Fighting to Stay
A culture of resistance is growing in neighborhoods that find themselves on the verge of displacement
Austin has watched new developments rise across the skyline over the past few decades at a breakneck pace, as property owners race to supply the heavy demand for housing in the metropolitan area. Many have been displaced in the wake of urban expansion, some leaving their homes with a fortune, others with practically nothing.
This pattern has put neighborhoods around town on edge, and a culture of resistance to gentrification has stirred. Unfortunately, when the chips are down, property owners have far more leverage at the negotiating table than do renters, a demographic that makes up more than half the city's population. Without owning the dirt one lives on, there are few legal protections or government resources available to defy the forces of growth and profit.
Low-income renters in particular have little ground to stand on when faced with the decisions of property owners. As affordable rental units continue to vanish in the city, especially those in the price range of the poorest residents, consumer choice becomes a nonfactor, and the economic pressure to satisfy a tenant's needs slackens. If someone is undocumented or has a felony on their record, housing options are even more scarce. If someone owns a mobile home, they can only go where they can haul it.
For some tenants it is so hard, or so unreasonable, to find another place to live, that it is actually easier to try and live with the ruthless tactics of predatory landlords. Stephanie Trinh, an attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA), has witnessed time and again the consequences of this lopsided relationship. "When landlords have all the power, that's when you get exploitation," she said. "That's when you see laws being broken."
No Laws Broken, Just Mocked
In 2009, Houston-based developer Grayco Partners had plans to build new luxury apartments on the property of the Shoreline Apartments complex. That year, Grayco made an agreement with the city to provide at least $90,000 in relocation assistance for displaced tenants in exchange for a height extension. The relocation allowance was projected to be around $485 per unit.
In September of the following year, tenants received a notice that said they would be paid $125 upon vacating at the end of June 2011, a total calculated by including the tenants' security deposits as part of the proposed $90,000 figure. After nearly a year of uncertainty, tenants were able to relay their concerns to City Council with the help of community advocates in June 2011 (the move-out date had been extended to August). By the time the city got involved in July and asked Grayco to provide the originally agreed-upon $485 stipend per unit, many of the tenants had already left, receiving no relocation payment. Ruby Roa, one community advocate who worked with the tenants, said that there simply was not enough time to hold the developers accountable for their negligence. "With the limited time we had to educate and organize, there was little we could achieve," she said.
The incident prompted two UT law students, Allyson Boney and Molly Powers, to publish a policy report in August 2012 with recommendations for a citywide tenant relocation ordinance, but it was not until another displacement occurred in 2015 that City Council responded. Professor Heather Way at UT Law, who supervised the report, said, "If Shoreline made everyone aware of what was happening, Lakeview is what motivated people to do something about it."
On June 29 of last year, Cypress Real Estate Advisors secured a site plan exemption permit for its property on the Riverside Drive corridor, the first step in scrapping the Lakeview apartments to make room for an upscale replacement. A few days before, the company had sent tenants a notification of their plans and informed them that they would not be renewing any leases, but it was not until Aug. 4 that tenants learned of a Sept. 30 move-out deadline. Lives were disrupted, needless to say, especially for those who had assumed that their leases ending in December would be honored (see "Lakeview Residents Not Ready to Leave," Oct. 2, 2015). Joey Carmona, a longtime Lakeview tenant, had provided interpretation for the Spanish-speaking residents who wanted to speak to the landlord. Looking back, he resents the imbalance of power. "We didn't have any way to stop them. They treated us like dirt. All they gave us was a kick in the ass!" he said.
A couple of months after Lakeview was no more, Council passed a resolution to explore the possibility of creating a tenant relocation ordinance. Council Member Greg Casar told the Chronicle that the ordinance will make a statement that tenants' rights matter in Austin. "It will provide much-needed assistance to those who have to relocate, and it will also ensure that developers pay a portion of that cost," he said. While a draft ordinance undergoes bureaucratic scrutiny, a more preventative program has launched in the meantime, called Building and Strengthening Tenant Action (BASTA).
The joint project of the city and TRLA is still in its early stages, said director Shoshana Krieger. "We are mainly doing outreach right now," she said, "sending our staff to apartments and facilitating the organization of tenant associations with the immediate objective of getting repairs done." (See "A Structural Problem," April 15.) For many low-income renters in Austin, maintenance services are not a given. In February, eight tenants at Fairway Village Apartments filed suit against the property owners for failing to conduct requested repairs on plumbing and heating systems, and other misconducts.
The core idea behind BASTA is that tenants, united in an association, will be better positioned to elicit fair and equitable treatment from their property owners. As sensible as that hypothesis sounds, recent examples have illustrated that extortion and displacement have been stalled – but not stopped – by tenant associations.
Cactus Rose: "Muy Malo"
In one case, tenants at Cactus Rose Mobile Home Park in Montopolis are currently scrambling to delay their forthcoming removal (see "Future Uncertain for Cactus Rose," March 25). Developer Oden Hughes has plans to build a 356-unit apartment complex called Lenox Oaks on the 23-acre property where the mobile home park currently resides. Saúl Madero, the president of the park's neighborhood association, has been organizing fellow tenants for the past few months to put pressure on the city to grant them more time to understand what is happening and what their options are.
At the end of March, Council decided to postpone a decision on the rezoning application filed last year by property owners 500 Bastrop Highway Ltd., giving the Cactus Rose residents some peace of mind; though Council is still expected to eventually approve the rezoning, an exact move-out date remains uncertain. "It sometimes feels like everyone knows when we're going to move except us," Madero said. Mayor Steve Adler has expressed interest in working out a deal with Hughes to keep a smaller section of the land as an affordable mobile-home park, in exchange for a density bonus on the rest of the property. If that does not pan out, residents will likely have to figure something out on their own, although they may receive some financial assistance if the tenant relocation ordinance passes in time. Oden Hughes Managing Director Mac McElwrath told the Chronicle, "Our discussions with the neighborhood and council members of late have been primarily focused on relocation assistance for the Cactus Rose community rather than on affordable housing. ... We're confident that with all respective parties involved, we can arrive at a plan that is fair and equitable for the tenants affected."
Among the tenants, opinions vary about the fate of the community. "Nobody wants to lose their home," said Ramón Gonzalez, who lives with his young daughter. "We'll probably move to Hutto if we're forced out."
Emma Padilla, who has lived at the park for three years with her husband Marcos, is hopeful that the community association will have the power to keep the land. "Creo en Saúl," she said. Others are less optimistic. Fidel Gonzalez feels like nobody is listening to what the community is saying. "Es malo," he said, "muy malo."
The Beautiful Struggle
In 2015, it looked as though the Asociación de Residentes de North Lamar (ARNL), another mobile-home community association, might prevail in their fight against property owners Frank Rolfe and Dave Reynolds, after receiving assistance from Casar's office and TRLA (see "Casar Calls Out Landlords," May 5, 2015). The owners, who'd bought the property in January, imposed new leases in April 2015 that hiked up rent prices and utility bills before the tenants' original leases were expired. "Their excuse was that apartment complexes in the area were charging the same," said ARNL President Roberto Sanchez in Spanish, "but we do not live in an apartment complex. We don't have the amenities apartments do." Soon after the suit was filed, the landlords came to an agreement with the tenants' attorneys, temporarily halting rent increases. The out-of-state millionaire owners earned national notoriety for their callous manner, with Rolfe infamously likening their business model to a "Waffle House where everyone is chained to the booths." (The residents own their homes, but they rent the land they're on.)
After almost a year of talks with the owners, the North Lamar Mobile Home Park tenants signed new leases with higher rent this past February. According to Trinh, who is representing the clients, there was no legal avenue to avoid that outcome. "There are no rent-control laws in Texas," she said, "and the lack of affordable housing for low-income tenants creates a landlord's market, so they are able to increase rent and create more onerous rules, which allow them to exploit and retaliate against tenants." Nevertheless, Trinh and the association are working toward the formation of a tenant cooperative. "The ultimate goal is to buy the land," she said.
Sanchez said that it was not difficult to mobilize his neighbors when the new property owners first took over, but it's been hard to keep the ball rolling. "The main thing is convincing people that they are fighting for their rights," he said.
Sanchez's wife, Margarita, said that she will not stop until they own the land or are forced out. "I need to have the satisfaction of knowing I tried to fight," she said, "because we haven't done anything wrong."
América, a 10-year-old from the park, admires the adults. "I think they should keep fighting, because it is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen."
Fighting on Different Fronts
Although the obstacles confronting these tenant associations seem insurmountable, their struggles have broadened the discussion about tenants' rights in Austin. Do renters deserve more than protection from harassment and uncompensated relocation? Krieger thinks tenants have a right to be included in policy discussions around affordability, and said that the primary goal of BASTA is to bring tenant associations to City Hall. "The folks who are experiencing displacement know what their needs are; they are the ones situated best to communicate those needs to policymakers," she said.
Defend Our Hoodz, a volunteer organization based in Central East Austin, is building a grassroots movement based on the principle that not only do low-income tenants and homeowners have a right to communicate their needs to the city, but they should also be able to meaningfully participate in the planning of their neighborhoods. According to Aureliano Buendía, one of the group's members, that starts with demanding an end to unjust displacement. "These market solutions where developers take the lead are not working for most people," they said. "We're not going to keep negotiating from that standpoint."
The group emerged in the aftermath of the Feb. 2015 demolition of Jumpolin, the Eastside piñata store (see "Eastward Expansion," April 10, 2015). Defend Our Hoodz members come from the surrounding neighborhoods and from other parts of the city, united by a common disdain for property owners F&F Real Estate Ventures. The company had attained a permit to demolish Jumpolin, but had failed to warn business owners Sergio and Monica Lejarazu beforehand. Shortly after, F&F co-founder Jordan French infamously told one reporter, "Say you have a house that's infested with roaches ... you have to clean that up." Mary Ybarra, a group member who lives just down the street from where Jumpolin once stood, recalls hearing the smashing of the building early in the morning. "It was very traumatizing for me," she said.
In August 2015, Rebecca Gray and Jacques Casimir signed a new lease with F&F, with plans to open a cat cafe in the building adjacent to where Jumpolin had once stood (see "A Case of Gentrifurcation?" Aug. 7, 2015). The Blue Cat Cafe held its grand opening in Oct. 2015, but it was interrupted by protesters who formed a picket line on the sidewalk, accusing the business owners of profiting from F&F's dirty work. Ybarra remembers seeing the protesters walking in front of her house towards the cafe. "I had been going through my own feelings about what had happened," she said, "but to see people stand together against that injustice was awesome." She talked with some of the protesters and soon after became involved. A sign hanging in her front yard reads, "Pet your cat, sip your tea, on the ruins of Jumpolin."
Juan Cebrian, a lifetime resident of the Warehouse District, also became involved in the group after attending a protest. "Anybody and everybody who wants to defend their hood is welcome to join," he said. "Whether it be against police brutality, gentrification, or what have you." The group's main strategy at the moment is promoting a boycott of F&F and businesses that rent from them. For Cebrian, the boycott is about sending a message to the property owners. "They have a lot of money and a lot of power, but I tell you what, I'm going to give them a hell of a fight," he said. "If we can make a statement, that's how we build momentum and get more people involved in our struggle."
This February, Defend Our Hoodz led a community march through the East Cesar Chavez neighborhood. A hundred or so people carried signs with slogans like "Don't Reward Demolishing Latino Culture," "Save Montopolis," and "Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win!" alongside a small motorcade, with one of the cars blasting "What Happened to Austin?" by Lench Martinez, which has become a theme song of the movement (see "Playback," Jan. 15). The march made a stop at Blue Cat Cafe, where marchers wrote on the sidewalk in chalk, expressing what they would like to see in the cafe's place, with suggestions such as "health clinic," "rec center," and "piñatas!"
According to Buendía, Defend Our Hoodz can use the boycott of F&F's presence in the Central East neighborhoods (the company also owns three Type 2 short-term rentals in the area) as a platform to comment on the city's complicity in the developer-centered housing market. "Bringing Oracle to the south shore was not inevitable, it was intentional. The city made a decision that providing luxury housing for these young tech professionals was more important than respecting the rights of the low-income residents in Shoreline, or Lakeview, or the central Eastside," they said.
Defend Our Hoodz held its first "general assembly" in March, attended by residents from areas outside of the Central East, like Montopolis and Dove Springs. Ybarra said it was rewarding to hear others calling for people over profit. "The more voices we have, the more power we have," she said.
Cebrian envisions Defend Our Hoodz expanding to other parts of the city, or even beyond. "I want to see it branch off to different cities," he said.
Buendía said the assembly was not only for discussing personal experiences, but also for discussing the greater systems behind displacement. "We're trying to show people the structures of capitalism, racism, and colonialism at play, and then we're asking, what are you going to do about it?" they said.
A Surging Tide
Taking these different cases into consideration, it is easy to conclude that Austin is growing at the expense of low-income renters. "Ultimately we are heading in a direction that is very disappointing," said Way, "where the haves live in the city and the have-nots live outside the city." If these people are pushed out, the conventional reasoning goes, Austin runs the risk of losing its diversity, its service industry, and its values. The people from these cornered communities see the situation less systemically and more personally. "We are human beings," Madero from Cactus Rose said. "We want to protect our livelihood."
The affordability discourse today seems to be stuck on how to most scrupulously relocate unfortunate low-income communities. But community land trusts have been gaining traction in City Hall as a possible solution to keep working-class families inside the city. The strategy is not a new one. It was pioneered by the Blackland Community Development Corporation in East Austin, which was incorporated in 1983 to stem the tide of UT-Austin's eastward expansion. The homeowners, mostly people of color, have all signed 99-year leases, with 94 years to go. "We aren't going anywhere," said board president Bo McCarver. "This neighborhood will stay diverse for the foreseeable future."
The Blackland Neighborhood Association had organized and resisted UT-Austin's land grabs for over a decade before they were able to establish the trust. Incidentally, neighborhood associations had been forming rapidly in the years prior to Blackland's incorporation, some joining forces to establish the Austin Neighborhoods Council as well as Save Austin's Neighborhoods and Environment. The burgeoning neighborhood movement produced champions like former Council Member Sally Shipman, who McCarver said was integral to Blackland's success: "Shipman was very definitely the most supportive council member of our cause," he said. "The other members followed her lead." This political climate, and the press coverage of former Blackland residents' evictions, made it possible for Blackland to earn the $500,000 Community Development Block Grant that would secure its future.
Today, it is certainly not the high tide of the Austin tenant movement, but it may be the surge. The campaigns of ARNL and Defend Our Hoodz have shifted the focus of the tenants' rights conversation from an emphasis on relocation to questioning the renter-owner relationship itself. "We are working people," said Sanchez, "we wake up early to work 12-hour days. We don't complain about working, and we don't complain about having to pay for living space just like everybody else. But the reason why we work hard is to support our families, not our property owners."
All Spanish interpretation for this story was provided by Will Cumming.
This story has been updated to reflect that it was an agreement between the landlords and the tenants' attorneys, and not an injunction, that temporarily halted rent increases.