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The Investigators: Rundown rentals

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Jose Ortiz, an Iraq veteran lives in a two-bedroom decrepit, rat-infested, moldy apartment on Border Street with eight members of his family. (Jamie R. Carrero) Jose Ortiz, an Iraq veteran lives in a two-bedroom decrepit, rat-infested, moldy apartment on Border Street with eight members of his family. (Jamie R. Carrero)
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By Michele Reese and Kenneth Dean

TYLER (KYTX) -- They go looking for a home, but end up with a house of horrors. Every day, more and more people living below the poverty level are forced to live in slums. It's a problem all over the world, and right here in East Texas. 

Here, we take an in-depth look at who's living in squalor, why -- and who the law protects.

Fair market value for a two bedroom apartment in Tyler is $750 a month. But, choices are limited for many renters because of things like bad credit or criminal history. Many of those people become financial victims to the landlords who will rent to them.

During the cold winter months, 71 year old Ethel Foley used her oven to heat her Tyler apartment. "I open it all the way," Foley said.

She says her landlord won't repair her heat, or anything else.

"She won't send nobody out here to fix it...Bathroom problems, heat and air system, I have problems with the door in my bedroom, the toilet, and she won't get nobody out here to fix it," Foley told us.

Foley pays $750 a month for this two bedroom apartment in northwest Tyler. Part of her rent is subsidized with your tax dollars through Tyler's housing choice voucher program.

John Thompson is the inspector for the city of Tyler. He says when a violation is spotted, the property owner is required to fix it.

"We have something like 900 homes in the program we have to inspect during the year," Thompson said. "They have 30 days to repair those violations and once they repair those violations we do a re-inspection."

But, in Foley's case, the city says her landlord, Virginia Kennedy,  has refused to fix the problem. Kennedy did not want to meet with us to talk about the condition of this particular rental property. She owns more than 80 in Tyler. She did say there was a recent break-in at Foley's building and all the copper was stolen. She says that's why there's no A/C or heat.

She says she tried to get Foley to move but she wouldn't. Now, the city says Foley has no choice. "I have to move," Foley told us.

The city cites about 10% of rental properties for code violations every year, and most landlords who are cited fix the problems. In fact, only two landlords have ever been removed from the housing choice voucher program for non-compliance.

But there are more renters than vouchers, so many have to deal with landlords on their own. Like, Iraq war vet Eliziar Oritz.

He lives in this small apartment with 7 family members. He pays $425 a month. As you can see, the ceiling is falling apart.

"Before we knew it half of it collapsed on the ground," Ortiz said.

Electrical wires are exposed, mold covers the bathroom, and rats are a major problem. "I lay in bed at night and I all hear is [rats] everywhere...When the wind blows through it, it moves the shingles and the feces fall everywhere. I have to wipe my bed because there are feces on my bed," Ortiz said.

It's so bad, the family is forced to  protect their food in a unique way.

"Say we have chips, we put it in a bag like this," Ortiz demonstrated. "This is where we usually hang out food, from this vent."

Hanging food, dodging rats -- it's not quite the life Ortiz expected when he returned from war. "My living conditions were a lot better in Iraq then they are here."
  
He says his landlords know about the dangers. "They don't do anything to fix it, but when it comes to rent, they want the rent, and you are late one or two days they are following you -- 'Where's my money?'"

Ortiz's landlords tell the investigators they make exceptions for the family by letting eight people live there. And, they say, the family can move to another unit if they want to. But, Ortiz says it's not that simple. "With eight in the family, where are we going? It's not that easy to find a place for us because of income issues," Ortiz said.

Christina Fulsom of PATH says income and credit issues, along with criminal records and a shortage of affordable housing, create a challenge for a lot of low income people.

"They don't have money for deposits, utilities to be turned on, so they have to go some place where the landlord will allow them to move in without a deposit, without utilities," Fulsom said. "Places they can afford don't make any housing quality standards."

Tyler police chief Gary Swindle oversees neighborhood services. "The city has a lot of city codes," Swindle told us. "Electrical, plumbing, homes have to have proper sewage...but in general, when you talk about landlord-renter relationship, the real issue comes down to a civil matter."

So, most landlords go untouched in Tyler.

"We really respect property owner's rights, and again, in the whole issue of what should government regulate and what should they not. In some communities, there is more regulation," Swindle acknowledged. 
   
And, while many renters are victims, Fulsom says some do perpetuate slums. "They trash them and go. Next time that landlord is going to take a chance on someone, they aren't going to invest to fix up the house," Fulsom said.

It's a vicious cycle with no end in sight.

The city of Tyler says it will consider making tougher regulations for landlords, but it has to be at the will of the community. Until now, they feel the community outcry has been to protect property rights -- but they will consider change if the public calls for it.

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