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Monday, September 24, 2018

Campus

Apartment tenants’ complaints upheld by building code violations


The Vue on MacGregor was deemed a deficient property by the Houston Building Code Enforcement on March 8, just one day after resident and former leasing agent Aaron Maxwell, a political science junior, reported safety hazards associated with the property’s parking garage. | Thomas Dwyer/The Cougar

“The safety of your tenants is in danger,” wrote Vue on MacGregor resident Aaron Maxwell in a February email to the property management’s CEO.

On March 8, lighting code violations within the parking garage led the off-campus student housing community within walking distance of UH to be deemed a deficient property by the City of Houston Building Code Enforcement, but residents say the hazardously lighted garage makes up just a fraction of the problems within complex, ranging from a lack of follow-through on promised amenities, numerous break-ins and managerial concerns.

False promises

Maxwell, a political science junior, has been a resident at The Vue on MacGregor since its opening and worked as a leasing agent for the apartments over the summer of 2016. During that time, he said, the leasing staff were told to inform prospective tenants of the property’s upcoming security improvements.

The security features Maxwell said management promised — which were intended to make The Vue on MacGregor the safest student housing community for UH students — included cameras on every floor and a push for the property to eventually join the Houston Police Department’s Blue Star Multi-Housing Program, described on HPD’s website as a cooperative effort between law enforcement, residents and apartment managers to abate crime.

Nearly two years later, Maxwell said, these promises have yet to be fulfilled.

On Feb. 28, Maxwell emailed Patrick Nelson, of Nelson Brothers University Housing, which manages the apartments, regarding the lack of improvement in on-site security. In the email, Maxwell detailed his concern that the security measures he and other leasing agents were instructed to advertise had not been implemented nearly a year and a half after the summer he’d spent working for the complex.

“We sold our increased security presence and promised these upgrades,” Maxwell wrote. “This was a lie.”

Maxwell said the The Vue on MacGregor had been in the process of fielding bids from prospective security companies regarding security cameras during the summer he worked there.

Though he recalls multiple companies telling property management that certain camera systems would be less effective, he said management eventually decided on a cheaper, wireless system and installed the cameras on the first floor of the complex as a test run.

In the email, Maxwell writes that the cameras didn’t work then, and he’s aware that they were still not functional as of February.

Beyond the lack of security cameras, Maxwell noted the lack of lighting in the parking garage as an additional safety risk. Maxwell alleges the lack of lighting in the garage, and the circumstances surrounding it, are code violations.

“People have to use their cellphones at night to get to their car because the garage is pitch black,” Maxwell wrote.

Due to the placement of the lights, Maxwell noted, water fills the fixtures, shorting out the lights and tripping the breaker.

His email to Nelson had still more complaints. The garage has experienced countless break-ins including to his and his roommate’s vehicles. The lack of lighting and speed bumps in the structure increased the risk of a residents being hit by a car. And the parking garage provided the sole exit from the apartment complex in case of a fire.

He also noted that gunfire had occurred multiple times within the building. During his employment, Maxwell wrote in the email, he was once asked to unlock a unit after a bullet penetrated the wall of another tenant’s restroom.

“All it takes is for one person to be hit in the garage, for one stray bullet to hit someone in their sleep, for one rain storm to cause a fire, or for one robbery to go wrong, for someone to die,” Maxwell wrote.

He had given property management a month to begin addressing the issues before going public with his experiences. When Maxwell sent the email, there were only three days remaining in his countdown.

Three hours later, Patrick Nelson responded.

Nelson said the money that could be used to fix these problems was instead going toward the property’s high taxes.

“The property is losing money everywhere,” Nelson wrote. “Where do you suppose a brand new building that passes all codes should come up with the millions of dollars you are requesting?”

Meeting code

On March 7, exactly one week later, Maxwell forwarded his concerns to Acting Building Official Bob Oakes of the Houston Building Code Enforcement.

The Building Code Enforcement department monitors the safety and structural integrity of buildings throughout the city and fines owners that allow issues to persist. If an investigation finds issues, the BCE posts a notice declaring the building is not up to standards.

The Vue on McGregor received its first notice the day after Maxwell’s email. A second one arrived four weeks later on April 5.

In an email received Tuesday, Paula Platt, the executive vice president of operations for Nelson Brothers Student Housing Investments, said the company is aware of safety concerns associated with the dark garage and is working with residents on-on-one. However, she said, management is not liable for any vehicle or property damage sustained in the garage.

She said the property is undergoing a lighting upgrade expected to reach completion May 15. Additionally, installation of an upgraded camera system throughout the property should begin in the next two weeks.

While she said no one can guarantee safety, security upgrades have been made to the property since its opening including an escort service to and from cars in the parking lot, repainting interior hallways a lighter color, and a 24/7 on-call service.

In constant fear

In the nearly two years human resource development junior Alyssa Garcia has lived at The Vue on MacGregor, conditions within the complex have gotten only worse, she said.

The security cameras she recalls being promised on every floor have yet to be installed, and fewer than two floors of the property’s seven-level parking garage are lighted. Garcia said the dark garage has been accompanied by frequent vehicle break-ins, as often as a few cars each week.

Since the lights went out in the parking garage, she said she has lived in constant fear that she will be attacked walking to and from her vehicle in the dark, and management has yet to tell residents when the lights will be fixed.

But the parking garage isn’t the only place within the complex where she feels unsafe.

Since moving into the apartments in fall of 2016, Garcia said she’s come home on two separate occasions to find her front door left open by on-site staff members.

“Living here in the recent months has caused me to constantly be anxious in my own apartment,” she said. “I lock my bedroom door every time I’m sleeping, or even if I leave for 5 minutes, because I don’t know who has access to my apartment and who’s leaving doors open for anyone to come inside.”

Just after 1 a.m. on April 8, she called 9-1-1 to report what she believed to be gunshots from within the complex. This wouldn’t have been the first time police were called to the scene as the result of a firearm.

“I have come to terms with the fact that I have a few more months here,” she said. “But the last thing I want is for UH students to sign here for upcoming semesters.”

A detriment to involvement

Peytie Leigh Elliot, a marketing and management senior, shares this sentiment.

During her time as a resident of The Vue on MacGregor, Elliot said the gate leading into the on-site parking garage — the only parking available to residents — was frequently broken, leaving student vehicles and entrances into the complex vulnerable to anyone who entered through the open gate.

Moreover, she said, the controlled-access electronic locks used throughout the building were unreliable, and the lights used throughout the garage were often out.

“At night, I frequently felt unsafe in the garage and the building in general,” she said. “They also charged us monthly for a parking spot that was supposed to be guaranteed safety within a gated garage. That was never proven to be true.”

Elliot said her parents’ concern for her safety and proximity to campus largely influenced her decision to live at The Vue on MacGregor.

“My parents were very worried about the safety in the area, so (The Vue’s) claim that they had security and a gated garage, as well as locked entryways, was a big deal to them,” Elliot said.

In addition to issues with the level of security in the complex after moving in, which Elliot said the property’s management failed to address, her apartment was plagued by frequent maintenance issues.

When mold was discovered in her roommate’s closet, Elliot said maintenance painted over the problem. When the drain in her shower broke, she said it took four separate maintenance requests, and nearly a month spent driving to and from her parents’ home for showers, for the issue to be resolved.

Four months before the end of her lease, Elliot moved home to live with her parents in Cypress.

“My 2 minute drive was now 45 minutes each way on a good day from Cypress,” she said. “It did not affect my grades, but it affected my involvement in organizations on campus because I was not there as often.”

She continued to pay rent on the empty apartment for the remainder of the term and has decided to continue living at home.

“(I) don’t trust any of the apartments anymore,” she said.

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