Evacuee Limbo, Eviction Trickle

FEMA stops sending money at the end of the month to cities for paying the rent of hurricane evacuees; apartment eviction notices are already showing up on some New Orleanians' doors; thousands of displaced evacuees are in rental properties throughout the area; talk amongst yourselves

Albert (center left) and Martha (bottom left) Hardy with 
Katrina evacuee neighbors, as well as fellow family 
members, in their apartment at Volente Villas. Martha is 
holding eviction notices the family has received and is 
fighting. According to the papers, the Hardys, including 
10-year-old Bliyell (center) and 9-year-old Willie 
(bottom right) are supposed to be out of their apartment 
by April 7.
Albert (center left) and Martha (bottom left) Hardy with Katrina evacuee neighbors, as well as fellow family members, in their apartment at Volente Villas. Martha is holding eviction notices the family has received and is fighting. According to the papers, the Hardys, including 10-year-old Bliyell (center) and 9-year-old Willie (bottom right) are supposed to be out of their apartment by April 7. (Photo By Jana Birchum)

It's inevitable. When the Federal Emergency Management Agency stops sending money at the end of the month to cities for paying the rent of hurricane Katrina and Rita evacuees, eviction notices will begin appearing on apartment doors. In a perfect world, all of the evacuees in Austin receiving federal housing assistance through the city will have transitioned by March 31 over to FEMA's individual, or direct, public assistance program. (That is, the private company FEMA has hired to manage its rent assistance program, Wichita, Kan.-based Corporate Lodging Consultants Inc., will start paying evacuees' rent and utilities directly instead of FEMA paying indirectly through the city of Austin.) Realistically, however, FEMA will have to extend the deadline by at least another month to avoid having evacuees slip through the funding transition's cracks.

Some evacuees have already received eviction notices. Lawrence and Angela Argrett, who live in the Volente Villas apartment complex in Williamson County, got a notice a couple of weeks ago. According to Angela, it says they have until April 7 to move out. She said the city has been paying their rent but that every month they've received a notice saying that the following month they will be expected to pay their own bill. Agitations like this – not to mention that, among other things, it took several days for the complex to fix her unit's broken heater when her baby boy was only a week old; they consistently find their mail already opened; they came home once to find that their electricity had been cut off and were told that they needed to pay it, despite the fact that the city pays their utilities; and they discovered their car in the parking lot with a flat tire and spray painted in red with "Go Home" – have made living in the complex unbearable, Argrett said. "The whole time they haven't treated us right."

Albert Hardy – whose family is one of at least three at Volente Villas who have received eviction warnings, and is one of two taking legal action to protest the notices – said he, along with his wife, Martha, and their five children living with them, have nowhere else to go. "Where you gonna put us at? On top of the Capitol down there?" said Hardy, who, like Argrett, believes apartment management has treated his family badly because they are evacuees.

Volente Villas Manager Shawn Waters said, hurricane evacuee or not, if someone receives an eviction notice, it means they have somehow violated their lease agreement. "We treat everybody exactly the same," Waters said. "They're painting the picture that they're being discriminated against, which is not the case at all."

Texas RioGrande Legal Aid is helping Hardy and the other Volente Villas tenant taking legal action fight their evictions. Heather Godwin, an attorney with TRLA's hurricane legal assistance program, advises evacuees to stay put if they get an eviction notice and they don't want to move out. As she put it in an e-mail shortly before FEMA extended its initial transition deadline from Feb. 28 to March 31, "If any evacuee receives a notice to vacate, they SHOULD NOT VACATE. Giving up possession of the apartment gives up the right to stay there." And even after FEMA's indirect public assistance plan is under way, she said in the e-mail, landlords can't evict evacuees for not paying their rent without first submitting invoices to the city of Austin for payment.

The Argretts, however, have already made plans to move out of Volente Villas to a new location. "I'm just trying to avoid all conflict that's not necessary," Angela said. "We're just trying to make sure we don't get caught up in the whole eviction thing."

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