For the past few years living at the Palms at Cypress Station, Angela Williams’ life has been governed by the sun.

When darkness sets on her northern Harris County neighborhood, a sprawling maze of lower-income apartment complexes, the area changes for the worse.

“I don’t see too much crime, because I don’t go outside,” said Williams, a 54-year-old who has lived at the complex for a decade. “I don’t hear gunshots, because I keep the TV up loud.”

Williams’ frustrations are exacerbated by landlords who haven’t cleaned the complex’s pool for weeks or fixed her leaky air conditioner.

The combination of high crime and inattentive landlords has plagued Cypress Station for years, contributing to a Harris County Sheriff’s Office initiative launching next month.

County officials said they plan to pilot the Crime Free Multi-Housing Program in Cypress Station, aiming to build stronger ties with landlords in the area. The initiative, already in place in the city of Houston and nearly 2,000 other municipalities, seeks to curb crime by creating safer apartment complexes for residents. 

Sheriff’s officials believe they can accomplish this by advising landlords about security upgrades and improved tenant vetting processes. In turn, apartment owners who heed the advice receive a certificate of completion, which they can advertise to potential renters as a sign of a safer community.

Thirteen apartment communities in Cypress Station have signaled interest in participating, sheriff’s officials said. To complete the program, landlords must attend an eight-hour seminar, make property improvements dictated by sheriff’s officials, allow deputies to conduct on-site inspections and host an annual crime prevention event with tenants.

  • A Harris County Sheriff's Office vehicle parked in an apartment complex
  • Harris County sheriff's Sgt. Lakisha Cheatham
  • Harris County sheriff's Sgt. Lakisha Cheatham
  • The Palms at Cypress Station apartment complex in north Harris County.
  • The Roundhill Townhomes apartment complex in the Cypress Station neighborhood of north Harris County.

“With law enforcement, we’re often telling people how to live instead of asking, ‘What are the needs of this particular community,” said Harris County sheriff’s Sgt. Lakisha Cheatham, who is leading the program’s implementation. 

But the plan arrives with baggage from national advocates. In other cities employing a similar initiative, housing advocates have argued the program encourages landlords to evict tenants based on suspicion of criminal activity, rather than definitive proof or a legal conviction.

Some apartment complex owners are also skeptical of whether their participation will drive increased interest in their units from more law-abiding renters. 

Status quo ‘not working’

First developed three decades ago by a police officer in Arizona, crime free multi-housing is, at its core, a partnership between landlords and law enforcement. It aligns with the county’s goal of trying to fight crime through community-oriented policing and environmental design, a theory that infrastructure improvements will decrease opportunities for illegal activity. 

Sheriff’s officials chose to pilot their crime free multi-housing initiative in Cypress Station due to its high rates of violent crime. The area is a loosely defined neighborhood of large apartment complexes near Interstate 45 and FM 1960 Road.

Cheatham said tenants will be notified their apartment complex is participating in the crime-free program.

For landlords in the program, the county plan offers a chance to address long-standing safety issues in Cypress Station. 

Market Space Capital executive Kevin Sabouni, whose company owns the 464-unit complex 910 Apartments, said his firm has already invested $1.5 million in the property updates since buying it in December. The company plans to spend another $1 million to $2 million in upgrades to the 44-year-old complex, he said.

Sabouni said he hopes all apartment complexes in the neighborhood will join the program.

“The reality is that the status quo is simply not working there, and if anything, the status quo has gotten it to the point it is at today,” Sabouni said.

The owners of the Palms at Cypress Station, Globix Palms, did not respond to phone calls and emails seeking comment for this article.

Easier to evict?

In building out their crime free multi-housing initiative, Harris County sheriff’s officials will contend with tensions that have followed the program nationwide.

As part of the Harris County pilot, landlords are taught how to review and tighten standards in their tenant applications.

In some cities, however, apartment owners have adopted lease language that makes it easier to evict a tenant for criminal activity. A leading nonprofit promoting crime free multi-housing encourages participants in Arizona to adopt an addendum setting a “preponderance of the evidence” standard for determining whether somebody committed a crime that warrants eviction. 

In response to a public records request from the Houston Landing for any lease language recommended to landlords, sheriff’s officials said no such records exist.

“While the program has not been implemented and is voluntary, it’s still in the early stages and all partners are taking the concerns you mention into consideration as we seek to balance public safety needs with tenants’ rights,” Harris County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Angelique Myers said. 

County officials will also hope to generate more awareness about their crime free multi-housing initiative than their counterparts in Houston, whose 24-year-old Blue Star program isn’t well-known in the community.

Villa Serena Communities cofounder Steve Moore, whose company owns nearly 30 apartment complexes in the Greater Houston area, said the city’s program isn’t sufficiently advertised to the public. 

Moore, an early participant in Blue Star, said he put 3 feet by 5 feet signs in front of properties advertising their certification, with no effect.

“Do you think it got me any more rent, any better applicants? No,” said Moore, who’s serving as an informal adviser to sheriff’s officials launching their program. “We couldn’t tell any difference, and the reason is, nobody knows what Blue Star is. They would say, ‘Is that like a minor league baseball team or something?’”

Harris County sheriff’s officials said they plan to promote the program on social media and post a list of certified complexes on their website.

Andrew Jameson poses for a portrait in the Cypress Station neighborhood
Andrew Jameson poses for a portrait in the Cypress Station neighborhood, Tuesday, July 25, 2023, in Houston. Jameson has lived in various apartment complexes in the neighborhood and expressed his fear of the high rate of crime in the area. Local apartment complex owners have started to partner with the Houston Sheriffs Department in a crime prevention program. (Antranik Tavitian / Houston Landing)

Another building block

Sheriff’s officials hope the program will build on other initiatives taking place in Cypress Station.

The Sheriff’s Office Community Problem Oriented Policing Unit regularly holds community events in and around Cypress Station, which Cheatham described as a positive way for deputies to build rapport with tenants.

“The first two meetings (with residents) are all about what police don’t do and what we haven’t done in the past,” said sheriff’s Deputy Charles Scholen, a member of the unit. “The fourth or fifth meeting, it’s like, ‘They’re still here? Maybe they are here to help us.’”

The agency also recently inked a deputy patrol contract with the CNP Utility District, which provides water and wastewater services to Cypress Station. The utility district agreed to pay 80 percent of the salaries of 10 deputies and their supervisor, who will spend more time patrolling the area.

Andrew Jameson, who has lived in Cypress Station apartment complexes for the past several years, said he has noticed this surge in activity. He described the area as “quiet now,” though he added response times to calls for service are lacking. 

The nursing home aide said he still doesn’t dare walk around the neighborhood at night for fear of being robbed, but he hopes the recent actions taken by the sheriff’s office improve conditions. 

“I really hate being over here,” Jameson said. “But I deal with it.”

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Monroe Trombly is a public safety reporter at the Houston Landing. Monroe comes to Texas from Ohio. He most recently worked at the Columbus Dispatch, where he covered breaking and trending news. Before...