Heather Mickelson leaves work on a Monday afternoon and drives home to her ritzy condominium in Tremont Tower, the new six-story monolith of steel and neon-red stucco on Westheimer. She owns a unit there. But not the building's security guard.
Mickelson, 27, catches his attention at the door to the lobby.
"Hi, I need to get in," she chirps matter-of-factly.
"You're not allowed access," the guard scolds, blocking the door and shaking his head. "I told you that last time."
"I just need to get something from my unit," she says.
"I still own the property," she reminds him, smiling at how ridiculous this is.
"Well, I'm sorry," the guard says. He explains, as he has before, that the "association" has instructed him to ban her from the lobby, the stairs and the elevators. "That's the rules they told me," he says. "You're not allowed."
Every week for nearly a month, Mickelson and the guard have had the same face-off: The blond executive assistant walks up to the door of her building and asks to get in. She hasn't committed crimes or thrown wild parties. She's up to date on her homeowners association fees and doesn't even own a pet. Other people just like her live in the same upper floor of the same building. They come and go as they please. And yet, like a persecuted character from a Kafka novel, she's mysteriously turned away.
"Is there any way I can just check my mail?"
"Heather, you are not allowed on the property," the guard snaps. "I'm going to call the cops."
Effectively homeless, Mickelson has nothing left to lose.
"Call the cops," she says.
Hundreds of condo units pop up in tall buildings and exclusive Houston zip codes every year. Their owners are well-educated transplants -- people with good jobs, good credit and good upward mobility. People just like Mickelson.
Mickelson worked after college for a travel firm organizing corporate parties on-site in London and Paris. She relocated to Houston in 2003 for the cheap real estate. A few months after landing a well-paying sales job at Hilti Tools, she was driving down Westheimer and noticed the incomplete shell of a new condo tower. She was hoisted up on a construction elevator and glimpsed an elegant panorama. A few months later, she signed a contract for a $224,000 fourth-floor unit and moved in. She hired an interior designer, who painted a wall green and yellow -- a prophetic color scheme.
Yellow lemons with green plastic leaves, it turned out, were a favorite prop of Jordan Fogal, a.k.a. the Lemon Lady. She appeared outside the condo almost daily wearing Chanel sunglasses and waving a placard that said, "Tremont sold me a lemon." Her town house in a nearby subdivision was leaky, visibly sagging and full of mold. The builder, Jorge Casimiro, is the managing partner of Tremont Tower L.P. -- the condo building's developer -- and serves as president of its homeowners association. (Casimiro also was appointed by Harris County Judge Robert Eckels last year to the Harris County Housing Authority.)
Mickelson trusted Casimiro and thought Fogal was a crackpot. "She was really not my favorite person at the time," she says. The condo owners assumed the Lemon Lady, a middle-aged Republican, would sue Casimiro and win a bundle. And in the meantime, she was unfairly lowering their property values.
But Mickelson's apartment was depreciating on its own. She noticed a large crack in her granite countertop. Workers delivering a refrigerator scratched her wood floors. Men belatedly dispatched to seal her weathering patio arrived only to be shocked by nearby power cables and hospitalized. They left the wet sealant glopped with footprints and scraps of scalded T-shirt, which the managers wouldn't remove. Worst of all, the smell inside the condo was increasingly musty. Mickelson got headaches and nosebleeds and began sleeping some days for 18 hours straight. An inspector hired by the condo's builder, Turner Construction, visited the apartment, drilled a hole in the wall and decided there was no mold. Even so, Mickelson's doctor advised her to move out.
The day she carted off a load of her possessions to a hotel, Mickelson finally stopped and listened to Fogal, who was waving placards and lemons as usual. Fogal said Mickelson's symptoms sounded a lot like her own. And that's when it hit the young condo dweller: Maybe the Lemon Lady had a point. "I felt guilty almost for thinking the opposite before," Mickelson says. "But I probably would not have believed her until it happened to me."
Fogal explained what Mickelson was up against. Even though documents showed Casimiro's Tremont Tower L.P. was supposed to warrant the condo for a year, he was unlikely to fix anything, she warned. And because of a clause in her contract, her only recourse against him and the builders of the condo was through the commonly used American Association of Arbitration, which the Better Business Bureau and other consumer groups describe as being biased against homeowners. Put simply, Mickelson was screwed.
She fought back with her only loaded weapon: a yellow Magic Marker. Mickelson adorned the window of her condo with drawings of lemons. And that's when the relationship between Tremont Tower and the Lemon Ladies really went sour.
Tremont's revenge began in a flash. A Tremont employee photographed Mickelson's company car parked at one of Fogal's protests. The image was lobbed into the inboxes of Hilti Tools. Why, the e-mail wanted to know, was the employee of a construction equipment company protesting against a company that uses construction equipment?
Hilti's staff of good old boys was scandalized. After a few icy days in the office, Mickelson gave two weeks' notice. She was told to leave the next day. "It was like I had done something wrong," she says. "It was horrible."
Less than a month later, the Tremont Tower Homeowners Association served Mickelson with a lawsuit for violating the association's rules regarding window dressings. The next day she called the association's attorney, Bill Chesney, and offered to remove the lemons if he dropped the suit. She says he refused.
Chesney declined to comment for this story.
Jobless, Mickelson devoted all of her time to fighting back. She commissioned a professional mold test, which verified that her condo contained four varieties of toxic mold. She represented herself at her lemon trial against Chesney and warded off all financial penalties. Meanwhile, People magazine featured Casimiro's Tremont in a story called "Contractors from Hell," and the Better Business Bureau revoked the company's membership, along with that of other related companies connected to Casimiro.
Casimiro says his image has been unfairly tarnished by Mickelson and Fogal, whom he likens to the 9/11 terrorists, and contends that the condo is solidly built and mold-free. He says he would be the first person to sue Turner Construction, the tower's builder, if Turner's test had turned up mold. But, he adds, "There was nothing."
Mickelson is skeptical. If Casimiro is so concerned about the mold, why is he trusting Turner's test and ignoring hers?
(Turner spokesperson Terry Kuflic told the Houston Press that the company would address Mickelson's complaints if she contacted Turner directly.)
Even so, Mickelson is running out of time. Between April and June, she put her condo on the market and couldn't find a single interested buyer. She stopped sending her lender, Aurora Loan Services, her $2,000-a-month house payment. And Casimiro amped up the fight.
Late this summer, his homeowners association notified Aurora that Mickelson was leaving the door to her balcony open during rainstorms, in an apparent effort to breed mold, he says. The association added that it would hold Aurora legally liable for the damage should it foreclose on the apartment.
Mickelson describes Casimiro's allegations as "absolutely ridiculous." She never left the door open during storms, she says, and if she wanted to breed mold, she could have just dumped buckets of water on the floor.
What's clear is that Chesney, the association attorney, sent a written request to the management company on September 1 to ban Mickelson. The condo still contained her kitchenware, appliances and furniture. "Our people should tell her this issue is between her and Aurora," Chesney wrote in an e-mail, "and we will not assist her in accessing her unit without an agreement signed by BOTH Mickelson and Aurora."
Yet when Mickelson contacted Aurora, loan officials told her they had never instructed Tremont to ban her from the condo, she says. The condo isn't due for foreclosure until December at the earliest. An Aurora official declined to comment on the eviction issue, citing a corporate policy against getting involved in disputes between clients.
Asked whether there was any legal way someone such as Mickelson could be banned from her condo, Judge Gary Michael Block, who presided over Mickelson's lemon trial, said: "The short answer is no. She is still the owner of the place, whether she is currently living there or not. If she has got her association dues paid, there's no way" she could be barred.
The official in charge of evictions in Montrose, Chief Deputy J.C. Mosier of Harris County Constable Precinct 1, says Mickelson needs to hire an attorney and obtain a court order before he can force Tremont to let her in.
"I want to give up sometimes on this," says Mickelson, who has moved in with her boyfriend, "and I think it's never going to be resolved, but I'm still so angry about it, that's what's kept my momentum."
So she continues sticking it to Tremont where it hurts. After landing a new job at the architecture firm of the Lemon Lady's husband, Mickelson now spends a portion of her salary running off fresh copies of flyers that say, "Tremont was one of the worst financial decisions I ever made."
Turned away from her condo three weeks ago, she stood on the sidewalk across the street holding one of the flyers as a man carrying a bag of take-out walked by. "Do you sell properties here?" he asked.
"I can give you a flyer," she said.
He read it over and raised an eyebrow. He had been thinking about buying one of the condos but would now look elsewhere. "I'm so glad I ran into y'all," he said.