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With No Relief From Legislature, West Dallas Mom Scrambles For A Place To Live

The Texas Tribune
Noemi Piña and her teenage son, Timothy, in West Dallas."

DALLAS — A constant hum emanated from a small air-conditioning unit in the window of Noemi Pina’s living room on a recent June afternoon as she, her 81-year-old mother and 15-year-old son sat and talked about where they’re going to live next.

Pina would love to stay in this small, wood-frame house where she grew up. But her family is among hundreds in this West Dallas neighborhood who must relocate. They're ensnared in a tangled web involving a new city housing ordinance, a bitter public battle between their landlord and Dallas City Hall, a series of court decisions and common economics.

Pina’s family lives in a house owned by HMK Ltd., which leases aging houses to some of the city’s poorest residents for hundreds of dollars a month. After the city tightened its housing standards for rental properties last year, the company sent eviction letters to scores of tenants living in decades-old houses.

“I'm gonna be honest,” Pina said of the house. “It needs minor work.”

The notice of mass evictions sent City Hall scrambling to help displaced families and led to several court hearings. Last month, a judge gave many residents until October to find new places to live. That has sent Pina all over Dallas trying to find a new place to rent.

“All the houses that I've been looking for, like a three-bedroom, a two-bedroom, is between $900 to $1,400,” she said.

That’s far more than the $300 her family pays in rent for the North Winnetka Avenue house they’ve called home for decades. The 43-year-old spent more than a decade working at a nearby sporting goods store but now takes care of her mother, who is recovering from surgery. The family largely lives off her mother’s social security check, which is about $1,000 a month.

State Rep. Eric Johnson, whose district covers parts of West Dallas, wrote a bill during this year’s regular legislative session that aimed to help people in the neighborhood. Among other things, the Democrat’s bill would have required the city to develop a plan for relocating families displaced by the enforcement of minimum housing standards.

The bill was among more than 100 pieces of legislation that a group of conservative lawmakers killed in a procedural maneuver, a move that was retribution for what they called “petty personal politics” in the Republican-controlled chamber.

Johnson’s bill also would have required that a portion of property tax revenues from special development districts be earmarked for affordable housing units for poorer residents living within two miles of the districts. The Pinas live outside Trinity Groves, a popular collection of trendy restaurants and new apartments subsidized by special taxing district revenue.

“What we want is for the money that’s collected in the district to be spent more equitably,” Johnson told The Texas Tribune during the regular session.

Since a similar measure is not on Gov. Greg Abbott’s 20-item agenda for this month’s special session, Johnson will likely have to wait until 2019 to take another stab at helping Dallas residents living in gentrifying areas.

Pina said the first hint that rapid redevelopment like Trinity Groves was spreading deeper into her neighborhood came when crews started clearing what had been a large warehouse whose parking lot housed scores of truck trailers yards away from her front porch.

“And they told me that they were going to build new apartments,” Pina said. “I'm like, ‘Oh, OK. Everything's gonna change now. Now everything's gonna change, including us.’”

Pina said she recently looked at houses in eastern Dallas. But she would have to either uproot her two sons from their schools or spend time driving them back and forth across town. She said rent at nearby multi-family complexes is also outside her reach.

“Apartments are so expensive, too,” she said. “So, right now I'm freaking out for real. I mean, I'm freaking out.”

The Texas Tribune provided this story.