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Owners slow in making repairs to apartment complex

Wednesday, June 27, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

Representatives of the Wood Ridge Apartments will report back to the Buildings and Standards Commission today, and there are a lot of people curious about what they will say about the progress they have made to improve the safety of the apartment complex.


On June 4, the commission gave the owners of the South Austin apartment complex 75 days to secure permits and repair walkways and stairs after a second-floor balcony collapsed last month and numerous safety violations were discovered. The owner of the complex, David Andrews of La Jolla, Calif., is also required to report progress to the commission. So far, it’s not looking good.


“We don’t have a good feeling about their complying with the 75 days right now. We’re not seeing the progress out there that is needed to make sure they comply with the 75 days. We’re going to monitor that,” city Code Compliance Director Carl Smart told a Council subcommittee last week. He added that there were “no visible signs of work being done.”


Code Compliance spokesperson Melissa Martinez told In Fact Daily that as of Tuesday, there was still no physical progress on the building.


“Building management has indicated they are in the design phase of the remediation,” said Martinez.


Problems at Wood Ridge came to light when a second-story balcony on one of the buildings suddenly dropped about 10 inches, provoking a 911 call to the Fire Department. The next day, the balcony collapsed. Further inspection by the city revealed similar problems at the other buildings, resulting in 30 citations, two for each of the 15 buildings in the complex.


On June 13, Code Compliance returned to the Wood Ridge apartments for an interior inspection and identified 760 violations, including electrical problems, broken or missing smoke detectors, plumbing leaks, and uneven floor beams.


After the 75 days, owners will be fined $1,000 per week per building, which could total as much as $15,000 per week, until the work is complete on the walkways and stairs, and inspections are passed. Fines for the 760 interior violations have yet to be assessed.


Council Member Mike Martinez worried that the burden of the fines could force a result the city does not want to see.


“We don’t want to incentivize them to run out the door and sell that thing, because the next property owner is probably just going to raze the site,” said Martinez.


“I want us to understand that we’re dealing with a double-edged sword here. Because I suspect, if I were a property owner, and I was mandated by x date, with thousands of potential dollars in penalties, that I would be doing everything I possibly could to try and sell that asset as quickly as possible. Therefore, a new owner would scrape it, and they would all go away and turn it into an unaffordable new complex,” said Martinez.


Indeed, Smart of Code Compliance told the committee that $500 checks apartment management offered to displaced residents were accompanied by paperwork that terminated their lease agreements. Though the management assured the city tenants would be allowed to renew leases, housing advocate Ruby Roa said that she knew of only one person who had done so, borrowing money for the new $400 deposit.


Council Member Laura Morrison told In Fact Daily that the Wood Ridge situation raises more general issues, saying “the city needs to be proactive in protecting the viability of our older apartment units, which represent a significant portion of affordable residences in Austin.”


Morrison said that in addition to development of a program for proactive safety inspections, “preservation of affordability demands that we consider investing bond and other city resources in renovations of older apartment developments.”


Smart said that his department has proposed a proactive inspection program  that will start with a four-person team that would seek out complexes that could have violations before they become “major economic difficulties” for the property owners and tenants. The proposal will reach City Council during the upcoming budget process.


Martinez said that while the city will soon propose a $70 million bond item on affordable housing, “if we’re dropping off affordability in our older units, we’re just spinning our wheels. We’re not making progress.”

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