Harris Co. sues church and pastor for illegally operating as boarding home with unsafe conditions

Brooke Taylor Image
Wednesday, June 21, 2023
Harris Co. sues Church for operating as boarding home without permit
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The SonRise Church on East Mount Houston Road is being sued by Harris County for operating as a boarding home without a permit.

HARRIS COUNTY, Texas (KTRK) -- Harris County has filed a civil lawsuit against a church and pastor operating as a boarding home without a permit.

On June 14, ABC13 was there as officials from different law enforcement agencies surrounded SonRise Church on East Mount Houston Road in northeast Harris County. Dozens of residents were found living inside and forced to relocate.

The lawsuit was filed against SonRise Church and its founder and pastor, Edward Buford.

The lawsuit states that the defendant has been renting rooms to disabled tenants without the required permits and is in violation of the fire code.

The Harris County Fire Marshal's Office observed 40 people residing at the church, 12 of whom were elderly and/or disabled, and three families with young children.

According to documents, some of the tenants required medical assistance regularly.

ABC13 spoke to one former resident, who wanted to stay anonymous out of fear of retaliation.

"It wasn't a safe environment," the woman said. "There were people who didn't have background checks, so there were a lot of criminals there. There were bed bugs, mold everywhere, roaches, and rats."

The lawsuit states the fire marshal's office found conditions were "a hazard to safety, health, and public welfare and that the fire hazards found posed an imminent threat to the safety of each person."

Some of those hazards include combustible flammable material stored inappropriately, smoke alarms in a state of disrepair, padlock in a bedroom, and reversed locks.

ABC13 spoke to Buford before the lawsuit was filed and asked why he didn't have a permit.

"What happened (June 14) is we ran out of time, we don't have the money, and our money is not keeping up with requirements," Buford said.

However, court documents reveal at least three permit applications were denied over the last few years. Despite this, county officials say Buford continued to operate as a boarding home. The county cited continuous safety hazards and simply the fact that the church was never constructed to house people.

According to documents, in September 2021, SonRise Church submitted an application for conversion to a boarding home. The application was rejected.

In May 2022, SonRise Church submitted an application to the Harris County Fire Marshal's Office in an attempt to obtain an operating permit for a multi-tenant/guestroom. This application was also rejected.

The facility re-applied for the permit in September 2022 and was again rejected.

In February 2022, a fire inspector with the Harris County Fire Marshal's office visited the property and observed numerous violations. The inspector said he informed Buford that no occupancy of the second floor would be allowed because of fire code issues.

The county is seeking $250,000, which includes $200 for each act of violation and for each day of violation of the fire code.

The former resident told ABC13 she hopes the county continues to crack down on boarding homes without permits because she says it is easy for people to take advantage of those with limited housing options.

"It just wasn't safe, but people need to do what they had to do. They needed to live there," she said.

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