Jaider Vara had tried his best to keep his wife and 5-year-old daughter away from the black mold that bloomed on the walls of their apartment in the Villas Del Paseo apartment complex in West Houston. Since a burst pipe flooded their one bedroom after Winter Storm Uri, he’d ripped out the carpet and disinfected the area covered in spores, but there was only so much he could do without tearing down the walls and fixing the leak himself. Then, nearly a month after the mid-February storm, his apartment flooded again after plumbers contracted by the complex botched a repair on the other side of the wall.
After Vara spoke out on Univision about conditions in the complex, management at Villas Del Paseo denied Vara’s plea to move his family into a different apartment on site, he told me. Now, due to the additional damages, the necessary repairs would take even longer.
Compared to others, Vara was lucky. During late February, when his neighbors opened the door for him as he delivered bottled water that he bought himself, “I would see their struggles, the conditions they were living in,” he says. “Those images aren’t easy to see. It’s very haunting.” Tenants with collapsed ceilings. Water leaking from the walls, from light fixtures. No power, even after the electric grid was restored.
As of March 30, plumbers had restored running water to all but one apartment in the 383-unit complex, but similar to other apartments across the state lacking proper weatherization, many have problems that predate the winter storm.
“I feel like I’m living in a zoo,” says Gabriel Vilanova, one of several tenants already facing leaks in the walls and ceiling of his laundry room before Winter Storm Uri. “A lot of the damages occurred before even COVID happened,” he says.
The complex’s tenants, including Vilanova and Vara, declared a rent strike on February 28. Usually, rent strikes occur after months of canvassing and community organizing, says Ian Druke, the communications director for Houston Tenants Union, which supported the strike. At Villas Del Paseo “conditions were just so uninhabitable” that tenants felt like they had no other choice but to go on strike immediately.
“The next day, we had a meeting with the tenants and we said basically if we don’t have a majority of tenants on board with us, it’s a bad idea,” Druke says. Tenants knocked on all 383 unit doors that afternoon; by the end of the day, more than 50 percent were on board. As running water has returned to more and more tenants, protestors have shifted the picket chant from “no water, no rent,” to “no justice, no rent.”
Tenants are asking for prorated rent for the weeks they spent without water, adequate and timely repairs for all maintenance requests, and that tenants in units affected by flooding or without water be moved into a vacant unit or allowed to break their leases without penalty.
The community manager at Villas Del Paseo said in a statement that the majority of the community bounced back quickly from the winter storm but that management was meeting with “a very small group of residents who continue to express concerns regarding rent” and had given every resident a rent credit applied in March.
This is the first rent strike in Houston in recent memory. Rent strikes were a common tactic used at the turn of the 20th century in cities with high renter populations, such as New York City, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, and won rights for tenants there that are unheard of in the South. It was a 1907 rent strike in New York that eventually led to modern-day rent control and strong laws that regulate living conditions in New York rental properties and permit renters to withhold rent if repairs are not made.
By comparison, Texas’ property code only requires that landlord repair their property if it “materially affects the physical health or safety of an ordinary tenant”—and even then, “if a tenant owes money, the landlord has no duty to repair the property under state law,” says Sandy Rollins, executive director of the Texas Tenants Union, which led rent strikes in Dallas in the 1980s. Texas state law permits landlords to enter apartments without notice, to change locks, and blacklist potential tenants if they’ve ever been evicted in the past. “Landlords hold a whole lot of power,” says Rollins, “and we see it abused all the time.” Because it’s not legal to withhold rent to force a landlord to make repairs, each tenant at Villas Del Paseo taking part in the strike is risking eviction.
So far management has not taken steps to vacate anyone. Raimy Aguilar, an outspoken member of the tenants’ negotiating committee, says she’s worried management might target those leading the strike in an attempt to kneecap the movement without having to evict everyone. “But I’m hoping management will show a willingness to be open to conversation,” she added, because tenants are in it for the long haul. “I do not know anyone who is afraid at the moment.”
A growing number of Texans—currently 1 in 5—rent their homes. According to a 2018 Harvard University Joint Center for Housing Studies analysis, over the previous decade, Texas saw the largest decline in rental units that were affordable to the lowest-income families of any state. That leaves low-income renters with few options.
Three years ago, the Autonomous Tenants Union Network, of which the Houston Tenants Union is a part, was formed to connect unions across the country. Currently, the only other chapter in Texas is in San Antonio. Druke says the Houston Tenants Union has relied on support from a 5-year-old union in Los Angeles with multiple rent strikes under its belt to guide them through this first rent strike. Last summer, tenants in Austin threatened a rent strike before a local eviction moratorium paused most eviction hearings during the pandemic. Initiating a rent strike when you can’t pay rent is risky business; in Villas Del Paseo’s case, many tenants can, but they choose not to until their demands are met.
Druke says that withholding money en masse is the only way to pressure management into making necessary changes to provide tenants with safe homes. “It would be extremely expensive to evict everybody,” he says, “and they’re already losing tenants.”
Vara and his wife, Yaseira, who has asthma, have taken precautions to protect their daughter, locking her out of the bedroom during the day and only allowing her in at night to sleep with them in their queen-sized bed. When I visited the family’s apartment, she was bouncing around the living room with her toys. But children have a way of absorbing anxiety, even if they can’t articulate what’s happening. Vara says that she wet herself at school twice, something she’d never done before. He fears they may not know how living like this will affect her health for years to come. “If my wife and daughter get sick, I don’t have any money for medical bills,” he says.
Black mold spores can root themselves into the lungs and throat, causing health problems such as coughing, wheezing, and “increased sensitivity for asthmatic persons.” Vara, who works in construction, began coughing up “grayish-green” mucus on February 18. His one-year lease ends in December and worried about the costs of breaking it.
Olga Villega, an immigrant from El Salvador who moved into Villas Del Paseo with her husband and 4-year-old grandchild eight months ago, says she plans to break their lease as soon as she can find a new apartment within her budget. “If they don’t fix the apartment soon, it’s going to crumble,” she says. Her bathroom looks like something out of Jumanji. The bathtub faucet has continually gushed boiling-hot water since November, causing the enamel in the bathtub to melt. The ceiling is thick with condensation and mold coats the walls. Cockroaches, attracted to the humidity, have infested her living room and kitchen, where Villega says her air conditioner and dishwasher are also broken. Despite constant pleas to management to cut the water and fumigate the apartment, Villega says nothing has been done. “This is all a terror,” she says. She pays $1,110 a month for a one-bedroom apartment.
In early March, as tenants finalized their demands and formed committees under the shade of an oak tree on the property, Druke asked what they would do if the water came back. “Would you continue the strike, or keep going for all other demands?”
“Just because water’s back doesn’t cancel out their negligence,” one tenant in the crowd shouted back. “Yeah,” another added. “We want all of the above.”
Visit Villas Del Paseo and you’ll likely notice the newly landscaped leasing office, the freshly painted soccer field, and the dog park, which were all completed in the months after the 43-year-old complex changed hands from BRT Apartments Corporation, a publicly traded real estate investment trust, to Comunidad Partners in July 2019 for more than $33 million. According to the company’s website, Comunidad owns more than 5,000 units spread across the Southwest.
When the winter storm caused a dip in water pressure, management asked tenants in an email to use pool water, which was green with algae, to flush toilets or boil to drink “if needed.” Tenants called management demanding a time frame for plumbing repairs, but they received an email notifying them that the phones were down.
“That water has not been changed since the new owners took over,” says tenant Jimmy Ivory, who called the Houston Health Department after he received the email from management. On March 2, the City of Houston Health Department closed the pool until further notice.
Another tenant, Elizabeth Ramirez, says when the water in her apartment finally switched back on, it was discolored and “smelled like shit.”
“I cannot cook, I cannot do anything,” she says. “It’s a nightmare.” Ramirez, who feared her dogs might get sick from the foul-smelling water, dropped off one of them at her family’s house and is considering rehoming the other until her lease ends in three months.
Two tenants representing the union, including Raimy Aguilar, met with management in the leasing office for the first time on Tuesday to negotiate terms to end the strike. According to Aguilar, things were pleasant, “more like a conversation than a negotiation,” and management seemed cooperative until the subject of prorated rent came up. Management had given $250 worth of prorated rent—around 10 days’ worth of rent, on average—but Aguilar says tenants aren’t willing to budge for anything less than 30 days of prorated rent, about the same amount of time tenants were without water.
“I went into it naively optimistic,” Aguilar says, but “they were only willing to listen up to a point.” In a statement, the Villas Del Paseo community manager said the company had waived the early lease termination fee, typically 85 percent of one month’s rent, and that tenants who were current on rent were free to move out.
The next meeting is yet to be scheduled. In the meantime, tenants are considering their options, including continuing to withhold rent. “I’m honestly thinking about taking a week off of work and standing outside their gates with a sign to let any potential new tenants know not to rent here,” Aguilar says.
Vara moved out of his apartment on March 27. He felt he could no longer allow his family to sleep with mold stewing behind their headboard, even after plumbers restored running water to their apartment last week. “My daughter has woken up multiple times in the middle of the night saying that she can’t breathe,” he says. “I took the decision to leave [for her].”
The last time I interviewed Vara, I asked him why he didn’t make plans to leave earlier. What would he have done if Comunidad came to him and offered his family an unaffected apartment—would he abandon the strike? “No,” he says. “I feel like all these kids in the community are my kids, because I have a kid too. I’m raising my voice for them.”
Correction: A previous version of this story stated that landlords are permitted to change locks without providing tenants a copy of the new key. Texas law requires landlords to provide tenants with the new key.