Rodents. Bad plumbing. No AC. Vickery Meadow residents still wait for landlord to make repairs
This is the first story in a four-part series. Read the second, third and fourth stories.
Blocked exit pathways. Leaking roofs. Decaying walls and ceilings. Faulty plumbing. These are just some of the alleged problems at two Vickery Meadow apartment complexes in Northeast Dallas, home to many refugees who have just recently arrived in the U.S.
The city of Dallas has sued the owner, Nuran, Inc., for failing to make repairs. The lawsuit included a long list of alleged code violations. This isn’t the first time the city has taken the company to court over alleged issues with its apartments.
Over the past decade, the company has received tens of thousands of federal dollars for tenants with subsidized housing.
As a neighborhood, Vickery Meadow is known for being a new home to people from all over the world. There’s also a concentration of aging apartment complexes. The city’s lawsuit against a large landlord there suggests an environment that can be less than fully welcoming.
It also points to a consequence of the lack of affordable housing in the region, and the difficulty cities have in enforcing minimum health and safety standards. Language barriers and fear of retaliation mean vulnerable low-income tenants like refugees face a stiff power imbalance when asking for repairs.
Furthermore, experts say the kinds of problems cited by the city can have a major impact on a person’s physical and mental health.
Jonathon is a refugee and lives in one of the apartment buildings with his parents and siblings. (KERA is not using his real name because he said he’s worried about retaliation from the landlord.) He said they have problems in their apartment similar to what is described in the lawsuit — things like rodents, cockroaches, and an air conditioning unit that stopped working last summer.
He said his family submitted a complaint about the air conditioning to the landlord.
“The summer has passed — no response. Still we don’t have A/C,” Jonathon said late last month. The stove was recently replaced.
He also fears retaliation.
“You raise your voice, they also raise their voice saying that ‘You don’t like it? Don’t stay here, leave,’” Jonathon said.
In court documents, the landlord disputed the city’s claims. KERA sent multiple emails and in-person requests for an interview with Nuran representatives. An attorney for Nuran also did not respond to a list of emailed questions. In one of those questions, KERA specifically asked Nuran to comment on residents' concerns about retaliation.
One of the nonprofits that helps refugees “at and within” those two complexes “contacted the city to register complaints on behalf of their refugee clients” who lived there, the lawsuit states. The city said that after citing the landlord for multiple violations of Dallas City and Fire Code and seeing minimal progress, it eventually sued last November.
The original petition alleges "numerous" code violations at two apartment complexes, known as The Ivy and Sunchase Square, owned by Nuran, Inc., City records document dozens of citations of code violations issued by city inspectors.
The city alleges in the lawsuit, among other things, that the Dallas-based company:
- Failed to maintain many parts of the buildings, from gutters and chimneys to walls and flooring.
- Lacked proper overnight lighting in some places, such as stairwells, breezeways and group mailboxes.
- Failed to eliminate insect infestations “using a person licensed under the Texas Structural Pest Control Act … and repair any condition that contributes to that infestation.”
The petition also says the Ivy Apartments received emergency notices in April 2021 from Dallas-Fire Rescue “for failure to have working smoke alarms and fire extinguishers in occupied units and throughout the property.”
A response to the lawsuit filed by Nuran denied the allegations. It said Dallas did not provide corroboration to back up its claims and demanded the city “offer strict proof by a preponderance of the evidence.”
Then, in early February, the two sides struck a temporary agreement.
They set a schedule of monthly inspections. The city would then produce a list of needed repairs the company would make. Among other things, the deal required the company to also do its own regular inspections for code compliance, keep a repair log, set up a “uniform and official” way for tenants to make maintenance or service requests, and post signs telling them they can call Dallas 311 without fear of retaliation.
People familiar with the refugee community in those apartments stressed the importance of having fair interpreters present at the inspections, so city employees could learn what is really going on. The temporary agreement, however, makes no mention of interpreters for the city inspections. The city did not respond to a specific question about interpreters.
The temporary agreement didn’t end the legal back-and-forth. The landlord countersued the city of Dallas in March for unlawfully encroaching on its private property as it constructed a sidewalk.
“Not only is the City actively exercising unlawful eminent domain over Nuran, Inc.’s private property, it has caused extensive damage to the property,” the company alleged.
There’s been an effort across Dallas to improve sidewalks to make streets safer for pedestrians.
The city did not comment on the countersuit.
Nuran has tangled with the city of Dallas before. The city also sued Nuran, Inc., in 2012, demanding the company make repairs to The Ivy Apartments.
That lawsuit cited holes and cracks in stairs, balconies and porches that could potentially injury people, electrical circuits not safely maintained, and uninstalled smoke detectors.
“These threaten harm that is irreparable,” the 2012 lawsuit said.
Records from the older case show the two parties agreed to a series of repairs and deadlines. Nuran ultimately paid $24,000 to the city in civil penalties.
Government oversight and dollars
Nuran’s other dealings with government entities have arguably been more lucrative. The company has benefited — at least indirectly — from rent subsidies paid to tenants over the years. These government dollars help people afford rent in an increasingly expensive housing market.
Dallas County has paid Nuran, Inc., almost $90,000 since 2012, county records show. Most of the money was for rental assistance through the federally funded Housing Choice Voucher Program. Apartments in this program are supposed to pass an inspection from county staff before the payment is disbursed. Through a public records request, KERA obtained copies of 14 inspections of three Nuran apartments dating back to 2012. All showed the apartments passed inspection for the voucher program. Other recent payments from the county to Nuran, Inc. were for residents with disabilities who needed temporary help with rent and utilities, a county official said.
A spokesperson for the housing authority said recently it had six voucher families currently in Nuran housing.
City of Dallas records show it paid Nuran, Inc. $2,235 in 2020 for three months of rent for a resident of the Sunchase Square Apartments. The funding source was Community Development Block Grant, a federal program.
Nuran has owned the Ivy Apartments since 2010 and Sunchase Square Apartments since 1996, according to the Dallas Central Appraisal District. The five buildings named in the lawsuit have seen their appraised value increase significantly in recent years. The values currently range from $1.6 million to almost $7.8 million.
Nuran, Inc. does business in a part of the housing market many other property owners are not interested in — renting to lower income tenants and new Dallasites from other parts of the world.
“There are business models across different income levels,” said Alex Schwartz, a professor of public and urban policy at the New School. “It is very possible to make money, and make a good living, renting out low-income housing.”
That’s partly because there is an affordable housing crunch in Dallas and cities around the country.
Take the Housing Choice Voucher Program. According to a county official, the county’s waiting list for the program has more than 10,000 people. The list is currently closed to new applicants.
“There’s such a demand for housing at a certain lower rent price point … there’s just not a reason to put in a bunch of upgrades and improvements to the property,” said Heather Way, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law. “They don’t have the economic incentive to, unless the government says, 'Okay, you have to meet these standards.'”
Way said Dallas historically has been more willing than other Texas cities to sue landlords over apartment conditions.
If the temporary agreement in the Nuran case doesn’t work, the city “will evaluate its options,” said Emily Worland, a lawyer in the city attorney’s office. A trial date is on the court’s docket in 2023.
“Failure to comply with an order of the court could result in a finding of contempt. Additionally, there are several state statutes which authorize the appointment of a receiver,” she said in response to emailed questions.
The city can request a receiver be appointed by a judge.
Dennis Roossien, a Dallas attorney who has worked as a receiver for a wide array of apartment buildings, said a judge gives a receiver general direction. Usually, the judge instructs the receiver to operate the buildings “lawfully and profitably.” The receiver then provides the judge with an independent assessment of the facts on the ground: Can repairs be made using the complex’s current cash flow, or is a loan necessary?
"I first establish how much cash flow there is,” Roossien said. “Then based upon that cash flow, I can usually borrow money in a way that you can still pay that money back and still make a profit.”
The legal back-and-forth between the city and a landlord can last a couple of years before the city asks for a receiver, he said. It’s always preferable for landlords to make fixes on their own, Roossien said. But he's glad that in the past, the city of Dallas has been willing to use the tool of receivership if that doesn’t happen.
“Tenants deserve better,” Roossien said.
View the court documents:
This story is part of a series that examines housing and health issues confronting refugees and other low-income residents. Support to KERA's Government Accountability initiative, and the One Crisis Away project — funded by the Communities Foundation and Texas Women's Foundation — helped make this series possible.
Got a tip? Email Bret Jaspers at email@example.com. You can follow Bret on Twitter @bretjaspers.
KERA News is made possible through the generosity of our members. If you find this reporting valuable, consider making a tax-deductible gift today. Thank you.