In a unanimous vote on October 5, the Travis County Commissioners Court adopted significant revisions to the bylaws of the Strategic Housing Finance Corporation, a subsidiary of the Housing Authority of Travis County. These new protections, including a tenants' bill of rights, for residents of SHFC's nearly 4,650 apartments come after months of organized advocacy from the tenants at SHFC's Rosemont at Oak Valley complex near Pleasant Valley and Oltorf in Southeast Austin.
On July 2, more than 85 families at Rosemont were threatened with eviction after damage from Winter Storm Uri in February exacerbated the property's existing and extensive maintenance issues. Soon after, residents began organizing with Building and Strengthening Tenant Action, formed a steering committee, and developed a list of demands for SHFC. After weeks of fruitless negotiations, they escalated the dispute to the Commissioners Court shortly before families began relocating in August to extended-stay hotels.
The court responded by ordering SHFC to create a relocation action plan within 90 days and by directing $1.6 million of the county's Emergency Rental Assistance Program funds to cover the cost of a relocation service, rent, utilities, temporary housing, moving costs, storage fees, and other reimbursable services. Shoshana Krieger of BASTA says the relocation service has been especially useful for "cleaning up a huge mess," after some tenants said they had gotten only days' notice for their moves or had not been offered adequate accommodations for disabled family members. By mid-September a second relocation – to Airbnbs, mostly – was needed for many residents, after miscommunication about then-imminent ACL Festival bookings cut short their original stays.
The timeline for residents' return to Rosemont is still unclear. With the new provisions to SHFC's bylaws, tenants are entitled to inspect repairs to their unit before they move back; some have been invited to return, only to find that repairs were incomplete. They'll also have the right to organize, after residents told the Chronicle in July that police were called multiple times to tenants association meetings. Travis County Judge Andy Brown says it "blew my mind that there were some questions as to whether tenants could organize, and just the fact that there was no tenant representation on the [SHFC] board speaks volumes."
Now, the bylaws require that two current or former tenants at SHFC-owned properties serve on the board, and that the tenants' bill of rights be included in all future leases, guaranteeing timely repairs and "keeping properties suitable for occupancy." Bee Dumas, steering committee member of Neighbors at Rosemont, said in a press release that "current board members don't know what it is like to live in one of their properties and be disrespected by property managers on a daily basis."
Some tenants have lived at Rosemont for nearly a decade, but Capstone Real Estate is only the most recent in a long line of property managers. "The thing I wanted to avoid was just firing the management company and saying, 'We're going to get a new [one], it's going to be different,'" Brown explains. "Clearly, they've tried that before. Now there are protections in the bylaws that say, no matter who management is, these are the rights they all have to follow."
Krieger says BASTA's next step is to help the "forgotten tenants" who remain at Rosemont in un- or half-repaired units, "living in construction zones." She says, "The coming weeks are going to be where the rubber meets the road, as to whether or not SHFC is going to abide by the directives from the Commissioners Court." But none of this would have happened, says Brown, "if [tenants] hadn't had the guts to speak up. They got our attention, and I'm really glad they did."
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