Proposition 1 will place undue burden on the poor. The fees are estimated at only $5 per month for an average house. Most of us spend more on coffee in a week. For commercial properties, it’s $92 per acre of impervious cover per month – less than the cost of printing up flyers for advertisement. Bear in mind that most small businesses are on far less than an acre of land.

Myth #5: The Mayor is behind Proposition 1. Actually Proposition 1 was spearheaded by City Councilman Stephen Costello and a non-profit group called Renew Houston. Our Mayor supports Proposition 1, but it wasn’t her idea.

Myth #6: Renew Houston is just a bunch of engineers who want money. It's true that Renew Houston was formed by engineers, but that's because engineers can see the full extent of the problem. Engineers understand the flood control and transportation needs of our City.

I don’t work for Renew Houston or Stephen Costello’s office. I am not being paid at all for writing this. I actually wish Proposition 1 weren’t necessary. But we can’t rely on the general fund to pay for road and drainage repairs. It's too easy for City Hall to raid the general fund for other things. We need a special fund that they can only use for roads and drainage, and that's exactly what Proposition 1 will provide.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Condo Complex Loophole: What it is, and why it needs to be closed.

People don’t realize it, but some of the worst “apartments” in Houston are actually condominiums. The infamous Candlelight Trails complex was condominiums; and there are countless others across the City.

If you’re familiar with how the City enforces its codes, this should come as no surprise. An apartment complex is a single property. If the property has code violations or other problems, there’s only one owner to go after. And go after them Houston has. They've used a combination of sticks and carrots to change apartment complexes. They've got a long way to go, but the improvements are starting to be seen.

In a condo complex, each unit is a separate property, and may have a separate owner. If there are problems, each of those owners has to be contacted. They all must agree on any repairs to be made. And if the complex needs to be condemned - as was the case at the Candlelight Trails - the City needs to sue each of the owners individually. It’s much more time consuming for the City, and expensive for the taxpayer.

I call it the Condo Complex Loophole, and slum lords use it to their advantage. They buy a controlling portion of a condo complex, and then rent them out to unsuspecting tenants. It’s a devilish way of avoiding City enforcement, and it can really hurt innocent owners. At the Candlelight Trails, a widowed mother of three was hit with $200,000 in legal fees - because of a Dallas based slum lord who took advantage of the Condo Complex Loophole.

Hopefully the City will do something to close the Condo Complex Loophole. It's hard to tell what they can do - they can't outlaw condominiums or sue owners without contacting them. But the Condo Complex Loophole protects slum lords. It’s unfair to neighbors, it’s unfair to tenants, and it’s unfair to honest owners.