The calls came in six times a day on average, from Houston apartment dwellers desperate for help as they suffered through a relentless heat wave.

Dispatchers recorded their pleas in the clipped language of the city’s 311 database:

“AC NOT WORKING FOR A WEEK/CALLER HAS BABY,” read one complaint.

“SENIOR W/OUT AC FOR OVER 8 DAYS,” read another.

“NO AC FOR 6 DAYS,” read another. “CALLER HAS SMALL CHILDREN APT SUPER HOT PLS HELP.”

When the owners of large apartment buildings fail to make them livable, a small squad of Houston housing code inspectors is supposed to act as a last line of defense for vulnerable tenants.

During last month’s historic heat wave, that division inside the Department of Public Works received its highest number of complaints so far this year. The spike was driven by a 30 percent increase in calls about air conditioning compared to last June, according to a Houston Landing analysis of 311 call data.

Tenant advocates say the heat wave should serve as a call to action for City Hall, where one City Council member has been pushing for more than two years to pass apartment inspection reforms. They say the city is missing opportunities to prevent problems before they happen by focusing on repeat offenders.

Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration says it already has beefed up the city’s inspector ranks. Last year, the city created a “strike team” to zero in on problem complexes, after widespread complaints about the Timber Ridge apartments in Northshore.

Yenis Robles, a tenant at Timber Ridge who says its problems persist, believes the city needs to do more. Most recently, the air conditioning was out for much of June. Even the water out of the tap was hot as she suffered in “unbearable” heat, she said.

“We want for the city to come and help us put pressure for these units to be given maintenance, because it’s inhumane to be living in these units,” Robles said. “And it’s because of our economic situation that we can’t move somewhere else.”

In 2009, Houston City Council passed an ordinance requiring registration and regular inspections for apartments with three or more residential units. Owners are supposed to secure their properties against structural failures, electrical hazards, plumbing problems, mechanical violations and swimming pool violations.

Houston Public Works’ Multi-Family Habitability unit enforces the ordinance. Its duties include reacting to 311 calls and trying to catch brewing problems with regular inspections on a rolling, four-year cycle.

Even though air conditioning is a leading cause of tenant complaints, inspectors would be hard-pressed to discover issues on those preventative visits. City inspectors focus solely on the outside of buildings, and their checklist does not include AC.

When problems emerge, tenants can call 311 to request a visit from the habitability unit.

Houston’s building standards code gives landlords an option when it comes to hot temperatures inside apartments: Provide tenants with screens or functioning AC.

AC calls top 311 list

Houston’s air conditioners were tested by the early, brutal heat wave last month, city data show. Tenants placed 184 calls to 311 about air conditioning problems in June compared to 63 the month before. That is the most calls about AC since at least the start of 2022.

Renters’ calls for help are highly seasonal, according to Houston Public Works. Calls about air conditioning in the summer top the list, followed by calls about heating in the winter. Other common complaints include holes in walls, a lack of hot water and water leaks.

On a per capita basis, the neighborhoods with the most calls from renters about AC were Mid West, Gulfton, Greater Inwood, Braeburn and Westwood. All of those neighborhoods had median household incomes below the city average, and all but Mid West have higher populations of people of color than the rest of Houston. Four border the Southwest Freeway.

By the time tenants pick up the phone to call 311 to complain about AC, they usually are past the point of exasperation.

“You’re frantic, you’re upset. You want your air conditioner fixed immediately, especially in this heat,” said Charles Jackson, the city official who oversees the 311 system. “Typically, when people call us about their air conditioning, they want a pretty quick resolution.”

Air conditioning is more than a luxury, experts say. Extreme heat can play havoc on the human body.

Several tenants at the Timber Ridge apartment complex in Northshore said their heat was out for weeks in June.

Inside the complex, tempers sometimes have flared. Last Wednesday, Derrick Compton was arrested by Houston police on a misdemeanor charge of terroristic threat. Compton said Friday that he got into a dispute with a maintenance worker who laughed off his request for help with an AC unit that had been down for weeks.

“It’s like torture. It’s worse than jail,” Compton said as he stood inside of a stifling apartment. “I did 12 years in jail, and it’s worse than that.” 

Robles, a tenant at Timber Ridge, said she did not have AC for weeks last month, despite being up to date on her $1,200 rent. She suffered in the heat, bought fans and finally sent her three children to stay with a relative.

Some senior citizens were forced to get hotel rooms for relief because they suffered from high blood pressure, Robles said.

Robles, a member of the Texas Organizing Project, has been working with other tenants for the past year to put pressure on the complex to maintain the property, before and after its ownership changed hands in April.

Timber Ridge management did not respond to a message seeking comment.

At-large City Councilmember Letitia Plummer, who proposed changes to the apartment inspection process in 2021, said for many renters, the physical and mental stress of a broken air conditioner is layered on top of other health conditions.

“There’s heat exposure, there’s dehydration concerns,” Plummer said. “If you give all that to someone that is healthy, then they’re able to deal with it a little bit better, but then you add that to someone that already has issues, they’re going to end up in the hospital, or they’re going to die.”

Persistent issues

Timber Ridge. The Villas at Sandrock. The Selena. Almost every week so far this summer, residents of a different apartment complex have appeared on TV news pleading for help with AC.

At many complexes with air conditioning problems, 311 data show, tenants have also complained about other issues, including trash, mold, rodents or unsafe structural conditions.

At some complexes, residents call 311 repeatedly to report issues. At least 87 multi-family apartments have generated more than 10 complaints over the past year and a half, call data show.

  • Woman shows informative flyers on how to get in touch with 311.
  • Air conditioning wall unit in an apartment at Timber Ridge
  • Derrick Compton expresses frustration with the lack of utility maintenance at Timber Ridge

The “strike team” that Turner created last year after a tour of Timber Ridge is designed to zero in on problem complexes by coordinating between the many agencies that have responsibility for some aspect of code inspection.

“Typically, when you go there, we’re going to find a lot of stuff. It’s not just going to be the one item,” said Walter Hambrick, the mayor’s deputy chief of staff who leads the strike team.

In 2018, a report from a University of Texas professor was highly critical of the city’s “fractured” approach to code enforcement for apartment complexes. The author, Heather Way, said this month that while researching her report, she found plenty of “low-hanging fruit” for improvements.

“One is increasing investment in apartment inspection and code enforcement. We identified that the inspections were done very infrequently. There wasn’t follow-through,” Way said. “Second is just consolidating all of this bifurcated approach to code enforcement.”

Hambrick, the city official, said the city’s last budget added eight inspectors to the Health Department, one of five city departments with responsibility for apartment safety. He said he believes there are enough staffers to respond to most 311 calls about apartment conditions within 24 to 48 hours. The new strike team has improved coordination, he said.

“With the task force, we’re going all at one day, all together, and when you see a train of city vehicles roll in the gate, you really get the visibility and you get the attention of that property owner,” he said.

Turner has only months left in office, and the next mayor could disband the strike team. Hambrick said the city is drafting an ordinance that will make the team permanent. He declined to say whether the ordinance will include new checks on landlords, who pushed back against a 2021 proposal from Plummer to levy fees on apartments with frequent complaints.

“A lot of things are on the table,” Hambrick said.

Plummer’s proposal included a switch from four-year to annual inspections for properties with frequent 311 complaints. She said she hopes the parade of news stories this summer about tenants suffering without air conditioning will serve as a galvanizing force for City Hall to crack down on repeat offenders.

“It just brings more attention on how compromised a lot of our communities are,” she said. “What I often think of is, these people are working three or four jobs, and so for us to hear from them, they have made so many sacrifices. It’s got to be really bad.”

Staff writers Danya Pérez and Tim Carlin contributed to this report.

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Matt Sledge is the City Hall reporter for the Houston Landing. Before that, he worked in the same role for the Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate and as a national reporter for HuffPost. He’s excited...