In her 26 years living on Norma Street, Cyndi Boling has seen it all –– from public intoxication and drug dealing to prostitution and violence. She has witnessed most of this from her front porch.
On a recent afternoon, a man driving by Boling’s house stopped and tried to proposition her and a Fort Worth Weekly reporter, mistaking them for prostitutes.
“I’m glad he didn’t pull out a gun,” Boling said once the man had left.
Boling lives across the street from La Hacienda, an apartment complex in Central Meadowbrook, an Eastside neighborhood where some fear to tread unaccompanied. Prepared for the worst, Boling packs heat.
“My gun is one where I don’t have to have good aim,” she said. “Would I use it? Yes. I hope I don’t ever have to.”
Managed by Highland Commercial Properties, a commercial management business established in the mid 1990s and based in San Antonio, La Hacienda is split into six buildings along Norma Street, with the main office on East Lancaster Avenue. Two of the buildings are no longer operational and have been abandoned. The windows are boarded up, the stairways are crooked, and broken glass is everywhere.
A fire destroyed the clubhouse recently, though the exact date and cause are unclear, according to code compliance officials. Since then, apartment residents and nearby neighbors have been complaining that the buildings have become eyesores. There is also a concern that the debris and crumbling staircases pose a safety risk.
Mike Phipps, a small business owner who lives on East Lancaster, is one of these concerned locals. After moving to Fort Worth from Arlington in 1998, he began filing reports to the city regarding violations he observed in his part of Meadowbrook. He first noted the poor conditions at La Hacienda 10 years ago.
“It’s just time for the owners to step up and do the right thing,” he said.
On one recent afternoon, Phipps took his camera to La Hacienda and photographed some of the damage. He later sent the photos to the city.
The buildings, he said, “either need a major overhaul or need to be demolished.”
Mike Russ, general operations manager for Highland Commercial Properties, said his company was in the process of rehabbing the buildings at the time, acquiring permits and inspecting plumbing. He added that the company regularly invests a lot of money in La Hacienda.
“For the past three years, we’ve operated at about a $500,000 operating deficit, putting money back into the property,” Russ said. “We’ve done about $3-plus million worth of improvements at the property since 2014.”
Apartments.com shows that a one-bedroom La Hacienda apartment runs $665 a month. A four-bedroom costs up to $2,000.
Last summer, Phipps filed an open records request with the city, asking for every code violation at La Hacienda. Code Compliance documents showed 71 violations since 2006, as well as reports of bed bugs in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015, and a possible case in 2016, all within the entire complex.
“It is a shame that those who have to live in these complexes are taken advantage of by the property owners,” Phipps said.
Russ asserted that Highland Commercial is not allowing code complaints to gather dust, and he said there is work being done that may not be noticed from outside the complex.
“It’s disappointing when you hear that from the neighbors,” Russ said. “But I understand. They care about their community, and they’re not going to stay silent, and I can respect that. But we’re not the bad guys.”
Boling also contacts the city about the problems she notices. She files code complaints routinely and has called the police on multiple occasions. She isn’t the only one. Almost 1,000 calls have been made to police from La Hacienda over the past five years, according to police call sheets obtained by the Weekly. The documents show that La Hacienda residents called police 973 times. Among the calls were 226 domestic disturbance reports, 56 burglaries, 42 assaults, 13 suicide attempts, and 10 reports of suspicious people with weapons. Fewer than half of the calls resulted in police reports.
Data from SpotCrime.com -–– a report aggregator that collects police and news reports and user-generated data –– shows that, since December 7, 2016, there have been at least 42 crimes committed within Meadowbrook, a 4.3-mile neighborhood bordered by Highway 820 to the east, Tom Landry Highway to the north, East Lancaster to the south, and Riverside Drive to the west. Six of the crimes reportedly took place in the 4700 block of Norma Street, where La Hacienda is located.
Fort Worth police officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
“Memorial Day weekend two years ago, we called three times a day for the entire weekend because of fighting,” Boling recalled.
On December 5, the Building Standards Commission convened for a public hearing on La Hacienda. The case had been ongoing since August, when complaints by Phipps and other locals brought the issue to city officials’ attention.
Code enforcement officer Ben Sanchez testified that three buildings within La Hacienda were in violation of numerous city codes.
“These buildings are currently in substandard condition,” Sanchez said at the hearing before listing the violations he had observed. Among them were cases of damaged doorframes, water damage in multiple units, ruined floors and exposed electric wires in 50 units, missing heating systems, broken glass, and holes in balcony floors.
Those and other conditions “contribute to these buildings being in violation of the Minimum Building Standards Code,” he said.
At the hearing, Russ and another representative from Highland Commercial agreed to fix the violations within 180 days.
After declaring the buildings substandard, the commission ordered Highland Commercial to amend the violations within 120 days or else face charges. The company was also ordered to make sure the three buildings are properly fenced off while repairs are made.
When asked about the commission’s order, Russ said that while finishing the repairs by March is a challenge, he and his team will work to meet the deadline.
“The weather is not as conducive to the work we are trying to get done during this time period,” Russ said. “But I understand what [the board’s] approach was. We can deal with it.”
Phipps, who spoke on behalf of his neighbors, expressed concern that the problems would continue and that some residents might fear eviction for speaking out. Russ disputed Phipps’ interpretation of how apartment management treats its residents.
“I might disagree with the characterizations of how our residents are treated,” Russ said. “The 2 percent of our income that does come from Section 8 housing vouchers is not for us. It’s for the residents.”
While repairs have only started on one of the buildings, Russ said Highland Commercial’s current plan is to have residents ready to move into both buildings by the end of March, “if not sooner.”
With such crime and rampant code violations in the area, several people have asked Boling why she doesn’t just move somewhere else. The answer is simple: She loves her home.
“I say, ‘Come into my home, sit in my backyard,’ ” she said. “I have this wonderful home that I can afford. That’s why I live here.”