Is the current inspection process flawed?

July 18, 2008 4:17:27 PM PDT
A lawsuit has been filed by the parents of a child crushed to death while playing hide-and-seek underneath an apartment complex stairwell Wednesday.Investigators were back out at the scene today, still trying to determine what caused the apartment stairwell to collapse.

Five-year-old Miguel Robledo and 10-year-old David Vasquez died of asphyxia. Today attorneys representing Vasquez's parents filed a lawsuit against RVB, Inc., the owners of the Westwood Fountains apartment complex.

"At this point, clearly there's without a doubt a duty that's owned by the landlord to the tenants," Vasquez Family attorney Michael Moore said. "That's clear. They have an obligation to maintain the staircase in a reasonable fashion, so it shouldn't collapse in the fashion that it did."

Residents say they filed a number of complaints about the safety of the stairwell in the many months prior to Wednesday's collapse. Apartment managers though insist they never received such complaints.

The City of Houston is also coming under criticism over its inspection process as city leaders wonder if anything more could have been done to spot the problem before it was too late.

One city leader described the current inspection process as flawed. While some argue oversight starts with the individual landlords themselves, others believe that approach clearly isn't working as well as it should.

The tragic accident involving the two young boys crushed by a stairwell has emphasized more than just the critical need for routine inspections -- it has blown the door wide open on what some say is a lack of oversight by the City of Houston.

Houston city councilman and architect Peter Brown says for too long the city has relied on residential complaints as a way to spur inspections.

"The landlords know what they can get away with and they can get away with way too much," Brown said.

Dora Ramirez told us she pays $600 per month and had to threaten to withhold rent in order to get the holes in her apartment walls fixed. What's more, Ramirez doesn't speak English, and she says the manager doesn't speak Spanish.

"I believe we can do better," City of Houston Public Works representative Andy Icken said.

Icken oversees the 10 inspectors responsible for Houston's 2500 apartment complexes. The city, he says, is now devoting more money to hire more inspectors to check those problem properties more often.

"We think it's long overdue and we strongly support it," Houston Apartment Association representative Jeff Hall said.

The City of Houston has flexed its muscle before.

"If the landlords won't fix them up, we assess fines and if they don't pay their fines, we foreclose on the properties," Brown said.

The new inspection process is being designed right now. Exactly how often these apartment inspections would occur has not been determined. The hope is to roll out this new program by October 1.

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