Displaced downtown tenants receive community support as Arlington officials consider policy changes
Troy Williams, the city’s new chief equity officer, did not have to wait long to hear from the community after starting in his position July 11. Jennifer Savage Hurley has for months advocated for the tenants across the street who feared they would not be able to find or afford a new place to live after being ordered to leave as soon as July 31. She sent him an email before his first day.
“This was an issue that was waiting on me before I arrived,” Williams says.
Tenants received a note from The Nehemiah Company, which bought the property from Sherry Anderson in mid-May to build a residential and retail area in downtown, giving them three options: move by July 31 to receive a $1,000 stipend and their security deposit; the stipend drops to $500 Aug. 15, and tenants were notified they would face eviction if they were not out by 5 p.m. Aug. 31. Nehemiah offered the stipends to help families who are lower income and pay $750 or less in rent for the apartments.
Anderson’s family has owned the land as far back as 1900.
However, the money did not go far enough for residents who face a more expensive rental market, blistering summer temperatures and staggering move-out costs, Savage Hurley says. The notice and limited options put them in a “Catch-22.”
“Here they are, they’re trying to get out of this place, but they’re needing first and last months’ rent and deposit to get anywhere they’re needing to go,” Savage Hurley says.
People and organizations have stepped up, she says. Former District 3 city council member Marvin Sutton paid for at least one resident’s moving van, and Nehemiah has given some tenants additional help, including compensating residents for extended-stay hotels and storage facilities. Arlington Housing Authority and Mission Arlington have stepped in with assistance.
Arlington Urban Ministries Executive Director Jennifer Weber says in an email that her organization helped three families with deposits and first month’s rent.
“From out of nowhere, people in the Arlington community that have lived here forever came out of the woodwork to help these people in a situation,” Savage Hurley says.
Savage Hurley says Nehemiah should have been more proactive in supporting displaced tenants.
“In the end, I think that (tenants) are getting some support that they need. They’re not getting everything they need, but they’re getting some support that they need that I think is definitely better than where we were three weeks ago,” she says.
Robert Kembel, who heads Nehemiah, did not respond to a request for an interview or comment. He previously told KERA that he was open to negotiating assistance and resources with tenants.
The attention to the renters’ situations also spurred a roundtable discussion led by Regina Williams, United Way of Tarrant County’s Arlington regional director, and featuring Savage Hurley, city officials and community groups.
Williams says United Way wants to address tenants’ shorter term problems and, in the longer term, systemic issues that failed tenants. She would like to see a more formalized communications process between developers and nonprofits when a project displaces residents.
“I would love to see us go a step further and bring those thought leaders together, or a notification to us and say, ‘OK, these are the particular families. How can we help those particular families as part of that transition plan?'” Williams says.
Savage Hurley was the first to tell tenants change was coming to their block after noticing their addresses on a March 8 Arlington City Council meeting agenda. Nehemiah received a $1.5 million grant to secure land, design a project with community input and city council approval and build at least 150 homes and 14,500 square feet of office space in downtown. Part of the grant’s funding cushioned costs to acquire the land, including the apartments formerly owned by Sherry Anderson as part of her family’s trust.
Kembel told KERA in a previous interview that his company determined the apartments were “uninhabitable” and tenants were better off relocating instead of continuing to live in them.
Savage Hurley has helped her neighbors find housing arrangements and reached out to officials.
“The last thing we want is something like what happened to these tenants to happen to somebody else,” she says.
Got a tip? Email Kailey Broussard at [email protected]. You can follow Kailey on Twitter @KaileyBroussard.
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