Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

These 'Affordable' Apartments Operate Tax Free. Too Bad They Have the Most Code Violations in Austin

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon, KUT News

Oak Hollow is a community of 429 apartments in northwest Austin. It’s operated as affordable housing by a group called American Opportunity for Housing.

Built in 1972, keeping up a property like Oak Hollow can be expensive. The main source of income for American Opportunity for Housing is rent. And as a nonprofit, the community has a 100 percent tax exemption. The City of Austin estimates, over the last decade, that it has foregone upwards of $1 million in taxes from Oak Hollow.

But it’s a property with a reputation among renters’ advocates.

Credit William Towne
A greenbelt surrounding Oak Hollow was once connected by a wooden bridge. The bridge is gone, but not completely demolished: when it became unsafe, American Opportunity for Housing decided against fixing the bridge, opting instead to tear part of it down.

City inspection documents obtained by KUT News detail dangerous balconies and stairways, roach and mouse infestations, along with gas leaks and exposed wiring.

Last month, affordable housing expert Heather Way released a study about run down rental properties in Austin – and Oak Hollow topped her list as the property with the most code violations in the city. None of the violations have been litigated, even though comparable conditions have led to incidents like last year’s walkway collapse at the Woodridge Apartments in southeast Austin.

Here’s a sampling of complaints against Oak Hollow, obtained by KUT:

  • Prompted by this July 2012 visit, at least 10 Code Compliance officers returned to Oak Hollow in August and noted most of the property’s balconies were a hazard. More than a year later, the nonprofit is still working on the balconies, walkways and stairways.

Among the violations the Austin Fire Department has found at the property over the last 10 years: uninspected water hydrants, nonexistent or inoperable smoke detectors and nonexistent fire extinguishers.
And although the complex is considered affordable, meaning rents are supposed to fall below market rate, residents say they aren’t. Oak Hollow residents Martha and William Towne pay $1,100 a month for their two-bedroom apartment.

Credit William Towne
When William Towne saw the maintenance crew nailing this wire to his balcony, he thought that was a fire hazard. He says management stopped communicating with him. The wire came down after a visit from the City of Austin’s Code Compliance department.

No one has forced American Opportunity for Housing to make repairs. In fact, the City of Austin’s Code Compliance department has patiently worked with them for over a year to fix the apartment balconies after the walkway collapse at the Woodridge Apartments. Code Compliance’s Matthew Christianson says more needs to be done. In the next couple of weeks, he says he’ll be conducting an assessment of the entire property.

It’s not the first time American Opportunity for Housing has been scrutinized by government officials. In 2009, Bexar County removed the tax exemption on several San Antonio properties the non-profit owns. But the group appealed that decision all the way to the Texas Supreme Court; the court ruled in the nonprofit’s favor and the tax-exemption was restored.

Still, this past week the Travis Central Appraisal District sent a letter asking the nonprofit to reapply for its exemption. It’s unclear how American Opportunity for Housing will proceed.

Despite repeated requests, no one at American Opportunity for Housing agreed to a taped interview – neither the Oak Hollow management company, or the nonprofit that owns the complex. 

Credit Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon, KUT News
After William Towne contacted Code Compliance, the faucet outside his building was disabled with a lock. It sits right across from another building that caught fire this past April.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
Related Content