'When We Fight, We Win': East Austin Tenants Living Without Gas Since The Storm To Get Temporary Housing, Payment
Owners and residents of a low-income housing complex in East Austin that has been without gas since the February winter storm signed an agreement Tuesday ensuring that tenants get alternate housing, a one-time payment and a right to return to their apartments once the gas is restored.
The arrangement between the residents of Mount Carmel Village Apartments and its owner, Eureka Multifamily Group, comes after dozens of hours of negotiating. At the table were a newly-formed tenants’ association, advocacy groups, owners and a local housing authority.
“It’s been a long process, but it’s been important,” resident Taniquewa Brewster said. “There was a lot of cold showers and no cooking, but it’s been important for me.”
In February, while many in Austin lived without power and some were without running water, extremely low temperatures caused the ground underneath Mount Carmel to shift, busting the complex’s main natural gas pipe. The residents' power had just returned, after days without it. And then suddenly the roughly 250 renters who live in these apartments were without another critical utility.
Eureka determined the main gas line needed to be replaced, a process the company estimates could take up to four months.
“I want to apologize to the tenants for the problem that was out of our control, but still, we could have done a better job in maybe addressing some of the needs,” said René Campos, Eureka’s general partner. “This agreement is one way to try to start a new chapter.”
On Tuesday afternoon, five members of the tenants’ association sat behind plastic tables outside the apartment building’s office. They sat on metal folding chairs, the price tags still attached, and ate takeout from a local Mexican restaurant across the street. Alongside them stood representatives for Eureka, the advocacy group Building and Strengthening Tenant Action (BASTA), and the Housing Authority of the City of Austin.
Mount Carmel receives rent subsidies from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and residents who qualify to live there must earn less than the local median family income. For a family of four, this equates to less than $78,100 a year.
“When we fight,” Brewster began, before her neighbors chimed in: “… we win!” Then, they signed the agreement.
Per the negotiated contract, residents will no longer be on the hook for February and March rent, since many continued to live at the complex without access to heat, hot water or the use of their stoves. They will also receive money to offset utility bills over the past two months and a one-time payment of $375 to reimburse residents for additional expenses they had during and after the storm.
Carla Davis, who lives at the complex with her three sons, bought hot plates for her apartment.
“I had bought those little burners and that’s how we were boiling water, taking baths sometimes,” she said. “It takes so long to do everything. It messes up your mental state.”
Davis also paid for several stays at hotels and took her kids to her mom’s house nearby. The constant interruption meant her three sons missed nearly a month and a half of school, she said.
The family is now living in a hotel until a temporary apartment can be readied for them.
The contract requires that residents be provided other housing options, including hotels, apartments and houses. In some cases, Eureka, which has been buying up dozens of properties in East Austin for the past several years, is putting tenants up in nearby homes it owns.
Eureka has also agreed to build a playground on site, a suggestion raised by a 9-year-old resident while her mom sat on one of the tenant association’s many Zoom calls.
While Campos said the main gas line leaks had been out of Eureka's control, citing the age of the apartment complex’s infrastructure, tenants said they had complained of smelling gas several times before the winter storm, suggesting there may have been existing leaks.
Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison, who represents the district that includes Mount Carmel, joined the tenants Tuesday. While she celebrated the agreement, she also criticized the owners for allowing the situation to get to this point.
“I hope we actually take this opportunity to learn our lessons and listen to tenants of properties,” Harper-Madison said. “I suspect having had a good relationship with management prior to this could have potentially avoided this catastrophe.”