men sat at tables covered with bright blue tablecloths and topped by plates
of steaming spaghetti. Three of the diners stumbled a bit through grace
before chowing down.
Laughter mixed with some grumbling — "Don't say anything obnoxious," one blond man wearing a nose ring told his friend.
This was dinner at a Northeast Austin boarding house — one of several in Austin that serve people who can't afford rent anywhere else. In a city where the average rent for a 1,000-square-foot apartment is $930 a month, rooming houses and boarding houses offer a much cheaper alternative. For many, they're a bulwark against homelessness.
They're also, for the most part, unregulated — and it's anyone's guess whether those unlicensed, uninspected houses meet safety standards.
In January, a man died in a fire in an unlicensed rooming house in North Austin. The facility at 10800 N. Lamar Blvd. had space for 39 people in two warehouses and a house. City officials didn't know it existed.
According to data from the city and from social service agencies, at least 15 boarding and rooming houses operate in Austin. The real number probably is much higher: The City of Austin acknowledges that, although city licenses are required, many houses are unlicensed and exist in a word-of-mouth netherworld.
"Boarding houses are real hard to track and find; they are like a subculture of rental," said Kathy Stark, director of the Austin Tenants Council.
Matt Christianson, a senior housing inspector with the city, said his office has "no way of knowing about unlicensed boarding homes . . . unless there's a complaint."
He is the only city inspector assigned to boarding houses, rooming houses, hotels and motels. Before he began his job last summer, the city hadn't had anyone in that position for about four years, said James Doyle, the chief code enforcement officer for the city.
Christianson has 21,000 rooms to inspect in a town where construction is booming. When he began his job, he said, at least 30 new hotels and motels didn't have licenses, and operators didn't know they needed them.
He said he has just begun to focus on boarding houses, for now primarily in the University of Texas area. "Most of the boarding houses are in the UT area, and they are the fraternities, the sororities and the co-ops," Christianson said.
The city defines a boarding house as a place where more than six unrelated people pay rent and are served meals; a rooming house is the same but doesn't provide meals. The city requires that both be licensed and allow an annual inspection. In addition, houses that assist with personal care or medication must have a license from the Texas Department of Human Services .
Inspectors check factors such as whether smoke detectors work, whether electrical outlets are overloaded, whether water heaters are vented properly, whether doors and windows are in good repair and whether plumbing works.
When the city inspected the unlicensed boarding house that burned on North Lamar in January, officials found that the warehouses didn't have emergency lighting or illuminated exit signs. The owner, who could not be reached for comment this week, was issued a violation notice but was not fined. The property now is under contract for sale.
Like another time
The converted warehouses are just one end of the boarding house spectrum.
Some boarding houses cater specifically to clients of the Austin/Travis County Mental Health-Mental Retardation Department, while others cater to parolees. Many others are what you'd expect in the America of an earlier time: a relatively clean, cheap place to live. Residents usually pay $400 to $500 monthly; the price includes meals and sometimes even cable television.
But it isn't Martha Stewart-style living.
A resident may share a room with several others. A bed sometimes means a bunk. The furniture is sometimes dilapidated. The floors are often worn, and the lines at the bathroom can get long.
Some houses are clean, with bright paint, flowers and well-kept furniture. Others have shutters falling off windows, overgrown yards and dirty rooms in garages with no windows.
Officials at social service agencies such as Caritas, a nonprofit organization that helps homeless people and refugees, said they refer clients to boarding houses, but with hesitation.
"We do so with reluctance because of the inconsistent conditions of boarding houses in general," said Eileen Earhart Oldag, executive director of Caritas.
Some owners and residents of boarding houses, however, proudly defend the places they live.
"Boarding homes get a lot of bad press . . . but they are a decent safety net and keep a lot of people from being homeless," said Pat Campbell, manager of the Rosewood Boarding Home and Care Center at 2200 Rosewood Ave. in East Austin.
Campbell, 35, said he would have been homeless if he hadn't found the center. Disabled from a work injury, Campbell had stayed with a friend, but things didn't work out. He also had stayed in a mobile home, but it burned.
He said he knows the boarding house isn't in an especially safe neighborhood, but that doesn't bother him. "It's close to downtown and the bus routes," Campbell said.Six to seven people live at the center, a former rehabilitation clinic. Inside, carpeting lines a long hallway flanked by several rooms. A television blared one afternoon in a living room adjacent to a stark kitchen dominated by tall cabinets. One bedroom contained twin beds with bookshelves, a battered armoire and a lamp without a shade.
Residents pay $480 a month.
Just down the street people can pay even less — $300 a month to stay at the East Austin Self Development rooming house. Each of the three tenants gets a private room. Residents share a kitchen and a living room with a battered black couch and a giant TV. The house doesn't serve meals.
peeling paint, rickety doors and ripped linoleum floors, the place needs
work, which the owner said he plans to do. With only three tenants, the
house is not required to have a license. Still, it's a good deal, said
owner Gene Mays.
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