The North Park Terrace Apartments in Vickery Meadow has been a bit of a ghost town for the past few months. Tenants of the 300-unit complex began moving out in October when they were told that the Dallas Independent School District had purchased the property as part of a 2015 bond package and would be building a new elementary school.
Since then, workers have been boarding up apartment windows and doors one by one. The large, sprawling campus is eerily quiet all day. At night, it’s very dark.
“I was going to work one day, emptying the garbage, and there be trash all out in the dumpster,” said Vincent Starnes, an apartment resident. “It’s right out that way. The lights weren't on. I tripped and fell and broke my hip.”
With demolition slated for the end of the summer, the complex has fallen into disarray. Tenants say North Park Terrace certainly wasn’t the Ritz before, but now, garbage is piling up, repair requests are going unanswered, and security is slacking.
“There’s a lot of things they were letting go around here and they knew it was happening,” said Starnes' wife, Janice Conley.
All the while, tenants still have to pay the rent while they look for a new — and affordable — place to live. The school district is offering $1,200 to help them cover security deposits and application fees, and a couple hundred more to help with moving costs. The issue is, though, tenants like Starnes and Conley don't think that's enough, and on top of that, they aren't likely to get any of that money up front.
“How are they going to tell me to move out of here and I’m paying rent,” Starnes asked. “And then you’re just going to tell me I got to go but don’t give me no money to get where you’re going. It don’t make no sense."
Conley said they’re on a fixed income. And with Starnes’ injury, that’s money they just don’t have.
“You want me to pay you and save my money to move. How can I do both? I can’t do both,” she said.
That’s just the beginning of a long list of demands from the tenants.
“As a government entity, DISD has to provide relocation help to the tenants, and they also, as a landlord, need to keep up with their basic landlord-tenant duties, and what we’ve been hearing from the tenants is that they’re not really being able to do both or either,” said Supawon Lervisit, an attorney with Legal Aid of Northwest Texas, who's representing the North Park Terrace tenants.
The property management company DFW Advisors, which is overseeing apartment management and tenant relocation, referred KERA’s questions to the Dallas school district.
"It’s an unfortunate situation in that they are going to have to relocate to a new place, and we work with the individuals, and we try to do it to where it’s the least disruptive as possible to the tenants," said Scott Layne, who is deputy superintendent of operations for DISD. "But invariably, they will have to move at some point, so we try to work with them."
The new school is being built to help ease overcrowding at nearby Jill Stone Elementary. The district had originally wanted to build on commercial property about a mile away from the apartments off Skillman Street and Abrams Road, but it backed off after business owners protested.
This also isn’t the first time DISD has had to displace people. In 2011, several residents in Jubilee Park had to leave their homes to expand O.M. Roberts Elementary. And years before that, shop owners in Vickery Meadow were forced to move out to make room for Sam Tasby Middle School. Layne said a new school is an opportunity for neighborhood growth.
"I would like to look at the positive side of what we’re going to do for the community here by building a new elementary school," he said. "I know it’s difficult for them. We’re going to do everything we can to help them relocate in the best manner possible."
Here’s how tenants at North Park Terrace hope that can happen:
They want better upkeep of the property while they’re still living there, or rent abatement if repairs aren’t possible. They want refunds of deposits and fees as well as more adequate translations of documents for Spanish-speaking tenants. Ultimately, they want more help from the district with finding and securing apartments they can afford — preferably in the neighborhood so students can continue going to school in DISD and so people don’t have to travel too far from their jobs or the services they may rely on in Vickery Meadow. But Lervisit said that hasn’t been happening.
“Tenants have said that they’re just being pressured to move out,” she said.
Lervisit calls the North Park Terrace apartment complex “second-chance” housing in Dallas. Many of the residents live there because of low incomes, immigration status, poor credit as well as criminal or eviction histories. It's also much more affordable than the rest of North Texas.
In a booming high-end real estate market like Dallas, for instance, the average one-bedroom apartment goes for a bit over $1,000 a month. In Vickery Meadow, people pay an average of $850 — and North Park Terrace tenants pay even less than that.
Vickery Meadow has also been struggling with its own economic development driving up rents over the past few years, and residents, many of whom are refugees and immigrants, fear being pushed out. Lervisit said this is a vulnerable community, so change can be difficult.
"All that added together creates a residential instability," she said. "It makes it more likely that wherever these tenants move to next, they might be forced out again or evicted again because of all these issues."
Tenants met with school district officials last week, and their attorneys feel good about the meeting, believing the district will take their concerns to heart and make effective changes. Lervisit said the tenants have accepted that they have to go by the end of June. They just want this process to be easier and more equitable.