Crime is rampant for apartment dwellers
I was recently browsing on the social media site NextDoor® and ran across this post:
“Just drove through my apartment’s parking garage (Heights West End) and witnessed a trail of cars on blocks. In all my years of apartment living, I’ve never seen anything like this. They hit car after car after car, all the tires gone.”
“Couple of months ago, 16 wheels were taken, cars on bricks, all in one night. Two weeks ago they came back, stole 4 trucks in one night. These are bold, brazen crooks. We have only a courtesy security HPD homicide detective, but we don’t expect anyone to stay up all night.”
“I saw this when I lived at the Lofts at the Ballpark. It’s usually a crew of 4-5 and they can get all 4 wheels off in under 60 seconds! Wheel locks don’t do any good, just takes them a little longer but they know how to get those off too.”
“I just moved into my place last week. Someone managed to climb up to my 2nd story balcony last night and steal mine and my daughter’s bicycles off the balcony!! How did they do that??!”
And on and on it went. This particular discussion had more than 250 responses.
“Hold the apartment complex responsible!”
“No, they won’t do anything, that’s why you initialed that part in the lease that absolved them of all responsibility.”
“How do you expect them to do anything when the police won’t do anything??”
“If they spend money on security [fences, guards, cameras], it means they are taking responsibility for security of the complex and it means they are liable, you IDIOT!”
“VOTE X, Y, AND Z OUT OF OFFICE!! You voted DEMOCRAT, that’s what you GET!”
“We all need to get together and build a class-action lawsuit against these a**hole landlords.”
The level of acrimony between complete strangers on social media always amazes me; what people are willing to say to each other that they wouldn’t say to a friend or a family member is astonishing. But I have to admit, that last bit about the class-action lawsuit has merit.
My own crime story
Reading all this reminded me of something that I’d all but forgotten. I’d been a victim of this kind of random crime myself, almost 20 years ago.
In 2003 I had separated from my husband Bill and moved into an apartment right across the street from where my rented office space was located. I signed a 6-month lease and we were going to take a cooling-off period and think things through. It had been at least 15 years since I’d experienced apartment life, and going from a 4-bedroom house with a swimming pool and a huge yard to a one-bedroom apartment was quite a shock to my system. The place was nice enough, as apartments go, and had a security gate at the main entrance with a keypad for the residents to gain entry. But half the time that gate didn’t work and was just jammed open.
For those of you who know Houston, this was the Ashford Lakes Apartments in the Energy Corridor on S. Dairy Ashford, immediately south of Terry Hershey Park, which has a wonderful system of hike and bike trails along Buffalo Bayou. I chose an apartment on the outside perimeter of the complex that faced the wooded trail and bayou, because I liked the view of all those trees and also thought it would be quieter there. (Pay attention, this becomes important later on.)
I had a relatively new car at the time and one that I truly loved; in fact, it’s the only car I’ve ever owned I can say that about. It was a 1999 10th anniversary edition Mazda Miata convertible, a dazzling metallic blue that absolutely shimmered in the sunshine. The soft top was also a matching blue. And best of all, the interior had two-toned bright blue suede and black leather seats and console—damn, it was gorgeous! Of course, it was a stick shift. I just loved zipping around in that car! I could get in and out of any parking spot, it turned on a dime, and used very little gas. It was the most fun and most beautiful car I ever owned.
After living in this apartment for about 2 months, I came out one morning to run some errands and then I was going to go into my office. I walked out to my car (we just had open lots, no carports or parking garage) and was shocked to find that someone had SLASHED the soft top of my convertible with a knife!
I just stood there and looked at it, dumbfounded. My beautiful car, with the soft top just hanging there with a huge gash down the middle. When I opened the car door, they hadn’t damaged the inside and I hadn’t been storing anything in there worth stealing, so if that was their motivation, they were disappointed.
I realized my day was shot. I walked over to the main office and reported to the receptionist what had happened, and then got on the phone to my insurance company. My deductible on my insurance was substantial enough that it made a significant dent in my wallet—it was either $500 or $1,000, but I don’t remember exactly. Luckily, they were able to set me up with a repair company within a day or two, so I didn’t have to wait long. I duct-taped the top closed as best I could so I could drive around town. That very night, I remember, I had to drive to the Montrose area for French class at the Alliance Française (just something I was doing for fun), and I arrived still quite rattled.
Approximately 6 weeks later, the same thing happened again. Only this time, not only did they slash my soft top, but they also punctured all four of my tires. (This model of Miata had wheel locks, and the insurance adjuster said later that they might have done that out of spite because they couldn’t get the tires off.) But also this time, they hit about six cars all around mine. Windows were smashed, tires were slashed, tires were missing. A whole row of cars sustained significant damage.
As I stared at my car in disbelief that morning, my neighbors were starting to filter out of their apartments and find out what happened to their cars. We were a group of not happy campers. We started to discuss the situation with the security gate, which hadn’t been working again all week. Whoever did this had easy access to our parking lot. Plus, we were on the outside, more isolated part of the complex, facing the bayou, so whoever did this picked their spot well—they knew they’d be relatively hidden from view.
They stole something next to priceless from me this time. As I said, I’d been taking French classes, which I’d been doing off and on for years. I had a tote bag in my car that held several courses worth of extensive notes, plus all the course workbooks, my French dictionaries and grammars, plus all the course exercises and handouts. The whole tote bag was gone, and that devastated me almost as much as my car getting wrecked again. To me that was irreplaceable—all those years of work and reference material, gone. And the sad thing was, it had value only to me. I knew that as soon as the thieves saw what it was, they threw it into the nearest dumpster.
This time, I was furious. I marched into the office of the apartment complex. The unlucky person who was working at the reception desk was a girl relatively new to the job, and quite young. Admittedly, I was angry and came on strong. I told her what happened, now for the second time for me, and asked what the complex was going to do about this? The gate had been broken so no security was in place. Were they going to be responsible for fixing my car, and all the other cars?
Her response came out of nowhere. “Well now ma’am, there might be another explanation for these events, that we don’t have any control over. This is the second time your car top got slashed?”
Me: “Yes, but…?”
Her: “Didn’t you say when you moved in here that you were separating from your husband…?” and her voice kind of trailed off.
The outrageousness of what she was suggesting knocked me back and infuriated me even further.
Me: “What on earth are you saying?”
Her: “Well, have you thought about whether it could be him?”
At that, I exploded. “Listen lady. I don’t know who you think you are, to speak to me in that way. You don’t know anything about me, or about us. You have absolutely ZERO basis to make an assumption like that. How dare you suggest that we are the kind of people who resolve our differences in that way! And how does that explain the other six cars that were also damaged? How old are you, 16?? Where did you learn talk to customers in this way? The next time I come in here, I want to have your manager present so she can hear what you just said to me.”
I was so angry as I left that reception office I could hardly see straight. It was upsetting enough to know that I was going to have to contact my insurance company again, fork over another deductible, and have the disruption of arranging for another repair and dealing with another rental car. But to be subjected to a character assassination on top of it, to have someone suggest that I somehow had brought this down on myself, was just too much. I think the last time I’d been blamed for something that I was totally innocent of, I was in high school!
Back 20 years ago, the phrase “victim blaming” hadn’t made its way into the common vernacular the way it is now, all over on social media. But that’s exactly what happened there: she turned it around on me, when in fact there was no way anyone I knew was responsible for this vandalism. Regardless of the issues Bill and I were having, there was no way in the world he was the kind of person who would do something like that.
In general I am not a hysterical personality type, or a big crier. More often than not, I get shocked into silence when tragedy strikes. So I went back to my apartment and sat there, slowly starting to think logically about what my options were. I pretty quickly came to the conclusion that I couldn’t take the risk of staying there any longer. So I get my car fixed again—how much longer would it be before this happened for a third time? What if they start breaking into apartments next? How safe was it to live there? The thieves may have stolen all my French studies, but now they stole my peace of mind as well.
The idea of moving again, a few months after I’d gotten settled in this place, just about made me ill. But I felt I had no choice. I had to see if the complex would let me out of my lease. It seemed like I had a valid argument for breaking the lease. I called up the reception office and made an appointment to talk to the management.
No recourse under Texas law
When I arrived at the appointment an entire team was waiting for me—two of the girl’s immediate supervisors, and the girl herself who was so rude to me. They quickly disabused me of any notion I might have that I could get out of the lease Scot-free. They were quite sorry about what had happened in the parking lot; the police had been informed; the gate has been fixed; we are not responsible for damages to personal property; blah blah blah; but then they got down to brass tacks.
In Texas, there are only four valid reasons why a tenant may break a lease early without penalty: 1) they are in the military and they are being deployed elsewhere, 2) they are a victim of domestic violence (which must be documented by police records), 3) they are a victim of either sexual violence or stalking (again, police documentation must be provided), or 4) their landlord has either continually violated their privacy, cut off their utilities, or locked them out of the property.
So, the ladies said, unless you are in any of these situations and can provide documentation, “We’re afraid that the only way you can break your lease early is if you advance all monies owed from now until the end of the lease term. In other words, you have to buy yourself out of the lease, just as if you’d lived here the whole time.”
I picked up my purse off the floor, pulled out my checkbook and said, “How much do I owe? Because I’m not staying here one more month.”
Their eyes popped wide open. I guess it wasn’t the response they were expecting. “Are you sure? It’s a lot of money…”
I said, “I don’t need my car vandalized and broken into a third time. If you guys care so little about a tenant’s property, you don’t care about my safety either.”
I wish this story had a happy ending. It cost me several thousand dollars to get out of that lease, which I could ill afford. I ended up moving into a more expensive complex that had a 24-hour staffed entrance gate and security guards that patrolled the grounds. Plus, the expense of another deposit, another move, and another life disruption. (But the girl did get fired because of this incident, which I was happy about.)
If the perpetrator(s) of all the vandalism ever got caught, I never heard about it. But there’s another issue here. Section 91.006 of the Texas Property Code describes a “landlord’s duty to mitigate damages.” This means that a landlord must make a good-faith effort to find a new tenant and help reduce the amount of rent the former tenant owes under the lease. If you buy yourself out of a lease and the complex rents that apartment to someone else in the interim, they are supposed to reimburse you the excess monies you paid—no double-dipping allowed. Of course, this requires that the landlords are honest and self-report. Who among them is going to be motivated to do that? Or who enforces this? I was not aware of this law at the time and so did not follow up on it. I guess that one is on me.*
The law must change
After moving away for about 13 years, I’m back in Houston and leasing again, after trying and failing twice to buy a townhouse. I find that Texas leases have not changed one iota. They still have the same stranglehold on tenants; the same four exit conditions are the only ones listed in my current lease. So these poor people who I started my story with, who are subjected to nonstop crime and vandalism in today’s multifamily rental units, literally have no recourse. Landlords are not held accountable and they hold all the cards; renters cannot get out of these leases even if they fall victim to criminal activity.
The bar that tenants have to scale is set so absurdly high (sexual assault? stalking? domestic abuse? really??) that only in extreme situations will a landlord have mercy on any one individual. In other words, your life has to get essentially unlivable in order to break a simple lease! Something is wrong with that law.
In 2021, 52% of the households in the Houston metroplex were occupied by renters. That’s much higher than the national average of 35%. Yet we have little power over our living situations. If we don’t like the conditions, our only choice is to do what I did: a buyout, and hopefully find a better situation somewhere else. But we’ll sign the same lease, and if conditions go south, we’ll find ourselves in the same inescapable trap.
You would think with that much purchasing power (and that much voting power), constituting at least a million people who have to absorb rents that rose 17% a year in the past 3 years alone, there would be an advocate out there willing to go to bat for us for fairer lease terms and fairer exit strategies. If people vacate these properties in droves and new people refuse to move in because of their reputation for being crime-ridden, surely landlords will be forced to make changes.
We need a politician in Austin who is willing to propose a revision to the current Texas Property Codes. 52% of Houston’s population deserve better. Undoubtedly, there would be pushback from lobbyist organizations such as the Texas Association of Realtors, which have a vested interest in keeping things exactly the way they are.
I’d be curious to hear what leasing is like, and breaking a lease, in other states. I’ve only lived in Texas as an adult. If you have a story of your own, please leave it in the comments!
*[Epilogue: My poor Miata seemed to have a target on its back. About a year after moving into the new place, I was pulled to a dead stop in the left-hand lane on Memorial Drive, waiting for traffic to clear so I could take a left-hand turn into my complex. I had my blinker on. The driver behind me wasn’t paying attention and barreled into me at about 30 mph, making a mini-accordion out of my car. The impact of the hit slammed my forehead into the steering wheel and I blacked out momentarily, but was otherwise unhurt. But because of the blackout, they still rushed me into the emergency room to X-ray my head and neck; luckily all they diagnosed was a mild concussion.
The Miata didn’t get off so easily. The damage to the car was more than $10,000, and the only reason the insurance company didn’t outright total the car was because it was so expensive to begin with. So, another rental car and a long and tedious repair. When it was completed, it looked and drove like a brand-new car. But I was done. For whatever reason, that car had bad juju. I sold it to the president of the local Miata Club.
I replaced it with a 2004 40th anniversary model Ford Mustang Cobra (another breathtakingly beautiful car), and shortly thereafter moved to Rockport, Texas with a new boyfriend. After 17 years, “Houston fatigue” had set in. I thought it was time to put the recent chaos of Houston in my rear-view mirror and start fresh somewhere new. Little did I know, I was jumping from the frying pan and into the fire.]