Cross Creek Evictions Retracted

Tenants' efforts to organize prove successful

Members of the Cross Creek Tenant Association protest outside the complex on June 29. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Last Saturday, July 2, the owners of the Cross Creek Apartments retracted more than 30 notices to vacate that had been served on their current tenants. The move comes less than a week after some of the residents – organizing as the Cross Creek Tenant Association – led a march through the Rundberg-area complex to protest the eviction.

The owners recently received $16 million in private activity loans approved by the Austin Housing Finance Corporation to renovate the complex, but the notices to vacate, delivered to more than 30 families living at Cross Creek, violated the AHFC rules and regulations that the owners had agreed to follow. After notices appeared a couple of weeks ago, rumors that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency would be called began to spread among residents. Jorge Manchaca, who has lived at Cross Creek for five years, said he was shocked when he received the notice. "I hadn't broken my lease," he said. "I hadn't done anything wrong."

Manchaca said he suspects that the owners – which include TMG-TX, TMG Man­age­ment, Noelle Affordable Housing Corp., the Mulholland Group, and Royce Mulholland – want to remove current tenants so that the complex can be redeveloped while erasing its troubled history. "[Mulholland doesn't] want witnesses, so he can change whatever he wants and the new residents won't know how bad it's been here," he said. Mulholland did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Amado Ariza, another Cross Creek tenant, said that the owners have let the complex fall into disrepair for a long time. "I've made maintenance requests and no one from the office would respond," he said in Spanish.

In fact, the owners were forced to register with the Code Department's "repeat offender program" at the end of 2014 after numerous complaints were filed by tenants. Last December, the city sued the owners for failing to provide hot water for residents since June 2015, as well as other code violations. State law empowers municipalities to bring civil action against a landowner if it enforces an ordinance related to public safety, although the city has rarely done so. According to the suit, a city inspector had visited the complex 13 times over the course of six months after receiving the initial complaint, and each time the water was still lukewarm.

While it is rare for the city to sue a property owner for these kind of code violations, the sluggishness associated with addressing these violations is all too typical, according to Austin Tenants' Council Executive Director Juliana Gonzales. "It's not uncommon in Austin to see properties with repeated, serious, or longstanding code violations that threaten the health and safety of tenants, and to see those code violations go unresolved for long periods of time because there are not adequate enforcement actions Code can take," she wrote in an email.

A city spokesperson said that there will be a joint inspection of the property in a couple of months to determine whether the owners have made the necessary repairs.

Meanwhile, the tenant association will continue organizing to put pressure on both the city and the owners to follow through on their commitments. Residents have been supported since the end of May by Building and Strengthening Tenant Action (BASTA), a Texas RioGrande Legal Aid program funded by the city. Shoshana Krieger, the program's director, said that her team originally got involved because of the hot water issue, but that they have increased their efforts after the notices to vacate were distributed. "If the owner wants to use city money, then he should honor his commitment not to displace his tenants," she said.

In 2014, the Austin Housing Finance Cor­poration awarded the owners $2 million in general obligation bonds, and then in April of this year they approved $16 million in financing, provided that no tenant was permanently displaced as a result of redevelopment. While the city has taken action in regards to the hot water issue and code violations, it did not take a position on the notices to vacate. "The question should not be whether or not the buildings are up to code, but whether or not they are up to code for the people living there," Krieger said.

Robert Doggett, a TRLA attorney, represented the tenants in a court hearing last Thursday regarding the city's lawsuit, but was disappointed that the judge was not open to hearing about the eviction threats. "It was like – we are all standing here in the courtroom, can't we talk about it?" he said. On the other hand, Doggett said that the city's ambivalence was not surprising. "The city is not necessarily looking out for the interests of the residents," he said. "They're concerned about the neighborhood in general, the property values, the housing stock, etc."

In any case, Krieger thinks that the notices being retracted over the weekend is a product of the tenants organizing. "BASTA's purpose is to make sure that tenants have a seat at the negotiating table," she said.

Ariza said that he has started to see changes since he joined the tenant association. "Since we started organizing, the office has paid more attention to my requests," he said.

Kisha Williams, another Cross Creek tenant, said that getting the owners to take back the notices is just the beginning. "I think they thought we would give up," she said, "but I'm determined to keep fighting, 'cause this isn't right."

Doggett said that many of the tenants were in attendance at the court hearing, and that their participation going forward will be the deciding factor in shaping their future at the apartments. "I'm optimistic because the residents have started to bond together," he said. "They're taking matters into their own hands since the city and owners have demonstrated that they won't."

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Cross Creek Tenant Association, Mulholland Group, Austin Tenants' Council, Building and Strengthening Tenant Action, Texas RioGrande Legal Aide

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