About a month ago, a balcony collapsed at Wood Ridge apartment complex in south Austin, Texas.
Though there were no injuries, affected residents were given as little as 20 minutes to collect everything they could carry and evacuate the complex; in all, about 150 residents were evacuated and spent weeks away from their possessions and their homes. Apartment owners at the shady management firm, Houston’s Asset Plus, showed up with offers to pay residents $500 if they agreed not to sue; those who accepted later found themselves ineligible to receive social services from some city groups.
Occupy Austin has been involved since we first got word of the collapse. We’ve reached out to several residents, making ourselves available to help them organize a response and get the help they need. The group was present at a recent, contentious code hearing where Asset Plus was given 75 days to make repairs to ten of the 15 buildings.
This wasn’t enough for us — like many working class apartment buildings in Austin, it was a mess of code violation and poorly repaired infrastructure, far beyond the state of a few balconies. Investigations have shown that serious code issues were raised about Wood Ridge over a decade ago, with little or nothing done in response. Occupiers brought our concerns, and a few Wood Ridge residents, to meetings with two different Austin City Council representatives earlier this week.
This afternoon I got a call — code compliance were knocking on doors and inspecting apartments all over Wood Ridge. We drove down to make sure they had the residents best interest at heart. On arrival we could see the apartments crawling with code inspectors, who have an intimidating police-like uniform much like a state trooper. Code Inspector trucks were parked as far as we could see down the street, we counted 24 in all plus a gigantic city of Austin command center trailer, emblazoned with police, fire department, and Department of Homeland Security logos.
A friendly resident, Doug Robb, invited us in so that we would not be trespassing. The inspectors were in his apartment and seemed sympathetic. During our discussion they said the city had fought a program which would have required more stringent, annual inspections of city rental properties. Doug told us about a huge hole in the adjoining apartment which had until recently only been stapled over the carpet and showed us broken bolts on the stairs outside of his apartment.
Michael King, a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and a registered electrician in Texas, took a walk through the complex with us and within 10 minutes pointed out multiple, potentially life-threatening situations in the wiring. Issues like open power boxes and exposed electrical wiring in drainways and walkways that could set fires or “blow a child’s arm off” to use Mike’s colorful language. Rain drainage grates were broken — some with dangerous looking holes, others warped so badly that a resident told us ‘the kids bounce on it like a trampoline.’
Code inspectors assured us that they were inspecting every building’s interior and exterior. The property owners were giving them access to vacant apartments, but they needed residents permission to enter — which made the timing of the mid-afternoon visit unfortunate.
It’s good to see that the city is beginning to take the many problems at Wood Ridge seriously, but the issue is clearly systemic. Occupy Austin has just begun investigating other complexes and has already found a half dozen Wood Ridge’s in waiting. As Doug points out in the video, when you sign a lease on a rental property, you expect to pay for a safe, reliable home. Occupiers plan to continue working with the city’s residents, and continue pressuring our city council, until this ideal comes closer to reality.