For five years the 40-unit apartment building on North Waller Avenue in Austin sat vacant but was not boarded up. Its landlord didn’t pay property taxes, and prostitutes and drug dealers used it for their headquarters.

Then activists brought the judges to the west side. “We had an idea that if the judges in housing court actually got into a bus and drove through the neighborhood with some residents, they could see the impact these abandoned buildings have on a community,” says Peter Gunn, an organizer for the South Austin Coalition Community Council. “They could see how these buildings destroy communities.”

So on June 27 five of the six judges from housing court boarded a bus outside the Daley Center courtrooms and joined about 50 activists for a drive through Austin. They happened to see the building on Waller Avenue.

“By sheer coincidence that building came through Judge [Edward] Marsalek’s court three days after the tour,” Gunn says. “The judge remembered how bad it was and had it put into receivership. Now at least the windows will be boarded up, which means the drug dealers can’t get in. And there’s a chance a decent landlord may want to develop it.”

That happy twist of fate came after two years of lobbying, politicking, and pleading by the Coalition for Housing Court Reform, a citywide network of almost 50 groups whose members are fighting the war for low-income housing. Some of the groups, such as Bethel New Life, are using the few remaining crumbs of federal low-income-housing subsidies to build new units or rehab old ones. Others are pressing the Chicago City Council to reform housing-code laws, which, they say, favor landlords over tenants.

As a coalition they are trying to break through the logjam of housing-court cases by building better relations with the judges. Members of the coalition meet periodically with developers, landlords, city officials, and judges–all of whom are part of an advisory committee convened by Judge Donald O’Connell, presiding judge for the First Municipal District.

“I want to emphasize that the judges have been really cooperative, particularly Judge O’Connell,” says Tim Carpenter, executive director of the Metropolitan Tenant Organization, a citywide group. “But in the past there’s been a feeling that the judges have not been sensitive to the tenants, that they don’t understand how the buildings in their courtrooms hurt a community. We want to work more closely with the judges and have them understand our concerns. The bus tour was a good start.”

At the moment the judges seem more cooperative than the city’s aldermen, who for years have dillydallied on passing several proposals backed by the Coalition for Housing Court Reform. “We would like to see a law that would require owners of property with three or more units to register their names and addresses with the city each year and to pay a $10 fee to cover whatever expense this registration incurs,” says Anne Miller, an organizer with the Metropolitan Tenant Organization. “There’s a backup in prosecuting these cases, because it takes the city a time-consuming and expensive title search to find just who owns the building. And sometimes all you find is that the building is held in a trust.”

Alderman David Orr (49th Ward) introduced such a measure in 1985, when Harold Washington was mayor. Landlord and real estate groups immediately opposed it, and Washington was too distracted to force the bill through the council. So it sat in the council’s building committee, chaired by First Ward Alderman Fred Roti. Years passed. Across the city, old buildings fell apart. Coalition members begged Roti to hold a hearing on the proposal. Finally Roti relented, and on March 9 the reformers got their meeting. “What’s amazing is that after all these years he can find these ordinances,” says Carpenter. “Although in this case I think he did have to ask us for a copy.”

After the hearing Roti appointed a committee of aldermen, community groups, and landlords to reach consensus on a bill that would be brought before the council. A committee meeting was held. More testimony was delivered. A compromise ordinance–virtually the same as Orr’s original proposal–was produced. Rumor has it that the building committee, and eventually the whole council, will approve the measure–when and if Mayor Daley tells them to. At the moment, no one knows Daley’s position on the matter.

Perhaps the housing coalition should invite Daley and the council to join a bus ride through Austin. As the judges realized, it’s hard to walk away from such a trip unmoved.

“We had different people on the bus tell their stories to the judges,” says Elce Redmond, lead organizer for the Northwest Austin Council. “In the past it seemed the judges were leaning toward the owners. They seemed very biased for landlords–they didn’t seem to care about the people.

“I’ll give you an example. We were tracking this particular landlord, and we had evidence. We had pictures of rats and maggots in these people’s apartments. But the judge let the landlord walk. He let the landlord go home without a fine or anything. We had to go to court three times on that building–and three times that landlord walked. The landlord told the judge that he was a little hard up for cash and that he would start fixing things up when he was on his feet again. That was bullshit. This was a big landlord. He owned a lot of property in the area, a lot of courtyard buildings. He was getting rents off these buildings. The judge just bought his line.”

In the judge’s defense, the plea of poverty is a common landlord lament. Many of the properties in housing court are owned by people who are down on their luck and can’t pay basic bills. Another proposed ordinance–also sitting in Roti’s committee–would create an administrative panel with subpoena powers to handle the smaller code-enforcement cases of the so-called ma-and-pa landlords.

“Not all landlords are evil. We understand that,” says Jocelyn Woodards, organizer for the Lake View Tenants Organization. “Maybe someone inherited a building, or bought it when he had a job and is now out of work. That’s why we support the City Council ordinance to create an administrative panel. That would free up the housing-court docket and allow the judges there to handle only the worst offenders. There should also be a resource center in the Daley building where the smaller landlords can go for training or help getting loans.”

On the bus tour, however, the coalition concentrated on the landlords who own the big complexes. “We started the tour on 5113 W. Washington to show off what can be done,” says Gunn, referring to a courtyard unit recently renovated by developer Joe English. “We wanted to show the judges that everything in Austin does not have to be bad. We wanted them to see what could be done if you have a developer who cares and who carefully screens his tenants.”

Down the street from English’s building, however, it’s a bleaker story. “That’s a courtyard building controlled by drug dealers,” says Gunn. “You’ve got cars driving up all the time with people stopping to buy dope. All the good tenants are gone. We wanted the judges to see what happens to a building that just sits in housing court–whose owner is never punished. We don’t even know who the owner is. That building should be vacated and boarded up.”

Part of the problem is that there are so few developers willing to take the risk. The cost of rehabbing and maintaining a courtyard building usually exceeds the rents poor residents can afford. Without some kind of subsidy to offset costs, a profit-seeking landlord has no incentive to maintain his property. From a financial standpoint he’s better off sucking in rents from tenants so desperate for housing they’ll live in squalor.

“I think the basic problem is that in America we have a constitutional right to own property, but we don’t have a constitutional right to have a decent place to live,” says Woodards. “Having housing is regarded as a privilege. And that’s a problem.”

Coalition members acknowledge that bad tenants are also part of the problem. As a solution they advocate more thorough tenant screening. “A manager who cares about his building won’t just rent to the first guy who comes up and can make one month’s rent,” says Gunn. “The success of not-for-profit developers and guys like Joe English is their tenant screening.”

One of the most compelling stories on the tour was told by Usher Sawyer III, a construction worker who lives in Austin in a single-family unit that’s down the street from two abandoned apartment buildings. “I’ve lived here for ten years,” he says, leaning over his front porch. “I’ve raised my family here. I’ve put in 30, 40 thousand dollars. But look at that building. I can’t sell my property for what it’s worth as long as it’s like that.

“I’ve seen men drive up in broad daylight and start kicking in the doors. They walk up the street and load their trucks down with whatever they could take–boilers, water tanks. We caught a guy in the process of stealing sinks. He was standing on the second floor dropping through the window on the ground. You wouldn’t believe what goes on around here. They keep stray dogs there. They’ll steal your dog and take him to that building–and train their pit bulls to fight against your dog.”

Sawyer stops talking for a moment. “It was like that when I bought here, too. Maybe I shouldn’t have bought here. But there was something about this home. I had lived in the projects, and I wanted to own my own house. We came and we prayed and we asked the Lord for this house. We didn’t think of the abandoned buildings down the street. We closed our eyes to those abandoned buildings.

“I keep up with my property. But a lot of folks figure, why bother as long as you’ve got those buildings down there looking like that? I plan to move. I’d like to move west–maybe to Westchester. Maybe that’s when things will start to change–when people see what these abandoned buildings are doing to the community.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.