Even after deaths, ABC13 investigation reveals Houston boarding houses have little oversight

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- After two people died in a rooming house fire in March, Mayor Sylvester Turner is promising to clean up Houston's boarding houses.

After ABC13's investigation, city leaders met to look at boarding house oversight at the end of May.

A task force comprised of several city departments met Tuesday to discuss implementing new oversight rules for an industry that currently has nearly none.

Sandra Bruner and Gregory Crawley were killed March 16 when a fire started inside Briscoe's Place an unpermitted boarding house.

The owner of the building had been denied a permit to operating a boarding house, city records show.

Regulatory confusion

Houston's boarding houses are some of the lowest rent, highest risk properties in the city. Our investigation uncovered a complex and confusing web of rules surrounding boarding houses.

Boarding houses, or more officially "congregate living facilities", are typically single rooms with a bed and a table. Residents share bathrooms and kitchens. Boarding houses are all over Houston, almost always full and frequently just below the city of Houston's regulatory radar.

No one city department is in charge of regulating boarding houses. At least four city departments have rules regarding them, but our investigation reveals even if you don't meet all those rules, you can still open for business.

The promised review

One day after the fire, the mayor's spokesperson told the Houston Chronicle there were obvious deficiencies in the city's system and promised a "full review of everything."

Two months later, the structure is being rebuilt and the mayor's review seems stuck.

"The full review is underway as we speak," Mayor Turner told ABC13 Thursday.

ABC13's investigation uncovered the mayor didn't even ask for a boarding house review until May 2 as our and other reporters' questions piled up. And even more, the work reviewing the complex boarding house rules won't even start until a pending review of boarding homes (not boarding houses) is complete. Boarding homes are legally defined as facilities for people with disabilities or elderly people.

How complex are those rules?

For example, if you have a house that is up to code, needs no major renovation and you house 16 or fewer unrelated people, you can open for business today - no inspection or permit required.

If you open without the correct occupancy permit and someone complains about your boarding house, an inspector can be dispatched, but that inspector has little authority to do much, a Department of Neighborhoods spokesperson said. That inspector can't even go inside a property if the owner doesn't give him permission.

Even if a Department of Neighborhoods inspector finds violations, they don't have the ability to evict or shut them down, the department said.

But those inspectors do not do pre-emptive inspections. They are dispatched only after a complaint.

We found Ted Nellum behind the burned shell of Briscoe's Place. He was lucky to escape.

How safe was Briscoe's Place?

"From a one to a ten? I'll put it this way: it was shelter," Nellum said. "It kept you off the street."

Briscoe's owner, Moses Briscoe, wouldn't talk to us about any of his situation or even if he feared city enforcement.

Our investigation reveals Briscoe is making plans to rehab the building. The Houston Fire Department is still investigating the fire and so are homicide detectives. Even though Briscoe never had the right permit to house people here, he somehow got a permit to start rebuilding the structure two weeks ago.

It's unclear what his plans are and the mayor wouldn't say if he should've been given a permit to rebuild.

The city claims it didn't know about people living here, but city records show Houston fire personnel were there 22 times in the last two years, police another 37.

City records show Briscoe got a city permit for a sign in 2016, even without the right to operate the business underneath it. Records show an inspector was at the location on a nuisance complaint at the end of 2016.

None of that triggered any enforcement action.

A review of Houston 311 records show dozens of complaints about "unregulated boarding houses".

Those records show someone complained about an old medical clinic on Harrisburg. The owner told ABC13 the building was used for an on-call mariachi service where musicians stay all hours of the day and night in case a party breaks out in need of a mariachi.

There's no permit for that either.

Following up on a complaint, city records show he's been given a few months to get it up to code.

A boarding house operator asking for regulation

The lack of enforcement is not a surprise to John Hernandez. He operates more than a dozen boarding houses in Houston.

"Right now, it's the wild west," Hernandez said. "This is not a group of savvy, politically connected tenants."

He suggests the city could do more. He's trying to start a group for boarding house operators.

"We need better control, better operating standard procedures to manage these facilities, some kind of guidance," Hernandez said.

When asked what the lapses show about system, Turner says "we have a big system that we have to streamline," Turner said.

Turner likens the boarding house problem to potholes, another complex city system which he tackled upon first coming into office.

"[With potholes] you had a call come into 311, and then it's routed to different departments, but they weren't communicating with one another," Turner said. "Once we created a seamless, integrated system, and they were talking and communicating in real time, we were able to assess and address by the next business day."

"We care about every single person that exists in this city," Turner said.

"We cannot do all things at the same time for all people. I think rational minded individuals understand that."

"Do you think the city was looking out for people like you?" ABC13 investigative reporter Ted Oberg asked Ted Nellum.

"Of course not," Nellum said. "They got other things to do."

The mayor had no deadline for his team's promised review.

What to look for

If you or a loved one is looking to live in a boarding house, there are a few things to look for:

-certificate of occupancy to operate as a boarding house
-windows in rooms where people sleep
-running water and toilet facilities
-safe and clean living space

You can read more on the city's "minimum standards" in the city code.
Copyright © 2019 KTRK-TV. All Rights Reserved.