A few weeks back, I wrote about how much I enjoy looking at new homes. I can’t afford a million-dollar home, but after looking at them, I return to my abode and appreciate it more. I moved to Austin 17 years ago, buying a house that I thought had “potential.” It was structurally sound, the block was beautiful and the price was what I could afford.
Every year since buying my house, I have had an annual project for it. I bought new windows, security doors, had the porch sided, paid to have new wood stairs built and on and on. When you add up the money a homeowner spends to keep a house up, it is substantial. A house is the most important investment you can make. I have watched as over the years my house appraisal has shown it is worth far more than the $50,000 I paid for it.
When I looked at recent home sales in my area, a bungalow is going for well over $200,000 and those need work. That is an increase of 300 percent over what I paid for my house. There is not another investment that anyone can make where they can live in it, write it off on their taxes and at the end of the day sell it for more than they paid. That in a nutshell is why homeownership is the most important vehicle that black folks can use to build wealth and pass on wealth.
I told you this because I have been involved in the 25th District housing subcommittee for the past 10 years. The main focuses of that committee are “illegal conversions,” gang and drug houses. Those three things occurring in our community is the greatest threat to our property value and our quality of life.
Now gang and drug houses are pretty obvious. Someone in the house is selling drugs or causing havoc. A gang or drug house usually has a head-of-the-household who can be identified and under most circumstances, if you get that parent or grandparent to help, the problem can be controlled. Illegal conversions (ICs) are a different matter. An IC is when an unscrupulous homeowner changes their single-family bungalow into a multi-family dwelling. Then they lease out the attic and basement as apartments to others. Often we are led to believe that it involves one family. But the truth is that the people who live in these ICs are usually not related.
ICs are dangerous. Too many people living in one dwelling that was designed for a single family. Frequently, the landlord will put a kitchen in the attic space. That is a fire hazard in the making. If a fire starts in the attic and the attic has not been lined with fire resistant material, an entire block could go up in smoke as the flames burn from rooftop to rooftop.
IC also means a house is putting out at least three times the amount of garbage that a regular home does. That leads to an increase in rats as more garbage sits in the alley waiting for the once-a-week pickup. IC also contributes to the parking congestion on a block. One member of my committee tells the story of watching a company deliver 34 mattresses to the basement of the house next door to her. If each of the people sleeping on those mattresses has a car, well, you know what that means for parking.
IC also contributes to the overcrowding of the local schools as multiple families live in one home. On some blocks north of Grand Avenue, it is estimated that almost 90% of the homes have been illegally converted. I am often amazed at seeing “For Rent” signs in the windows of bungalows up there-or seeing that someone dug up the front yard, put in a new entrance to the basement, and began to rent out the space. Yet even though that homeowner is collecting rent from the families living there, they don’t pay their fair share of the tax burden. They pay the same as the next home while utilizing more resources.
Lastly, people with apartment buildings who abide by the rules find that tenants don’t want to live next door to a house with 50 people in it. Or those who would rent from you say they can get a room cheaper in an IC home. My subcommittee has offered up a 25-point plan to deal with ICs. It ranges from fining the homeowner to making them deconvert back to a single family home. We are suggesting fines as penalties, inspections by the city, as well as making the homeowner install a water meter at their own expense. We also should involve the mortgage companies and homeowner insurance companies to get involved in those buildings.
This Monday, Sept. 25 at 7 p.m., there will be a meeting at the 25th District auditorium, 5555 W. Grand Ave. Commissioner of Buildings John Knight as well as Commissioner of Zoning Patricia Scudiero will be there. This is your chance to come out and address the issue with them. Although this issue is just beginning to affect Austin, we need to nip it in the bud now.
So let’s talk about it. Every Sunday at 9 p.m., I host a conference call for people who read this column to have their say. Call 605/772-3200 (this is long distance so use your cell) and enter this Access code: 806598#.