A group of Dallas renters in the Vickery Meadow neighborhood have gotten some good news: After they spoke up, the Dallas school district agreed to pay them four times as much money as originally offered to help them move out. The district plans to tear down their apartment complex and build a school there.
But as the North Texas real estate market continues to tighten, especially for low-income renters, housing advocates are grappling with how to protect them in the future.
Since October, more than 300 tenants have moved out of the North Park Terrace Apartments. The sprawling complex is a little more than a mile east of North Park Center – and economically, it's a world away.
One mom named Maria has lived there for nearly five years – and this isn't the first time she's had to move for this reason. A little more than a decade ago, she and her family were forced out of a different Vickery Meadow apartment to make room for Sam Tasby Middle School.
“Yes, this has happened to us before. I was one of the tenants that they didn’t give even one dollar to,” Maria said in Spanish. “I had to move out. We didn’t get any kind of help. It’s horrible because we’re reliving the same experience. I said, ‘Here we go again.’ It’s horrible. It’s intense.”
We’re identifying Maria only by her first name because she fears retaliation for her immigration status.
This time around, she became a vocal advocate for tenants’ rights when the Dallas school district took over the North Park Terrace property last October and began notifying the 300-plus tenants that they needed to leave. The plan is to build an elementary school on the land because nearby schools are crowded. Maria said the whole experience was taxing.
“The eviction was too much – too rushed. It was inconvenient because I couldn’t find an apartment. They were very expensive, and I searched for two to three months,” Maria said. “But then we formed a group and made some demands.”
The tenants' demands
In April, she and a group of her fellow tenants – with the help of Legal Aid of Northwest Texas and the Texas Tenants Union – confronted Dallas ISD and the apartment management firm it contracted, DFW Advisors. The renters demanded more compensation for moving expenses, more logistical support finding new apartments, help transferring student records to new schools and just more money for their troubles.
Tenants and advocates said that since the complex was sold in the fall, the buildings fell into disarray. They also reported mass confusion about move-out dates, threats of eviction and what they describe as insensitivity about the displacement of hundreds of low-income tenants – many of them the district’s own students.
Scott Layne, deputy superintendent of operations, said the school district sympathized with the tenants and came to a fairly swift agreement on many of their demands.
“Compensation was originally $1,200, and we went with $5,250, which I believe is the federal rate for relocation,” Layne said. “Years ago, our relocation package was taken to the board and the $1,200 was what was approved. None of us was here and we’re not absolutely sure how that amount was determined. So we went with the $5,250."
But it came with a caveat: “If any of the tenants owed back rent, the back rent would come out of that number because there were people there who were several months behind on rent. So even though we say $5,250, it varied by tenant,” Layne said. “But regardless of the back rent that was owed, [they got] a minimum of $1,200 back because we didn’t want to chew up all the money.
The district also paid tenants up to $860 more formoving costs, and abated a couple hundred dollars in rent in April and May to cover unresolved maintenance issues. It also agreed to return security and pet deposits and refund improper towing charges.
Making relocation more equitable
Supawon Lervisit, an attorney at Legal Aid of Northwest Texas, represented the tenants throughout the negotiations. She said many of the them consider the new terms mostly a success. But she said tenants who left the complex before these negotiations – back in the winter and early spring – didn't qualify for the new compensation package.
In addition, the district ultimately didn’t make any concessions about reevaluating how it handles future growth and development.
“Dallas ISD says often that it cares about socioeconomic and racial equity and that housing policy is school policy," the lawyer said. "I don’t think when the district planned this relocation they had thought about all the different needs and how it would affect the tenants. So amending their site selection policy and their relocation policy would be the way to show that they’re going to make good on their public commitments and ensure something like this does not happen again.”
Dallas ISD's Scott Layne said what the district will do is make sure future compensation packages for relocation are in keeping with federal guidelines. But he said there’s not a lot of urgency to do so because the district doesn’t have any plans to buy up residential property as part of the current bond program.
In the long term, Lervisit said this issue is far bigger than the school district.
“As the housing market tightens, we expect to see more of this happening – either a private landlord trying to evict lower-income tenants to replace the tenants or sometimes the city or the district purchasing property to revitalize an area,” she said. “So one bigger-picture thing we’re looking to at Legal Aid is the relocation process.”
Not quite home
Better protections for low-income tenants in the face of a booming real estate market is good news for people like Maria, who Lervisit said is at a higher risk of being displaced again given her immigration status and limited income.
It was a struggle to find a two-bedroom apartment she could afford even with the money from the school district.
“The truth is I’m not satisfied. I’m not happy. It was difficult moving from that apartment to this one – to move again, pay rent again, set up utilities again,” she said. “My contract is for one year. We’ll see.”
The amenities and the security are better at her new place, she said. But it’s substantially more expensive – $200 more a month. And it’s still not home to her.