Attorneys and activists want property owners to work harder to keep tenants safe

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In Houston, human trafficking victims have filed federal lawsuits against the corporate owners of hotels where they were allegedly forced into the sex trade.

In Dallas, attorneys and activists angered by murders of children in city-owned rental properties are trying to force the city to adhere to the same standards it requires of private owners, in keeping tenants safe from violence. 

The common denominator in the two situations is the need for a legal handle to force rental property owners to accept some responsibility for allowing their premises to be used, repeatedly, for serious, often violent crimes.

For now, prosecutors and plaintiffs’ attorneys around the state are using a patchwork of local public nuisance ordinances and a similar state law to try to attack the problem.  They could have gotten help from a bill passed by the Texas Senate last year, but it died in the House, even though it passed a House committee without amendment. Advocates says it’s just one more chapter in a long-running fight that they will continue in courts, city halls, and the legislature. 

The City of Houston in 2017 used its local anti-nuisance law to file a lawsuit against sex workers, johns and pimps. Notably left out of the action was the local hotel community where much of the crime was taking place. That led Houston lawyer Annie McAdams to file federal suits against Wyndham, Hilton and Choice hotel brands, over criminal activity including human trafficking. 

“How can you explain why you are so aggressively prosecuting victims but not prosecuting the hotels where the police are at every night?” she said at the time.

Senate Bill 498 would have made both tenants and owners of commercial real estate more responsible for crimes committed on a property. The measure encouraged property owners to evict tenants or guests who engage in illegal activity. It also would have given tenants the right to break a lease, room agreement or rental contract with no penalty if the premises are being used for crimes. The bill could have paved the way for more stringent measures regarding the state’s nuisance law, which prohibits repeated illegal activity in a business or dwelling. 

Jamey Caruthers, senior attorney with the public policy group Children at Risk and a proponent of the bill, told a House committee that the bill was another in a string of measures, starting in 2017, that intended to increase property owner liability in unlawful activity cases.

“We don’t want to punish property owners, but we do want them to do a little more due diligence,” Caruthers said.

Attorney John Carney represents private property owners in Dallas who are suing the city over what they contend is unfair enforcement of its public nuisance law and housing codes.

He pointed out that three children were murdered in city-owned residences in 2019, part of a 27% increase in homicides citywide from 2018. Aside from the murders of the children, several other killings took place in city-owned dwellings during the crime wave.

“The City of Dallas is the worst crime landlord in the city,” Carney said. He said a city policy approved in 2017 allows the Dallas Housing Authority, which owns and manages 35 properties in Dallas, including several problem locations, to skirt inspection and performance laws that other owners must pass with regard to criminal and unsavory activity. 

The agreement also allows the DHA to coordinate its own security policy.

“The city removed the DHA properties from code compliance. All properties should be subject to [the city’s housing code],” Carney said. 

The ordinance was not intended to exempt DHA properties, said Jon Fortune, Dallas’ assistant city manager for public safety.

“The city had the ability to address problems [at DHA properties] through nuisance abatement and it still does,” Fortune said. “What we tried to do with this agreement is to enhance the relationship between the city and the DHA to make it less likely that a nuisance abatement lawsuit would have to be filed, by proactively addressing issues.”

DHA president Troy Broussard did not respond to an interview request.

Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].

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