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Developer's plans in downtown Arlington put low-income tenants on time crunch to move out

Dimitre Thornton stands in her Arlington living room wearing a grey cardigan over a v-neck camo shirt, as well as a polka-dot bonnet. She's framed between a framed mirror and art piece, and in front of her couch, a fan and patterned curtains.
Kailey Broussard
/
KERA News
Dimitre Thornton has lived in her North Oak Street apartment in Arlington for 12 years. She and several other families were told by the property's new owner to leave by Aug. 31, 2022, in order to clear the property for a new apartment and retail project. Developer Robert Kembel of The Nehemiah Company says the apartments are "not inhabitable."

Tenants in two downtown Arlington apartment complexes face an August deadline to move out so developers can plan an apartment and retail project in their places. After years of paying substantially lower rates to a private landlord – and what residents say was little forewarning – some aren’t sure where they’ll go.

The deadline has caused Shirley Shields to lose sleep. Before she found the North Oak Street apartments, Shields experienced houselessness. After three years living in the unit, she had planned renovations. Now, half of her home is in boxes. The stress put Shields in the emergency room.

“It’s just financially, emotionally, physically draining,” Shields says.

The new landlord, TNC Front St 1 LLC, owned by development firm The Nehemiah Group, bought the property on May 16 from Sherry Anderson, whose family has owned the land as far back as 1900. Days later, tenants received a notice to vacate and a few options: leave before 31 and July to receive a stipend of up to $1,000 and their security deposits back; leave by Aug. 15 to receive $500 and their deposits, leave by Aug. 31 to receive their security deposits back or face eviction.

Robert Kembel heads The Nehemiah Group and says his company is not interested in the apartments because they are in poor condition.

“Sometimes when you redevelop things, you can hold onto income-producing assets for years,” Kembel says. “We’ve determined they are not inhabitable and the families that are there would be much better positioned somewhere else.”

Kembel’s company is not obligated to let the tenants stay under Texas law, nor is it required to help tenants. Kembel says his company attempts to work with tenants being displaced, and has worked directly with two of the eight families in the homes.

Still, some tenants say they feel cast aside and given too little warning to vacate—and little if any options they can afford in the middle of summer.

“I know you’re out to make money, make things better and everything, but we’re people; we’re human beings, just like you, and I feel like (we’re) a herd of cattle right now,” Shields says.

Shirley Shields stands in a blue dress and pink bonnet in the doorway leading to her Arlington apartment.
Kailey Broussard
/
KERA News
Shirley Shields says the notice to vacate from TNC Front Street 1 LLC has caused her physical, emotional and financial distress.

City council action

Residents along North Oak Street learned of the development plans through an Arlington City Council agenda item.

The Nehemiah Group received a $1.5 million grant to acquire the land, design and build at least 150 homes and 14,500 square feet of office space in downtown. The developers’ design plans are subject to council approval, and the land will become city-owned if they do not use it, according to the resolution passed in March.

Jennifer Savage Hurley, who lives across the street, alerted her neighbors and spoke on their behalf during the meeting. Savage Hurley is the fourth generation of her family to live in their historic home, and her family has forged strong relationships with tenants across the street. She worked with Dimitre Thornton, who has lived in her downstairs apartment for 12 years, to break up drug deals and establish a crime watch.

“The thought of losing these people that we love and care about is just really heartbreaking for me, but what was worse about it was they weren’t even a second thought,” Savage Hurley says.

Anderson, who served as the tenants’ landlord, did not respond to multiple calls and a text seeking comment. However, tenants say they would not have forewarning had Savage Hurley not told them.

Thornton lamented in March that they were not notified sooner.

“If you have tenants who’ve been living here this long, you should be a good human being and tell these people, ‘Hey, I sold my property. Get prepared to do whatever you need to do.’”

Shagonda Parson, who has lived in the apartments for six years, says she feels "thrown under the bus" by the lack of warning.

“She has not been a bad landlord. This was a bad decision. Now, you’ve got people looking for somewhere to go,” Parson says.

Redevelopment and moving plans

Kembel told the council on March 8 his company has “big dreams” to build another signature Arlington neighborhood. His company developed Viridian, a master-planned community near the Trinity River, and the Arlington Commons off Lamar Boulevard.

Ideally, he told council, Nehemiah would preserve Knapp Heritage Park, which holds three of the town’s oldest buildings. The park contains the former office of James Knapp, a prominent developer and attorney who was instrumental to developing Arlington-area highways, including SH 360. Kembel floated the idea of preserving part of the attraction inside the project.

Kembel says in a phone interview that designing the project will take about a year, and cannot start in earnest until they survey the land.

“We’re still in the assembling and visioning mode—we’re not ready to design anything yet,” he says.

The tenants’ buildings account for a portion of the property needed to build on Oak and Front streets, according to city documents.

Kembel, in response to Savage Hurley’s concerns about the tenants in March, says his company incorporates philanthropic efforts into their work. He says Nehemiah will offer moving and housing assistance through nonprofits in addition to stipends.

Asked about the $1,000 maximum stipend, he says the amount should be enough to move out, combined with letting tenants keep their last month of rent and security deposit.

“Some of these people’s rent are like $400 a month, so that’s like two months’ rent,” Kembel says. “It’s almost three months’ rent if they get busy and go find a place.”

Tenants say they’ve heard from Mission Arlington and have received packets of prospective rentals around town. However, they say the aid does not go far enough to take care of moving costs and assist people who have lived in the homes for as long as 12 years.

Jardaches Bailey, who lives with Parson, says the situation feels familiar to what he witnessed in Long Beach, Calif., and displacement others have faced in Fort Worth’s Stop Six neighborhood.

“It’s not fair, but I mean, a good package to help somebody out would be better than saying, ‘I’m going to give you $1,000 and you’ve got to go by this day.’ You’re uprooting people who’ve been here forever,” Bailey says.

Kembel says the stipend is on par with offers they have extended to tenants in other projects. He’s open to changing the benefits if tenants come forward with estimates.

“If they can make an argument that there’s more costs beyond that, after taking advantage of what we’re trying to offer, I’ll listen, but all I’ve heard is, ‘It’s not enough,’” Kembel says.

Got a tip? Email Kailey Broussard at kbroussard@kera.org. You can follow Kailey on Twitter @KaileyBroussard.

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Corrected: July 7, 2022 at 8:59 AM CDT
This story was updated at 8:56 a.m. July 7, 2022 to correct the spelling of Sherry Anderson's name.
Kailey Broussard covers Arlington for KERA News and The Arlington Report. Broussard has covered Arlington since 2020 and began at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram before joining the station in 2021.