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Facing displacement, tenants organize to fight for their rights

Wednesday, November 3, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

Mark Menn first saw the flyer stapled to the large pecan trees that shade his apartment building. “NOTICE OF FILING OF APPLICATION FOR REZONING,” it read.

“‘Have you seen this?” Menn, a 30-year resident, asked his neighbors. Many had not. When residents called the phone number on the notice, a city staffer explained the situation: The owner aimed to rezone the property in the hopes of developing a 90-foot-tall, 215-unit apartment complex.

Since Menn moved into his apartment at 1725 Toomey Road in 1991, he has seen change happen around him – restaurant turnover, sleek new condos and apartments, fewer birds and other wildlife. Now, that change threatens his own home.

“I was a little disappointed,” Menn said, with obvious understatement. A caring neighbor, Menn has long served as the complex’s volunteer garbage man, hauling neighbors’ trash and recycling from doorstep to dumpster. “It’s good exercise,” he said. 

“A lot of the people in this building have been here for a long time,” said another resident, Charlie Cox, who moved in a year ago. “There is a strong community in this building.” Cox characterized the tenants as middle-income, with many in the building – built in 1967 – paying below-market rents.

The threat of displacement for renters is not unusual in Austin’s red-hot housing market, where seemingly endless demand for homes outpaces supply, turning older apartment buildings into viable tear-down development opportunities. What is unusual in this case is how the existing tenants were able to respond. 

The best of bad options

The February notice gave residents two options: oppose the rezoning, or negotiate with the applicant in exchange for acquiescing to the rezoning. While one resident, Daniel Sewell, has publicly opposed the rezoning, most have chosen the latter path.

“Nobody’s thrilled about the prospect of leaving,” Cox said, “but I think if we realize it’s going to happen regardless, then we should advocate for our rights and try to take care of ourselves.”

Around two months ago, help arrived from BASTA, a tenant organizing group. With BASTA’s guidance, the tenants formed the Barton Tenants Association, which drew strong interest. Soon, members were knocking on doors, conversing on Slack, strategizing in weekly Zoom meetings, and negotiating directly with the property owner’s representative, Amanda Swor. Cox said these efforts have “absolutely” strengthened the community – “a really great side benefit.” 

BASTA project director Shoshana Krieger said residents led the effort. “We’ve really just been supporting the tenants,” she said, adding that residents always have the final say in decisions. 

Residents say the organizing has been laborious. Cox said he’s averaged six hours per week – and likely 10-12 hours the past two weeks – organizing and negotiating. Few of the tenants have any experience organizing or dealing with city government. “I’ve never been to City Hall, frankly,” Cox said. 

An eleventh-hour negotiation

The months of organizing led to a hearing last Tuesday at the Planning Commission. Negotiations between Swor and the tenants lasted until just minutes before the meeting, when the two parties finally reached an agreement.  

The deal is all or nothing: If City Council approves the requested Multifamily-Highest Density (MF-6) zoning on the site, tenants are guaranteed concessions in exchange for not opposing the rezoning. If the rezoning fails, the deal falls through, and a developer could build a 60-foot residential building with no affordable housing under existing zoning. The concessions include:

  • If the new units are rental, 12 percent of units in the new building will be priced affordable to those making 80 percent median family income
  • If the new units are ownership, 5 percent will be affordable at 80 percent MFI
  • Tenants have a right to return to new project
  • First month’s rent at new location (up to $2,000)
  • $500 for moving expenses plus $250 for application fee
  • Refund security and pet deposits
  • 180-day notice of demolition
  • No rent for 90 days prior to demolition
  • Rent increases in the existing building capped at 10 percent annually for three years

Over the course of a dramatic hearing, some commissioners expressed support for the tenants’ deal while others aired concerns about what they saw as an exploitative situation.

“I think there’s a much better deal for the tenants,” said Carmen Llanes Pulido, who thought the tenants were being “held … hostage” by the applicant. 

Commissioner Joao Paulo Connolly pushed back. “It’s not that the developer is holding tenants hostage at all,” he said. “It’s that the tenants have flexed power and have used a voice that they are rarely granted.”

Regardless of their opinions on the deal, commissioners said they had never seen a zoning case where a well-organized group of tenants negotiated with an applicant.

The commission made multiple motions to approve, alter or deny the rezoning, but none had enough votes to pass. This means the case moves on to City Council without a recommendation. City staffers recommend approving the rezoning.

Cox said he was “surprised and confused” at the discussion. While Cox appreciated those wanting a better deal for the tenants, he didn’t want anything to jeopardize the “pretty good deal” that had already been struck. 

‘This deal does not represent housing justice’

According to Krieger, there are few protections for tenants facing displacement in Texas in large part because of state law. Though Austin’s 2016 Tenant Relocation Assistance ordinance requires that landlords give 120-day notice of demolition, it does not afford tenants actual rights, Krieger said, because “state law really limits what the city can do to protect renters.” The ordinance also established a city fund for displaced tenants, but developers still do not have to pay – unlike in some other states.

Given the policy environment, Krieger said that the deal is a good one for the tenants, and that it’s likely the best deal tenants facing potential displacement have struck with a developer in Austin. Even so, “this deal does not represent housing justice,” she said. Cox said better policy would make sure “tenants aren’t left to try and negotiate for themselves.” 

Krieger also explained how the lack of tenants’ rights produces inequitable outcomes. While the Barton tenants had the time, motivation and skills to organize, that’s not always the case. In poorer areas, she said, people may work multiple jobs, face language and digital literacy barriers, and lack experience interacting with people in positions of authority. Krieger added that when tenants face displacement in cases not tied to zoning requests, they have less leverage to secure concessions.  

More uncertainty

In the wake of the Planning Commission’s discussion, the tenants were left unsure about how the upcoming vote at Council will play out. “I’m not really sure where we go from here,” Cox said. And even after that vote, potentially years of uncertainty lie ahead; no matter what Council decides, the apartment could be torn down and replaced at any time.

For Menn, the prospect of the building being demolished – even though he would have a right to return to the new building – makes him sad and nostalgic. “There’s history and culture in the building and the area,” he said. “I know things are gonna change … I’m just resistant to change.”

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