Low-Income Residents Earn Concessions From Developer
More help for Old Homesteaders
After weeks of negotiations, a group of low-income Austin renters won significant concessions from a developer seeking to demolish their existing affordable apartments. Last week, tenants at the Old Homestead apartments came to an agreement with representatives of JCI Residential, an affiliate of the Journeyman Group. To realize their plans for the property on Clayton Lane near Cameron Road in Northeast Austin, JCI sought rezoning for vertical mixed-use, which allows for a larger and taller structure and thus more units. This provided a measure of leverage for the impoverished residents, who collectively resisted the rezoning – and forced a delay of the case at City Council – until JCI agreed to offer more help for the tenants to land on their feet in an increasingly expensive city.
Although the new development would have included a number of income-restricted units on-site as required by VMU zoning, the current residents of the Old Homestead reported that they still could not afford to move into the new complex, or others owned by JCI. Loretta Tubbs told us that her situation "shone a spotlight" on the plight of many low-income locals. "We're being displaced to build affordable housing that we can't afford," she said. In the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood near Mueller and Highland, Tubbs estimated, even a move across the street would have doubled her rent.
Speaking through a translator, José Moreno, another Old Homestead renter, said he expected moving would cost most households around $5,000 when all fees and deposits were taken into account. "They get so wealthy off of what renters pay, but somehow it's impossible or inconveniences them to share just a little bit to make it easier for the people being displaced," he said earlier this month, before the deal with JCI was struck. "I think that when you help someone, it actually does your heart good to give a little bit."
When questioned via email last week, Ross Hamilton, vice president of development at Journeyman Group, agreed that JCI had a responsibility to help residents. "We are happy to meet with [residents] again to continue to listen to their concerns and answer questions," he said. Although eager to obtain Council approval and proceed with the project, JCI initially offered just one month's free rent at one of their existing buildings with income-restricted units. However, residents said those units would be more expensive, dramatically reduce their square footage, or take them away from their workplaces and support systems. Some of the Old Homestead's two dozen residents walk to work; many are aging, disabled or elderly; and two are caring for elderly parents that live nearby.
Working collectively, residents rejected several subsequent offers from JCI and repeatedly testified about the precarity of their situation before both the Planning Commission and Council. At Council's June 9 meeting, Council Member Chito Vela, whose District 4 includes the Old Homestead, responded to their impassioned testimony by moving to delay the first vote on rezoning by one week to give both parties another chance to negotiate. "I'm happy we could help the tenants reach a deal [to] compensate them for the upcoming relocation," Vela told the Chronicle this week. "I'm glad the Old Homestead residents reached out to my office for help, and I'm very grateful to [JCI] for coming to the table in good faith."
Under the final agreement negotiated June 15, residents will receive three months' free rent when JCI formally takes over the property this summer. Residents will also get $500 each when they move out, with their final departure date pushed back to February 2023. They can move out earlier without any penalty. Council approved JCI's zoning request the following day.
Residents reported that JCI representatives remained cordial throughout the process; when reached by email after the deal, Hamilton expressed relief that they'd come to mutual agreement. "The proposed project will provide much-needed density as well as rent-restricted units, which will help address some of the long-term affordability concerns in the neighborhood," he wrote.
However, it seems clear that without the residents' activism, their immediate needs would not have been met by either the developer or the city. Time will tell if the successful negotiations by Old Homestead residents will serve as a model for others forced out of their homes amid rising rents. Tubbs expressed gratitude that she can get on with her plans to relocate and begin saving up to move. She also said she hopes their testimony before Council will encourage members to find ways to better support residents. She added, "Council Member Vela [told us] he didn't want other tenants to go through as much as we did."