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Officials: Longview landlords must help curb drug crime

By Sarah Thomas sthomas@news-journal.com
Aug. 24, 2013 at 11 p.m.

The July shooting death of a Longview teen inside what police call a "dope house" is the kind of incident that has led some Texas cities to go after property owners under the authority of the state's nuisance abatement law.

And some Longview officials say landlords could and should play a bigger role in reducing drug activity.

Joey Lee Espy was shot to death July 7 inside the Bonner Street house.

According to witness statements and police reports, the small wood-frame house just south of downtown Longview was used like a storefront to sell drugs.

The rental property is owned by Rose Boyd, according to a search warrant filed in Gregg County Court at Law No. 2.

Boyd said she had no idea the people she rented to used the house for illegal purposes.

"I don't know nothing about that," she said. "I didn't know any of that was going on there."

Boyd said she received rental payments for the residence but didn't know who was paying the money. She declined further comment.

While Longview police said the lack of a city ordinance aimed at landlord accountability is unfortunate, the state's statute works by holding the property owners and managers responsible for what happens on their property.

It allows cities to file civil claims against landlords and business owners if the city believes their complicity or negligence aids criminal activity.

City spokesman Shawn Hara said, although rare for Longview, the city has used the nuisance abatement law in the past.

He recalled illegal activity at Globe Inn on East Marshall Avenue forced the city to threaten the owners with seizure if the problems weren't remedied.

Some Texas cities are using the statute to run criminal elements completely out of some neighborhoods, as Houston did earlier this year.

A Harris County judge approved banning gang members from a neighborhood in southwest Houston. The Houston Chronicle reported city officials successfully sued 16 gang members and two businesses for threatening the safety of the neighborhood.

Akin to absentee landlords who by negligence allow drug dealers to operate out of their property, officials in Houston said the two businesses were complicit because they did not do enough to make the area safe and work to eliminate the threat, the Chronicle reported.

Nuisance abatement lawsuits, such as the one filed in Harris County, can be filed by a resident or a city "when a property is the source of recurring criminal activity (such as drug dealing by tenants and guests), and the owner has been notified of the activity but has failed to take reasonable security steps to stop the activity," according to the law.

From there, a court can order the owner to eliminate the nuisance and shut down the property.

Hara said the closest thing the city has in place is related to public housing.

"If a landlord participates in our housing program and accepts housing vouchers, there are some restrictions they would have to abide by," he said.

Longview Police Chief Don Dingler said the nuisance abatement law isn't always an effective approach because it "takes a long time and typically the drug dealer has moved from that location before the investigation is finished."

Drug dealers, the chief said, are generally attracted to rental properties for a variety of reasons - the main one being they don't feel any real attachment to the property.

"When police determine there are drugs being dealt at a location, (drug dealers) can move quickly to avoid further action and detection," Dingler said.

The police department, he said, would use local ordinances as necessary.

"Unfortunately, at this time we do not have city ordinances that hold landlords accountable for their tenants' actions," Dingler said. "It is very important for landlords to be hands on."

Dingler added that tenants likely will be deterred from criminal activity if they believe they're being watched.

Beverly Pruitt, who co-owns State Realty and has been selling and renting property for more than 20 years, said adopting a local ordinance for landlord accountability would cut down on criminal activity in and around rental properties.

She said she and her husband are bound by law to be aware of what happens on their property under guidelines set by the Texas Real Estate Commission, but she added she would conduct her business in the same manner without those guidelines.

"It's good business to know who stays in your property and what is going on there," Pruitt said. "That's your investment. You have to know in order to take care of your investment. We always know who is living in the property."

Landlords should not only know who they are renting to, she said, but they also should make frequent visits to the property.

"You want to make sure (tenants) are keeping up the property. It's to your advantage. You're responsible for that property," Pruitt said.

She added occasional checks also ensure the person you are renting to is actually the person staying in the home.



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