Austin relocation program could aid displaced renters

Local residents forced to move out of their apartments or mobile homes because of new development could receive city assistance after an expected Austin City Council vote in June.

A proposed Tenant Relocation Assistance policy could increase the amount of time tenants have to find new housing, provide educational resources for displaced tenants and potentially offer a stipend to cover some moving costs.

The current proposals are similar to recommendations the city considered, but did not implement, in 2013. A November City Council resolution asking staff to investigate various options for tenant relocation assistance reinvigorated the city’s efforts. There is no existing comprehensive policy for responding to tenant displacement, which can destabilize vulnerable populations, such as elderly and low-income residents and families with children, according to city staff.

An affordability issue

One of the biggest challenges for displaced tenants is quickly finding new housing options that are affordable to them, said Stephanie Trinh, an attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, which provides legal representation for low-income displaced tenants.

Austin relocation program could aid displaced renters“The No. 1 concern [of displaced tenants] tends to be where they can move to and how much it’s going to cost to move,” she said. “Affordable housing in Austin is pretty scarce.”

Austin resident Robin Wilkins said she was surprised to learn in June 2015 that her home of five years at Lakeview Apartments in Southeast Austin was going to be demolished and that she needed to move by September despite having signed a lease through December.

The single mother of three said she struggled to find another apartment she could afford and finally resorted to signing a more expensive lease in a different school district.

“It was very frustrating, very scary, because not only did I need to find a place to live, but I needed to find the money to move the stuff I had,” Wilkins said. “I was ready to live in my car.”

Lakeview was one of several high-profile tenant-displacement cases in South and East Austin that drew attention from community members and policymakers during the past several years.

Although residents of older apartment complexes are more at risk of displacement, the issue can also affect tenants and owners of mobile homes throughout the city, Trinh said.

“[Displacement] tends to affect low-income communities in the urban core where there is high demand,” she said. “But this could potentially affect any apartment complex or mobile home park … that may require repairs or may be targeted for redevelopment.”

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, who co-sponsored the resolution to initiate the relocation program recommendations, said neighborhoods such as Zilker and Bouldin Creek have been facing the loss of older multifamily buildings for years.

“The phenomenon has been happening in many areas of the city for quite some time,” Tovo said. “It is a concern to me because I want to see [residents] be able to remain in their homes and children to be able to remain in their schools. … It needs to be a citywide priority.”

Austin relocation program could aid displaced renters

Policy recommendations

The tenant relocation assistance recommendations City Council will consider this summer were compiled using community and stakeholder input, analysis from The University of Texas School of Law and previous recommendations, said Lauren Avioli, a planner with the Austin Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department, which is developing the policy recommendations.

Although many apartment leases require property owners to give 30 days’ notice when asking a tenant to vacate his or her home, city staff will likely recommend a requirement that developers applying for a demolition permit provide notification of the planned demolition or redevelopment 120 days before a demolition permit would be granted, Avioli said. Tenants who meet an income requirement—likely up to 70 percent of the area median family income, which amounts to about $43,500 for a family of two—could also receive a stipend for moving expenses such as application costs and security deposits. Avioli said staff will likely recommend the city fund the stipend program, but staffers have not ruled out recommending developers pay for it in certain circumstances.

In April, City Council added owners of mobile homes as potential beneficiaries of a relocation assistance program.

“Because the mobile homes are older, they’re too fragile to move,” District 7 Council Member Leslie Pool said in an email. “It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to re-establish community when you’re displaced and you don’t know where you’ll be living.”

Other policy recommendations include the creation of a resource packet for displaced tenants and third-party real estate locator services for income-eligible tenants, Avioli said.

The previous City Council considered similar recommendations in 2013 but did not implement them. The 2013 recommendations differed slightly from what is scheduled to be considered this June in that they proposed six months’ notice of move-out, developer-funded moving stipends and security deposit refunds.

As of May 20, the Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department had not released a cost estimate for a tenant relocation assistance program, but Avioli said costs will include program administration, software changes and the moving stipend program.

Implementation challenges

Whether the city or developers bear the brunt of costs for a tenant relocation assistance program, Austin residents will shoulder some of the burden, District 6 Council Member Don Zimmerman said.

Austin relocation program could aid displaced rentersZimmerman said he opposes such a policy because residents would pay for it, and he would like to see the city address affordability issues at the zoning and land-use level.

“The philosophy of this relocation assistance [policy] is we can tackle affordability for the few at a higher cost of living for everyone else. … It’s unsustainable,” he said. “It is cost shifting from one group of Austin residents to another group of Austin residents. … That’s not to say these problems are easy to solve; they’re not. What I’m saying is the city is going in the wrong direction.”

Other stakeholders with concerns about the tenant relocation assistance program include the Austin Apartment Association, which stated it wants to avoid overregulation and increased burden on property managers.

“When the layers of regulations get too high so do the costs, and ultimately this affects the viability and intent of the project—even those projects aimed at providing affordable housing units,” spokesperson Paul Cauduro said in a statement.

Ruby Roa, a community activist who has advocated on behalf of residents in several displacement cases, said assistance for displaced residents is long overdue and is just part of the solution to affordability issues in Austin.

“This is a holistic issue; this is an Austin, Texas, issue. I don’t care where you live in Austin,” she said. “It’s a moral issue, and we’ve got to do something about it.”

Tenant relocation assistance policy timeline

  • November 2012: Previous City Council initiates research of tenant relocation assistance options

  • February 2013: Staff hold stakeholder meetings

  • May 2013: Staff present recommendations

  • November 2015: 10-1 Council asks city manager to draft program plan

  • January 2016: Staff hold second round of stakeholder meetings

  • April 2016: Council adds mobile home residents as beneficiaries of potential program

  • June 2016: Council scheduled to vote on relocation assistance program

Source: city of Austin/Community Impact Newspaper