Low-cost living in a high-rent town
Boarding houses fill a need.

By Claire Osborn
Thursday, May 05, 2005
(Story originally published in the Austin American-Statesman on May 19, 2000)

Eight 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.

With 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.
"For ten dollars a day, where can you get a room, all bills paid and TV?" he asked.
Mays said he calls his operation "self development" because he gives people room and time to figure out their lives by keeping the rent low. He has helped people find jobs in restaurants and apply to colleges, Mays said.
One tenant, 58-year-old retired laborer Leroy Wilkerson, stood on the back steps one recent afternoon surrounded by his potted plants and laundry that he had hand-washed and hung on a clothesline.
"This place is private; we're up on a hill, and I like the neighborhood," Wilkerson said. "The rent was too high in other apartments."
Mays said he charges Wilkerson only $240 a month because that is all Wilkerson can afford.
A sense of family
Off Manor Road in Northeast Austin, one finds something very different. Fannie Loving lives in her boarding house on Coventry Lane, and it shows. The outside is painted bright blue and yellow. The front yard features pink flamingos and pieces of driftwood sprayed red. "I like lively colors," Loving said.
Inside is a carpeted living room with a piano, attractive couches arranged around a television, pink curtains and a fireplace with a gleaming basketball trophy on the mantel. The kitchen is clean and spacious. Renters pay $425 a month, which includes three meals a day. There's even a tiny Chihuahua, named Iti Bit, running around.
"This is more like a home environment. We're all a big family here," said Loving, who has worked for the Austin/Travis County Mental Health-Mental Retardation Department as a foster parent. She said some of her boarders attend True Vine Baptist Church with her on Sundays.
Renters share chores such as washing dishes and taking out the trash.
"I feel comfortable in this house," said tenant Randy Kirsche. "Fannie has helped me out a great deal; she's a Christian, and I'm a Christian, too."
Kirsche, 35, has a job selling cell phones and said he was living at the boarding house until he can afford to move to his own apartment.
His roommate, Chris Redman, is a 47-year-old security guard who displays a security guard creed on the wall in their room.
"Everything (rent) was just going up, and I can manage my finances here," Redman said.
A home and a hand
Some boarding house owners help renters when their money won't stretch far enough.
Barbara Lovings — who Fannie Loving said is a distant cousin who spells her name differently — owns three houses, including one for men on parole and probation called Gentleman's Chateau.
She is helping one of her tenants at Guest Quarters, a boarding house for women on Northeast Drive, buy contact lenses. She paid for a bus ticket for another woman and has bought renters clothes and picture frames, her tenants said.
"This is one of your better boarding houses. It's real peaceful, and people don't argue all the time," said Debra Riley, a 43-year-old former waitress.
At another of Barbara Lovings' houses, resident Victor Ledesma doesn't hold an outside job, but he works taking care of the place as if it were his own. He mows the lawn at Quarter Stone Personal Care Center on Auburn Drive in Northeast Austin, and he's growing a garden. "I try to pick up trash, water the lawn and the flowers," he said.
Having a job is not the issue for the men at Al Bogen's licensed rooming house on Radam Lane in South Austin. They all work, and they pay $300 a month to stay at the house, where Bogen supplies a bed, a dresser and a chair for each room. "It's always full," Bogen said. He bought the house after living there as a renter.
No meals are included, but there's a refrigerator for every two tenants. One evening the renters were sitting at a picnic table in the well-trimmed yard. Dan McDermott, a carpenter for a custom home builder, was the only one who didn't seem to mind saying why he was there. "I'm building mansions, but I can't afford to live in the houses we build."
Finding and fixing
On a recent afternoon, Christianson inspected a boarding house on East Pheasant Drive in East Austin where, according to police, a 66-year-old woman had been sexually assaulted by another boarder who was a registered sex offender. The law does not require boarding house operators to notify tenants when a sex offender moves in.
Christianson noticed that the smoke detector didn't work and one of the electrical outlets was overloaded. The owner lacked a permit to turn the garage into a bedroom.
Even though there are nine beds in the house, there were only three men living there at the time, so the owner did not require a license from the city. Christianson said he would talk to the owner anyway about safety.
As he left, Christianson shook his head. "I am thinking that there's a lot of these situations out there that we just don't know about," he said.

License information:

For information about boarding house licenses, call the City of Austin's permit center at 499-2380.

On the Web

City of Austin Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Office:


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Original Austin American-Statesman article may be seen at

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