In February, the Texas freeze saw 14 million Texans go without access to safe drinking water. Over 350,000 went without water at all. I went without electricity for close to 48 hours and had no running water for over three days. The cause was that Texas’s utility grids were deregulated and badly in need of upgrades. Most of Texas has had water and electricity restored, although some were saddled with astronomically high electric bills.
A recent report in Texas Monthly found portions of Houston’s historically black neighborhood, Third Ward, are still without access to running water. In this case, it is not only due to poor infrastructure but a slumlord by the name of J. Brad Batteau. Batteau ran for Houston’s city council several times and has amassed a lot of property in Third Ward. He is refusing to take care of leaving several blocks of residences without running water despite renter protection laws. That situation has become so dire that Houston’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, and Third Ward’s Councilwoman, Carolyn Evans-Shabazz, have stepped in to try to get Batteau to restore water to his tenants. Here is more on the story, from Texas Monthly:
Many neighbors living in a dozen or so households on surrounding blocks in the heart of Houston’s historically Black Third Ward are… without [water]. This week, Texas Monthly met with five of them, all of whom continue to battle the aftereffects of February’s storm, including broken pipes and water-damaged rooms, black mold, badly needed home repairs that might cost thousands of dollars, power outages—and now threats of eviction. The residents all have something else in common: a landlord, J. Brad Batteau, who, they say, refuses to fix their homes in a timely manner. They now find themselves in an increasingly bitter dispute—involving allegations by Batteau that his tenants have committed arson on his property—that Houston mayor Sylvester Turner has gotten involved in.
Some tenants say Batteau, who has run for city council multiple times, isn’t a “bad guy,” but that he’s unable to manage the dozen or so homes that he owns in the area. But other residents have lost all trust in him and believe he’s unwilling to spend the money required to maintain his properties. Humi Jackson, a program coordinator with the Black United Fund of Texas, a nonprofit that does philanthropic work in Black communities, has been working closely with Batteau’s tenants to get their homes fixed. She said the landlord has refused to pay for repairs, claiming that his tenants are responsible for them while also refusing to sign off on the contractors they have attempted to hire. A copy of the tenants’ lease agreement obtained by Texas Monthly states that “major maintenance and repairs” are the landlord’s responsibility.
Reached by phone, Batteau justified the lack of repairs, saying all who had gone long periods without water were behind on their rent, and denied that he had stopped anyone from hiring plumbers. He too had been without water for a while and said he felt personal responsibility for fixing others’ pipes, some of which he did repair. But he said he didn’t have the money to pay for fixing all of them because residences he owns had sustained as many as fifteen broken pipes each, many tenants were behind on rent, and his home burned down in the middle of March. He then alleged that tenants had ignited the blaze but, as of press time, did not provide evidence for his claim. Asked about Batteau’s allegations, Jackson said the landlord is engaged in an audacious campaign to avoid his legal responsibility to fix his tenants’ homes.
The dispute has now risen to the attention of Houston officials. Councilwoman Carolyn Evans-Shabazz, whose district includes Third Ward, and Mayor Turner have been in touch with Batteau in recent days and have urged him to hire contractors to complete the repairs, but he has refused because of fears that he would not be able to pay them back and liens would be placed on his properties. Evans-Shabbazz is coordinating with several nonprofits to provide the residents with food, rental assistance, and water while negotiations with Batteau continue. “You have children, small children—somebody had a five-month-old baby in one of these homes—as well as elderly people,” she said. “I just don’t understand how you can treat people that way.” “I know he’s run for public office several times and this is what you do?” she added, moments after she received a text saying that Batteau was now threatening to evict tenants. (Batteau later confirmed he was considering evicting every tenant of his who was behind on rent, which he said was all but one.)“This is an indication that you’re no public servant at all.”
For many of the residents in Batteau’s homes, this was not the first time living in Houston that they’d gone weeks without power and water. Sublette had lost almost everything in Harvey’s floodwaters in 2017. Middleton survived for several weeks without power during Hurricane Ike in 2008. Despite that painful history, this disaster felt different to both of them. “It’s like we don’t matter,” Middleton said. “Everyone else is living their lives again and it feels like the city has forgotten about us.”
There is a bigger picture at play in this situation. What’s happening in Texas proves that deregulation of utilities can cost lives. Biden is proposing a $2 trillion infrastructure upgrade. This plan will create jobs and fix systemic issues that affect low income and BIPOC communities, like in the Third Ward and in Flint, Michigan.
There should be stricter renter and landlord laws, not just in Texas but nationwide. Batteau should not be getting away with this. Especially since he signed a contract stating that all repairs are his responsibility. I do not care to hear about how he can’t afford to pay for repairs while also threatening to evict non paying renters who are well within their rights to withhold rent payment until Batteau fixes the pipes and mold. Furthermore, Batteau should be barred from owning property or be forced to sell since he cannot uphold his end of the contract.
What’s more infuriating is, many of Batteau’s residents are elderly or families with small children and babies. And a lot of his residents are going broke trying to stay hydrated and clean. It’s deplorable. I am not sure what Mayor Turner and Councilwoman Evans-Shabazz can do about this situation but they need to do something quickly. I would also like to applaud the fact that several organizations have gotten involved to help cover some of the residents’ rent and have been helping with repairs despite being blocked by Batteau. I just want to say to Mr. Middleton and the other residents suffering, we haven’t forgotten you. Most of us didn’t know this situation was happening. I hope that more pressure will be put on Batteau and that he faces stiff consequences.
Residents in Houston's historically Black Third Ward have gone 40+ days without water, after storms devastated Texas. This is horrific, and vital reporting from @TexasMonthly https://t.co/6RTKl2Jh0w pic.twitter.com/mObu2XVsKO
— Timothy Meinch (@timeinch) April 8, 2021
“Everyone’s on eviction!” Third Ward landlord & former City Council Candidate Brad Batteau blames his tenants for water woes long after Texas Freeze. He owns 20 houses, most in disrepair, but says he’s a good businessman: https://t.co/jRNCA7OjYQ pic.twitter.com/xrQ2Z57hiJ
— Miya Shay (@ABC13Miya) April 6, 2021
photos via Instagram, Twitter and credit: Getty. Photo on the main page is of Houston mayor Sylvester Turner