AUSTIN -- A KVUE Defenders investigation has uncovered dozens of board and care facilities in Austin with safety violations. Nearly all remain open with little oversight into how they care for the vulnerable adults who live there.
Our investigative team started looking into the facilities after a suspected arsonist set Hannah's Place on fire in September. Terrie Smith owns the board and care home. She said her facility had no working fire alarms or smoke detectors.
"With me being a small business and the finances I operate on, we weren't able to get that in our budget to get that done," said Smith.
Thirty people, most of them suffering from a disability, got out alive.
"It could have been a tragedy," contends Battalion Chief Palmer Buck.
According to city records reviewed by the Defenders, Austin’s code compliance and fire department cited Hannah's place and at least two dozen other board and care facilities. Combined there were 223 safety violations since 2007. Some violations included notices for overcrowding and rooms infested with roaches and bed bugs.
The fire department cited South Austin Market Place off Ben White Boulevard with the most violations. In all the department cited it with 77 fire code violations. At one time inspectors found "all smoke detectors did not work." Rosemary Follis owns the building which boards nearly 100 tenants. Despite the violations Follis says her place is safe.
“I think it's very safe. It's an all-concrete building," she said.
Follis says she corrected every violation. She also pointed out that security cameras monitor hallways and entrances. Most living at her facility are ex-offenders with disabilities.
“You're taking on a lot of people with special needs," contends Follis.
Mark English is one of those tenants. He suffers from a brain injury.
“It helps me out because I have no other place to live," English said.
While the fire department can issue some violations, it has little authority over most board and care facilities. It typically can shut a place down if it identifies an imminent structural threat.
Probate Judge Guy Herman appoints guardians to help people find rooms in board and care facilities.
"It's shocking to me that Austin does not regulate those," Herman argued.
In 2012 he wrote a letter to Austin City Council and Travis County commissioners pleading with them to regulate the facilities.
"They need to keep our elders and our mentally ill and mentally disabled folks safe," said Herman.
Some board and care owners like Neal Klein think some regulations are good, but he worries that costly licensing fees could force facilities to close. He says "and the end result largely would be a lot of people displaced."
“There is money to be made in this business, and they're not doing it -- not to make money. So I think that if they're regulated they will stay in business. The good ones will. And the ones that go out of business, maybe they deserve to be out of business," Herman said.
The city's Health Commission reviewed plans to regulate board and care facilities last year, but it dropped the plans in January.