There is a scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian in which The People’s Front of Judea — a band of rebels, covered in grime, stirring up trouble within Rome — bemoans the Roman regime, imploring, “What have the Romans ever done for us?”
One member responds with “The aqueducts?”
Another adds, “Sanitation?”
Well, one Houston man cannot even claim to have that luxury, or the 21st-century version of it: indoor plumbing.
And it is thanks, he says, to the City of Houston’s regulatory handwringing.
“I’m tired of living without basic sanitation. I’m tired of living like a dog,” Sean Krieger told the Houston City Council and mayor during public comments on May 21.
For almost 17 months, Krieger and his wife Jennifer have been trying to get the city’s plumbing network connected to their house. The Kriegers live in Houston’s District D in a converted storage container house.
Krieger makes his living retrofitting storage containers to provide “high quality [housing] at prices below competition.”
According to Krieger, he has been sent on a wild goose chase that’s lasted almost a year and a half.
The Kriegers’ house sits on the block corner in a District D neighborhood. Running parallel to the streets intersecting outside their house are two unused sewer lines.
Normally, discontinued sewer lines are filled in so that they can no longer function. However, the lines outside of Krieger’s house were not filled in and still run close enough to both the main line and the Kriegers’ home such that a minor connection would suffice.
“On day one, I went to the City of Houston’s permitting office and offered to do the entire project — paying for everything myself — connecting to an existing sewer line and it was rejected,” Krieger told The Texan in an interview.
This plan, Krieger says, would have cost about $10,000.
After closer examination, the abandoned, but not filled in sewage line outside his house was broken enough to render the solution unworkable. The next solution was to connect the Kriegers’ lot with the one across the street (that is owned by his business partner) and then connect to the main line — not only connecting the Kriegers’ house to the main line but all of the lots currently without sewage in the area.
In this case, minimal obstacles would hinder the work from being done. This was simply outright rejected.
He was then told the plan he needed to carry out was going through the public right-of-way street, to run a whole new piping system parallel next to the abandoned pipe and up to the main line.
This path had numerous obstacles, and with obstacles, comes cost.
While mapping this plan out, Krieger had to get exceptions “virtually every step of the way.”
He continued, “This is really the fundamental driver of length in this process,” speaking of the approval difficulties in each step. With each exception to their (sometimes contradictory) specifications, Krieger was met with the mantra, “I guess we’ll allow it.”
While delay after delay compounded, months went by in the rearview mirror — each one leaving the Krieger family without plumbing access in their home. Krieger even had a senior plan reviewer with the City of Houston draw up a plan for him only to then reject it a little over a month later.
“Nobody stands up to this because they literally have the authority to retaliate so hard that you will lose your livelihood,” Krieger expressed in frustration.
Another delay came when Krieger’s wife Jennifer delivered the contract plan to a city employee — whose job it is to review them — right before the family left town for vacation. The employee refused to review the plan because Krieger said he was told, “[she] needed someone there to watch her before [she] could touch it.”
According to Krieger, for three days, until she got someone to attend to her, the employee let the contract sit untouched.
“At the end of the day, this should be one of the more straightforward projects they have,” Krieger added.
Seventeen months, hundreds of hours, and multiple designs later, Krieger is not much closer to connecting his home’s plumbing with the city’s infrastructure. The estimated cost based on all the revisions, obstacles, and time came to $62,000 for what could have only cost $10,000 to $15,000.
Krieger says that right now the city is only willing to reimburse him $14,400 of the total cost for updates to their infrastructure.
In response to Sean Krieger’s testimony, Mayor Sylvester Turner — deferring to the city’s process — stated, “You’re going to have to continue taking it up with permitting and legal.”
But the Kriegers aren’t the only ones frustrated with the city and its process.
The Kriegers’ friend, Kile Spelz, also testified in front of the city council and mayor. Spelz, who worked with a building contractor, told the council that her business has had issues with city inspectors contradicting what the last one told her.
In an interview with The Texan, Spelz expressed her frustrations with the city’s permitting and regulatory bureaucracy — also known as Washington Street.
“The inefficiencies of Washington Street are outrageous,” Spelz said. It is a common sight to see “people waiting there for hours, then walking into the back offices and seeing employees sitting around that are not attending to customers.”
It was so bad, Spelz said, that she told her colleagues she’ll do anything — including cleaning up human feces on their properties — so long as she didn’t have to go back to Washington Street.
More broadly, Spelz’s business has had building plans rejected that were exactly the same as ones that were approved, with the only difference being the address. They would have exactly similar plans get vastly different procedural instructions.
“It’s a constant waste of time and money,” Spelz said of the city’s permitting process.
The Texan reached out to JL Trahan who runs BIZPAC — a “professional association setting legislative policy at the local, state and federal level with its business owner membership” — to see if any of his members would go on record about their experiences with the city’s permitting office.
“Many have commented they are reluctant to speak out for fear of reprisal,” Trahan replied.
Charles Blain of Urban Reform, an organization that engages and advocates for “free-market reforms to urban government” in Houston, who has been monitoring this situation — and the permitting situation overall — told The Texan, “It’s incredibly frustrating to see what the Kriegers have been dealing with for the past 15 months, but unfortunately their story is one of many.”
Blain continued, saying, “Local officials, especially in dense, urban areas often talk about housing affordability, but support policies that keep affordability from becoming a reality. Burdensome regulations and permitting delays keep housing supply from ever meeting demand and that’s exactly what we’re seeing here.”
Summing up the frustration surrounding the whole process, Blain concluded with, “It’s a problem for everyone from developers, potential homebuyers, and renters.”
Krieger may not be the only one dealing with the headaches of Houston’s permitting office, but he is the one putting up the most fight against it, and thus, he says, the city is retaliating against him.
It started in 2015 when Krieger had a run-in with Councilman Dwight Boykins. Boykins initiated a confrontation at one of Krieger’s building sites, accusing Krieger of “gentrifying the neighborhood” and selling “junk.”
The spat has continued since, Krieger says, even extending to bodies like the permitting office and the police department. “Since then,” Krieger stated, his interactions with city officials “have gotten really bad.”
Krieger said he has had multiple 911 calls go unanswered or received a delayed response time. An October 2 break-in at their house resulted in Krieger chasing out the intruder at gunpoint and then holding him until the police arrived — well after the average response time.
When they arrived, the police arrested both Krieger and the intruder.
There is an ongoing internal affairs investigation into the incident.
It culminated, Krieger said, in an officer approaching Krieger after his testimony to question him for his comments (the interaction was recorded and is posted below).
In the video of Krieger’s testimony, two city councilmembers — Brenda Stardig and Mike Laster — expressed concern over the Kriegers’ situation.
Stardig told The Texan, “I am working on setting up a meeting with Houston Public Works and the Legal Department to discuss this further. Although this isn’t in my district, I want to get to the bottom of this so that we can make sure that this process runs smoothly going forward.”
Councilman Laster did not return request for comment.
Councilman Boykins declined to comment.
On future prospects, Krieger stated about his house, “This is the last project I’ll build in the City of Houston.”
Mayor Turner stated in response to Krieger’s testimony, “There may be some other exigent circumstances involved here.”
Mayor Turner’s spokesman, Alan Bernstein, sent The Texan the following statement on May 29, “After last Wednesday, Mr. Krieger met with Houston Public Works personnel. HPW is providing info that he requested to show examples of reimbursed design costs. Further such meetings are possible. His design has been approved.”
Turner was more responsive to Jennifer Krieger’s testimony, even offering to set the meeting himself between them and a city official to get this resolved.
That may be of little comfort to a family that hasn’t even been able to use their home toilet in what’s nearing a year and a half.
Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad watching and quoting Monty Python productions.