Tenants in one of Dallas’ poorest communities will lose their homes so a new school can be built
For six months, Ronetta Price has tried to get someone to fix the growing list of issues in her two-bedroom unit at North Park Terrace Apartments.
The steady flow of water from a bathtub fixture has graduated from a drip to a stream. The holes where rats have chewed through drywall and cabinets — six of them, at last count — are stuffed with plastic and rags. As she flicks at a section of wall in the living room with a fingernail, it peels back, its integrity compromised by water damage.
Price has painted over mold and mildew in her bathroom more than once; “I used to work at Home Depot,” she offers as an aside. She’s done the same in her bedroom, her kids’ room and their bathroom, but it’s creeping back through.
“You ever seen ‘Stranger Things’?” she jokes, pointing out a menacing spot on the wall. “It’s like that.”
Fixes, though, aren’t in the works, and Price knows it. But she’s determined to stay in her Vickery Meadow home until her new landlord — Dallas ISD — moves her out.
“I ain’t moving anything, because that what they’ve told me they’re going to do,” she said.
Looking for a new location for the undersized Jill Stone Elementary, DISD purchased North Park Terrace in October. It will soon tear down the 312-unit complex to build a school.
Through a commercial real estate firm, the district put notices on tenants’ doors when it bought the apartments, letting them know of the complex’s eventual closure.
But the transition hasn’t been easy, according to several of the three dozen tenants who still remain, spread out among the complex’s 13-acre footprint located south off of Park Lane.
In addition to maintenance and security concerns, they say marching orders on when to move out and instructions on how to receive DISD-provided assistance have been confusing, uneven and, at times, contradictory.
And the assistance from the district — which, if approved, takes weeks if not months to receive, tenants say — likely won’t cover the difference in rent between North Park Terrace and another apartment. Unless a hardship waiver is approved, the assistance also won’t arrive in time to pay for the application fees, security deposits and other charges the tenants will face. Nearly all of them are low-income. At this point, between 12 to 15 hardships have been approved.
“The process has definitely been botched, if you care about the stability of families and people in the community,” said Sandy Rollins, the executive director of tenants’ rights organization the Texas Tenants Union. “If you’re not a wealthy person, having to move is a hardship. Even if you’re wealthy, having to move on short notice is a hardship. A lot of people aren’t saving hundreds of dollars at the end of each month to set aside for when the time comes when they have to go find another place to live.
“People struggle to get to the end of the month all over this city.”
Less than ideal
Knocking down an apartment complex is a less-than-ideal option, DISD administrators admit, since it displaces families and students that a new school should serve.
But options in Vickery Meadow were limited, deputy superintendent of operations Scott Layne said. The Jill Stone replacement — which would also help relieve overcrowding at Hotchkiss Elementary — was part of the 2015 bond package, and DISD had originally looked at commercial property on Walling Lane, east of Skillman and Abrams, as a potential landing spot.
Orlando Alameda, DISD’s real property management director, said at the time of the Walling Lane location: “In terms of this particular site, we kind of focused on this site because we weren’t displacing the very kids who we were looking to serve.”
But, in January 2017, outcry against possibly using eminent domain against eight businesses to secure the site led the district to take that location off the table.
“After that last go-round, we met with the community and they said that they wanted the school on the other side of Skillman, in Vickery Meadow,” Layne said. “So that was our main focus. We looked at various locations, and quite honestly, the one we bought was a willing seller. None of the other apartments really wanted to sell.”
DISD bought the property on October 3 for $18.5 million. Not long after, the district — through DFW Advisors, a company it hired to do relocation assistance and property management, — started eviction proceedings on 19 existing tenants. According to DISD’s count, there were 161 units occupied at the time of the sale.
The district’s original goal was to have the complex empty by the spring, in order to promptly start construction to hit a target opening date of August 2020.
DFW Advisors posted a notice to residents on Feb. 22 telling tenants that all leases would be terminated on March 20 and evictions would be filed against remaining residents.
(The notice from DFW Advisors, sent to North Park Terrace residents at the end of February 2018. )
“This is not a 30-day notice to vacate but is an informational notice that the eviction process will being started at the end of next month against any and all remaining tenants regardless of rental payment status,” the letter read.
Two tenants, including Price, pushed back that evening to DISD’s trustees during a monthly board meeting.
“Where are my kids going to go at the end of the school year?” Price said after the meeting. “My oldest, he’s in Conrad’s collegiate academy and my younger son’s at Hotchkiss. Not every school gives him that opportunity. I’m going to have to go find schools that offer that academic [option] for him. That ain’t easy.”
Tenant Ronetta Price at North Park Terrace Apartments in Dallas, Monday, March 19, 2018. (Jae S. Lee/The Dallas Morning News)
Board president Dan Micciche posted on Facebook later that week that the district would push North Park Terrace’s closure until the end of June.
Since October, tenants say, messages they’ve received from DFW Advisors have been inconsistent, in part because DFW Advisors rehired a bilingual property manager who had previously worked at North Park Terrace.
When Maria Vazquez told that property manager that her garbage disposal was inoperable, Vazquez says that was she was told to move because repairs weren’t going to occur. Three other former tenants, all primarily Spanish speakers — Angelia Cruz, Rosalba Espinosa, Lorena Uriostegui — said they received different move-out instructions than English-speaking residents.
“One day they tell you something, the next day they tell you something else,” Vazquez said through an interpreter.
‘Hopes of something better’
The biggest concerns for residents who remain at North Park Terrace are two-fold: where will they end up, and how will they afford it?
Cruz, Espinosa and Uriostegui moved to the same apartment complex in a different neighborhood, just outside I-635 in the Richardson school district. Right now, the trio are driving their children to DISD schools in Vickery Meadow, but that will likely change at the end of the school year.
Bobby Davis, a North Park Terrace resident for the past eight years, said he’s also looking nearby, but has had little luck thus far.
“I haven’t found anything,” Davis said. “All the apartments are too high.”
Davis, 62, is on disability with schizophrenia. He’ll likely have to resort to getting his mother to cosign for a new place, because it’s going to be hard for him to pay for security deposit on a new apartment.
North Park Terrace is considered “second-chance” housing, a location for residents who might not qualify at other apartments because of their poor credit, lack of income, immigration status, or eviction or criminal history. While the rents are low — between $600 and $900 — tenants pay a premium in the form of security or “risk” deposits, sometimes as much as three months’ rent.
For Davis, it’s the second time he’s been relocated by a government entity: in 2010, he was moved out of apartments at Park and Shady Brook Lanes by the city of Dallas for a new Vickery Meadow library that has yet to be built.
The moving and relocation assistance that he received from the city eight years ago was more generous than DISD’s terms, Davis said.
DISD’s relocation assistance plan, last approved by the board in 2013, offers tenants up to $1,200 in “rental supplement” assistance — roughly the difference between their current rent and the cost for comparable housing elsewhere for the next 12 months.
The City of Dallas, on the other hand, mirrors the federal maximum for displacement assistance, offering as much as $7,200 for a 42-month period.
DISD’s Layne said that the district is doing its best to help those at the complex. Falvo said DFW Advisors is providing tenants with access to a moving company for free, waiving the last month’s rent for those moving out, and providing hardship waivers to those who can’t afford the move.
His company has relocated 129 tenants thus far, Falvo said.
But Rollins said that the district is not only removing a portion of affordable housing in Vickery Meadow, but also “pushing people into a market where affordable housing is disappearing, in a way that’s not helpful or sensitive to their concerns or needs.”
Debbie Saunders moved to the facility last April, coming from a nearby complex “in hopes of something better.”
She didn’t find it at North Park Terrace, plagued by a balky hot water heater and discolored water that she won’t drink.
“I have to buy water,” she said. “I barely want to bathe and wash my face, brush my teeth with it.”
Saunders currently pays $750 per month, and put $545 down in risk deposits, administration and application fees when she moved in. She’s looking at places in the immediate area, but doesn’t want to move into another bad situation. Saunders has been told by a few nearby complexes to come back at the end of April to see if any units become available.
“I’m just so stressed right now, ’til I just don’t know,” Saunders said. “I’ll find a place, but I can’t see why anybody would need to go through this.”