The Austin Chronicle

Tenants' Rights in Question at Cross Creek

One step forward, two steps back at North Austin apartment complex

By Joseph Caterine, May 5, 2017, News

"One step forward, two steps back" has become the familiar footwork of tenant rights struggles here in Austin. Last Wednesday, April 26, the Cross Creek Tenant Associa­tion, represented by BASTA (Building and Strengthening Tenant Action), secured a victory at a district court hearing, where Judge Scott Jenkins ordered property owner NAHC Cross Creek Apartments LLC to make a series of long overdue repairs to the common areas at the North Austin apartment complex at 1124 Rutland Drive. Things were looking up – until just a few days later, when tenants learned that NAHC had found an interested buyer and were in talks to sell the property, perhaps within the next couple of weeks – a transaction that BASTA program director Shoshana Krieger said could break down the affordability protections Cross Creek tenants receive through the requirements of private activity loans (worth $16 million) granted to the owners by the Austin Housing Finance Corporation in 2015.

Krieger said BASTA plans to file a motion this week to enforce an agreement made last summer between NAHC and the tenant association that would incorporate the AHFC protections into tenants' leases as addendums. "That could provide tenant protection in perpetuity for existing tenants, but we really want to do that before a sale happens, because if a sale happens we're screwed," she said.

Cross Creek's tenants began to organize last summer when property owners threatened to evict 30 households at the complex. After BASTA took the owners to court, NAHC retracted the notices, but tenants fear that if the property changes hands they could face eviction once again. NAHC principals did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

At the court hearing last week, Judge Jenkins said that if NAHC did not make the common area renovations in a timely manner, he would consider appointing a receiver – or an independent entity – to collect rent and use the funds to make repairs. The receivership "would at least give us hope that we won't have to evacuate or start looking for another place," remarked tenant Jorge Manchaca. "Knowing [NAHC], they will do what they did last time and only give us one or two weeks to move out." (See "Cross Creek Evictions Retracted," July 8, 2016.)

If NAHC does end up selling the complex, however, that option goes off the table, as it would immediately become impossible for the tenants to hold the company accountable for past grievances. NAHC has been on the city code department's "repeat offender" list since 2014 due to calls from numerous tenants alleging code violations. As part of negotiations with the tenant association last summer after the city sought a temporary injunction, the owners eventually provided new boilers for hot water and made other improvements, although tenants said that living conditions have spiraled downward since NAHC's key representative Royce Mulhol­land passed away in March.

Even with the debilitation, many tenants don't know where else they would go if they were forced out. "I'm physically disabled," said four-year tenant Kelly Worthley. "I don't have any living relatives, so I don't have anywhere to go."

Krieger noted how NAHC's management model is not uncommon in Austin. Because land values are skyrocketing throughout the city, owners make money off the appreciating values regardless of the buildings' status or their treatment of the tenants, she said. "What I believe the owners are doing right now [is] trying to weasel their way out of the situation," said Krieger. "They're trying to make a profit while doing it, which is even more shameful than [what they did last summer]. And they're being subsidized throughout this whole process."

Nevertheless, BASTA and the tenant association both hope that if they can show the prospective new owner that they stand together and protect each other, the tenants may be able to keep some of the gains they have fought hard to win.

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