The Old Homestead apartments are due to be demolished in 2023 (Photo by Jana Birchum)
After weeks of negotiations, a group of low-income Austin tenants have won major concessions from a developer seeking to demolish their existing affordable apartments. Last week, the tenants of Old Farm Apartments agreed with the representatives of JCI Residentiala subsidiary of group of companions. To realize their plans for the property on Clayton Lane near Cameron Road in northeast Austin, JCI requested rezoning for vertical mixed use, which allows for a larger and taller structure and therefore more units . This provided a measure of leverage to poor residents, who collectively resisted rezoning – and forced a deferral of the matter to city council – until JCI agreed to offer more help to tenants to land on their feet in an increasingly expensive city.
Although the new development included a number of limited income units on site, as required by VMU zoning, current residents of the Old Homestead said they still could not afford to move into the new complex or in others belonging to JCI. Loretta Tubbs told us that her situation “shone a light” on the plight of many low-income residents. “We are moved to build affordable housing that we cannot afford,” she said. In the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood near Muller and mountainsTubbs felt even a move across the street would have doubled his rent.
Speaking through a translator, Jose Moreno, another Old Homestead tenant, said he expected the move to cost most households around $5,000 when all fees and deposits were factored in. “They get so rich from what the tenants pay, but somehow it’s impossible or bothers them to share a bit to make it easier for the displaced people,” he said more early this month, before the agreement with JCI was finalized. “I think when you’re helping someone, it feels good to give a little.”
Asked by e-mail last week, Ross Hamilton, vice president of development at Journeyman Group, agreed that JCI has a responsibility to help residents. “We are happy to meet [residents] again to continue to listen to their concerns and answer questions,” he said. Although eager to gain Board approval and proceed with the project, JCI initially offered one month’s free rent in one of its existing buildings with limited income units. However, residents said these units would be more expensive, drastically reduce their square footage, or take them away from their workplaces and support systems. Some of Old Homestead’s two dozen residents walk to work ; many are aging, disabled or elderly; and two care for elderly relatives who live nearby.
“We are displaced to build affordable housing that we cannot afford.” – Loretta Tubbs, Old Homestead resident
Working collectively, the residents rejected several subsequent offers from JCI and repeatedly testified to the precariousness of their situation before the Planning Commission and Council. At the June 9 Board meeting, Board member Chito Vela, whose District 4 includes the Old Homestead, responded to their impassioned testimony by offering to delay the first vote on rezoning for a week to give the two sides another chance to negotiate. “I am happy that we were able to help the tenants to find an agreement [to] compensate them for the upcoming relocation,” Vela told the the Chronicle this week. “I’m glad the residents of Old Homestead contacted my office for help, and I’m very grateful to [JCI] for coming to the table in good faith.”
Under the final agreement negotiated on June 15, residents will receive three months of free rent when JCI officially takes over the property this summer. Residents will also receive $500 each when they move out, with their final departure date pushed back to February 2023. They can move out earlier without any penalty. The Board approved JCI’s zoning application the following day.
Residents reported that JCI representatives remained cordial throughout the process; When contacted by email after the deal, Hamilton expressed relief that they had reached a mutual agreement. “The proposed project will provide much needed density as well as rent-restricted units, which will help address some of the long-term affordability issues in the neighborhood,” he wrote.
However, it seems clear that without the activism of residents, their immediate needs would not have been met by either the developer or the city. Time will tell if the successful negotiations of Old Homestead residents will serve as a model for others forced out of their homes due to rising rents. Tubbs expressed her gratitude to be able to continue with her moving plans and to start saving for the move. She also said she hopes their testimony to Council will encourage members to find ways to better support residents. She added, “Council member Vela [told us] he didn’t want the other tenants to suffer as much as us.”