Lakeview Residents Contemplate Suit
Allege intimidation by property managers
Cypress Real Estate Advisors could be facing a lawsuit from tenants who were displaced from Lakeview Apartments, a complex the company demolished last fall before selling the property to software megafirm Oracle. Brian McGiverin, one of the attorneys representing former residents, said it will take time to collect information from the roughly 200 individuals affected by the closure, but that "the odds of litigation are very good."
Robert Doggett with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, also representing the former residents, believes that Cypress is guilty of wrongdoing. Based on his clients' testimonies, he thinks the landlord and property managers, JBlue Real Estate Services, were following direction from Cypress when they allegedly intimidated residents. "They were playing an emotional game with these people," he said.
Joey Carmona, who had lived at the apartment complex for over seven years, acted as an unofficial spokesperson for the Spanish-speaking residents. After the mid-June announcement that residents would be required to vacate by the end of September, relations between the landlord's office and renters deteriorated, Carmona said. "We were trying to figure out what to do, how to survive, but they made it very complicated."
According to Carmona, letters from the landlord felt more like harassment than courtesy, and residents generally felt mistreated by office staff. Like many others, he had not anticipated having to move and was forced to ask his brother for money. "My dogs were my main concern," Carmona said. At Lakeview, his dachshund and three Chihuahuas had enjoyed access to a yard where they could play, but his new residence does not offer the same amenities. "I don't intend to stay here," he said.
Robin Wilkins, a resident of Lakeview for five years, said her new apartment costs twice as much as her apartment did at Lakeview, and she expects another move in the not-too-distant future. Her family has lived in South Austin since 1984, but as affordable housing continues to vanish, she believes she may have to leave the area. "I know I'm not going to be able to continue living here," she said. "I feel like I'm being shoved out of my home."
The unplanned move has affected Wilkins' son's education. He had attended Metz Elementary since kindergarten but was transferred to Allison Elementary after the family relocated. His grades have dropped since then, and Wilkins has started taking him to weekend classes in an effort to bring them back up. "A child has to have stability in their lives to succeed, just like any of us," she said.
In an email to the Chronicle, Cypress representative Steve Clark wrote that previous coverage concerning the move-out has been unfair. "We have found that some parties have consistently and we believe intentionally misrepresented material facts to the press and to public officials. There have clearly been a significant number of intentionally inaccurate claims."
Clark believes that Cypress provided enough time for families to make the necessary arrangements for their children's education. "We announced our intentions in the summer," he wrote, "as soon as we made the decision, in order to accommodate the beginning of the school year."
Sandy Torres had lived at Lakeview for about a year before receiving notice that she had to leave within a few months. "It was the only place I could afford," she said. As the deadline for the move-out approached, her interactions with the landlord's office added to the stress of preparing to leave, Torres said. A week before moving out, the toilet in her apartment stopped working, so she called the office to have it repaired. She was informed that the maintenance service was no longer available to tenants, but that she was free to use the restroom in the office at her convenience. After asking what she was supposed to do when the office was closed over the weekend, she was told, "That's up to you."
Clark disputes the claim that repairs were unavailable. "The landlord instructed JBlue to continue standard maintenance of the property while occupied," he wrote. "JBlue has confirmed that the on-site staff understood this policy and continued maintenance operations. Further, our records show significant continuing maintenance expenses prior to completion of the vacating of the property."
After the closure had been announced, a security guard from the office began patrolling the grounds of the complex, according to Torres. On more than one occasion, she said, he stood in front of her window and peered inside. "He was stalking me," she says. After she notified TRLA about the invasion of privacy, the guard disappeared. "I hope nobody else has to go through what I experienced there," Torres said.
Despite the hardships they've endured, the former Lakeview residents are grateful to TRLA for helping them find new places to live and representing them in their dispute with Cypress. "I don't have a lot of family, and I don't know a lot of people here," Torres said. "They helped me a lot."
Carmona believes that with TRLA's help, the displaced residents may see some reparations for the costs of the move. "None of us are giving up," he said.
Recently, Wilkins participated in a meeting with representatives from the city's Housing Authority and Code Department. "I felt like my voice was being heard," she said.
Council Member Pio Renteria believes that the City Council is making progress in creating more affordable housing, but that unfortunately there was little it could do immediately to help the former Lakeview residents. "It's a very slow process," he said.
The city's plans to expand tenants' rights and affordable housing do not address the underlying causes of renter relocation, says McGiverin. "Historically," he said, "the city has mostly focused on funding new affordable housing without concern for where it was placed." Without actively integrating affordable housing into high-opportunity areas, McGiverin believes that "Austin will become another city where most people cannot afford to live."