City slow to tear down vacant buildings

January 28, 2010 5:19:34 PM PST
Houston Mayor Annise Parker says cleaning up Houston's neighborhoods is her first and highest priority. But getting it done will not be easy. We spent time looking at the thousands of dangerous buildings across our city and we took a look at why the group cleaning them up just can't catch up.

That is a pretty serious lock. But if you lived where Richard McKinney lives in southeast Houston you would likely have one too.

"All kinds of stuff goes on in there," said McKinney.

The building next door to his home has huge Keep Out signs in front which do nothing when the back door is missing.

"It's got to go," McKinney said.

Inside the building are bottles of booze, fast food, garbage, and condoms - signs that the building is more than an eyesore, it is dangerously attracting criminals. The one next door is just as bad. All of it a block from a city-owned day care center and two blocks from a school.

"I would have to say it's definitely one of the worst," said City Inspector Sheri Strong.

We spent a day with Strong, who spends her days documenting the dangerous leftovers of homes that owners conveniently abandon, but neighbors can't forget.

"I don't want to say we never win, but it's a little frustrating," said Strong.

City records show strong and her colleagues already have 9,010 dangerous buildings to track citywide. Many are just abandoned and open to vagrants. Or lived in and substandard. But the bulk of the division's attention is spent on the thousands of buildings endangering you and your neighbors. They are open, leaning, falling down or worse.

Records show 2,633 of them in such bad shape, they need to be torn down immediately.

"We take down 650 a year, that's through the legal process. I will never catch up," said Asst. Chief Mark Curran of Houston Police Department Neighborhood Protection.

Curran is in charge of Houston's neighborhood protection division. Bounced from one city department to the next in recent years, some at city hall now refer to it as a step child, but one that Curran insists needs more attention.

Today he has half the number of inspectors they did a decade ago.

"I've been here a long time as a supervisor and we've done more with less for a long time. At some point you have to do less with less," said Curran.

Mayor Annise Parker disagreed, saying, "Not going to happen. He will not be allowed to do less."

The mayor and Asst. Chief Curran are actually longtime friends, which may help get him more from city budget writers dealing with less.

"Considering that I've made this a priority, I would expect you to see more people in that division," said Mayor Parker.

Paying for them will require more money, too, to take care of the mess abandoned owners leave behind. Each dangerous building demolition costs an average of $7,000. None of it repaid until someone else buys the lot and pays off the city lien.

Richard McKinney is about to get some help.

"Some big shot came by and told me they were going to tear it down," McKinney said.

After our interview, Asst. Chief Curran, that big shot to McKinney, toured the buildings next to his home and he ordered them to be torn down as an emergency early next month.

So that's three down, and 2,630 to go.

As we ended our talk with Mayor Parker, she made us this promise.

"We ought to be able to double the number of demolitions we do. Come back in a year and ask me," Mayor Parker said.

We will check back with her, but before then, on Thursday on Eyewitness News at 6pm, we look at the homes at that list the longest and why after a decade, nothing's been done. It may help you understand why it takes so long to get rid of the ugly one on your block.