May 7, 2017
The blaze at Briscoe’s Place last May killed two people – and raised numerous questions: How did this unregulated boarding house, visited by city officials numerous times over the years, not get shut down? Who oversaw such businesses? Who regulated them? How many were there in the Bayou City? How dangerous were they?
We began investigating, and almost immediately, it became clear that the city officials had no clue what was going on. They couldn’t provide a list of businesses, or records of any meaningful enforcement they’d taken at lodging houses, boarding homes, or similar facilities. They had no idea how many might be operating across the city. We set to find out on our own.
To that end, we used 311 records to create a boarding house database, and cross-referenced that data with building and fire inspection records. Finally, we used Google mapping and in-person visits to hone our search. Our investigation, published May 7, showed how a whole cottage industry was operating in the shadows, often at the expense of the city’s poorest residents, people who had few resources and often, nowhere else to go. The story had an immediate effect, prompting city leaders to call for a review of Houston’s inspection and oversight process of businesses like Briscoe’s Place. Months later, after more than half-a-dozen community meetings, the city announced plans to overhaul ordinances pertaining to multi-resident housing. The changes, if approved, significantly strengthen protections for boarding house residents and lay out mechanisms to crack down on slumlords or scofflaws.
The city’s code division plans to present the proposed changes to city council Feb. 13, with a vote likely later this month.
Below are my first story and three follow-ups detailing the fallout of the Chronicle’s initial investigation.
Submitted by St. John Barned-Smith