The previous blogs in this series examined the deeply challenging and hazardous conditions tenants endured, some for over a decade. They chronicled the journey, highlighting the challenging wins and lessons learned from expected outcomes that didn’t go in our favor, but led us down unexpected, enlightening paths.
In this final entry, community navigator Ericka Bowman provides an update on the recent struggles tenants have faced during the redevelopment process at Coppertree under Fairstead, the new owner. Shedding light on the long-overdue attention drawn to how the system fails when serving the underprivileged, despite receiving funds meant to improve their living conditions, she discusses the outdated inspection process, and lacking effective follow-ups. She will also touch on the subpar quality of the units after renovation in some finished units and the overall living conditions post-renovation.
Furthermore, we hear mounting frustrations of the tenants and their aspirations for both the present and the future, as well as the responses and reactions of the authoritative bodies that have the potential to bring about change and provide assistance, though their actions have been limited so far. You can read read part one here and part two here.
As of Summer 2023, Coppertree Village Apartments has initiated a change in management and also new ownership, Fairstead, the new owners, promised to remedy the various issues plaguing the property through a $25 million renovation plan that includes offering alternative accommodations during construction.
Despite previous developer investments worth considerable sums of money, Coppertree continues to suffer from the same problems of very little tenant-centered progress. As a result, tenants are understandably skeptical and wary of the new ownership’s claims. Many long-time residents who have endured these conditions for years are counting on more than mere rhetoric from the new owners. Originally, they expected to be active participants in the decision-making process, transparency, accountability, and the authority to effect change throughout this changeover, but were not included.
The initial goal for myself and Texas Housers of outreach to tenants has evolved into a much broader mission. As the previous entries in this blog series have shown, current housing laws offer little power to those they are intended to serve, with platforms for tenant voices to be heard being concealed or silenced in crucial decision-making spaces.
In fact, decisions that directly affect the community’s living situation are often made without any input from community members themselves, who may be unaware of opportunities to voice their opinions on their living conditions and the overseers of their properties. For future tenants’ voices to be genuinely heard and their recommendations implemented, decision-making spaces must become more inclusive now, so tenants provide a crucial voice on issues such as deadlines, assistance, resources, inclusion in the complaint process and much more. Providing stakeholders with an opportunity to be heard and become decision-makers themselves will effectively empower them to become agents of change and help avoid a situation like the residents of Coppertree have found themselves in.
My observations at Coppertree highlight exactly that urgent need for accountability and meaningful action from those in power. The problems faced by the residents of Coppertree are not new, and have been acknowledged by various officials. However, without genuine engagement from ownership, promises of change have been unfulfilled. Tenants have been left to suffer in unlivable conditions after numerous calls and emails to code enforcement, while responsibility is passed around from management to owner to official and so on.
Regrettably, the lawsuit referenced in our previous blog ended unfavorably. But the tenants of Coppertree are not giving up. Recognizing that HUD’s regulations fail to hold landlords responsible and, similarly, the courts refuse to hold HUD accountable, the tenants are exploring further avenues to attain justice, including communicating directly with city officials and other resources that directly finance troublesome properties like Coppertree, and collecting stories and data as a partnership with UT of School Law to ultimately present a complete picture of this problem-riddled property to the masses.
REDEVELOPMENT UNDER FAIRSTEAD
After months of delay for the residents of Coppertree, the redevelopment process finally started in July 2023, with storage pods placed on the property to temporarily hold tenants’ belongings. However, the initial plans called for a Spring 2023 start, making some tenants skeptical about meeting deadlines and how temporary the relocation will really be.
Despite the commencement of the redevelopment process, concerns and miscommunication persist between the property ownership and the tenants. The tenants have expressed their desire for a meeting with the owner to address their concerns. They have conveyed that while a relocation specialist has been hired to disseminate plans and adjustments to all tenants, a significant number still remain unaware of the proposed plans. The tenants seek an opportunity to discuss their concerns and have their voices heard regarding their relocation, as it directly impacts their lives and the lives of their children. They are apprehensive about incurring out-of-pocket expenses and relying on reimbursement, as many lack the immediate financial resources.
The owner’s suggestion of moving in with family members or staying in a hotel provided by them has been met with reservations, especially from the elderly and disabled tenants who require special care and consideration. They have also mentioned concerns about stipends and whether they will be sufficient to cover their basic needs like food and transportation during the relocation period. These issues add to the stress of the construction process itself, which must be done properly to ensure the safety and comfort of all tenants.
Considering all of these issues, the community has been actively involved in monitoring the situation and has been recording its findings for a future report as this process continues to unfold. To address these concerns, a community meeting was requested with ownership for the end of July 2023. For this meeting, the tenants asked the owner to provide detailed explanations about the upcoming changes and to allow residents to ask direct questions. Ownership never agreed to or even acknowledged this request.
Redevelopment was something that some tenants tried to be optimistic about, but fears have now become a harsh but familiar reality. The numerous requests provided to management were ignored or not conclusively addressed, mainly because they weren’t heard, and preventative actions weren’t taken despite the obvious roadblocks and predictable hardships tenants knew they would face during this relocation. Tenants foresaw that those in powerful, decision-making positions, such those in the role of new ownership, might not comprehensively predict the challenges faced by individuals living with limited funds.
What does relocation assistance truly mean? The answer is clear: it should be meticulously crafted from the perspective of those who will be affected. Transportation encompasses a multitude of factors, such as the distance of the hotel from the nearest bus stop. Walking to the bus stop in the scorching Texas heat could be perilous not only for the average person but particularly for the elderly, people with disabilities, and those who are ill. Many rely on buses for crucial activities like doctor’s appointments, work, and more.
In this situation, the nearest bus stop is 2 miles from the hotel, at least a 25-minute walk for a person in average health. Moreover, transportation should include ensuring that children can get to school and back home safely. Some tenants’ children missed school once the academic year started because they lacked transportation or weren’t informed about the available options. Those waiting for transportation information feared their kids would have to endure the heat due to varying pick-up and drop-off times.
Transportation also accounts for tenants’ need to visit the property to check their mail and retrieving utility checks, among other bills. It involves picking up medication that would typically be delivered to their doorstep, but couldn’t be delivered to the hotel due to its temporary nature. When discussing food, it’s crucial to consider that tenants aren’t in their homes anymore. Creating a meal from pantry supplies is no longer possible, and borrowing from neighbors is no longer an option. The nearest grocery store is a mile away, but it’s a paid membership-based store. Such a store is not feasible for low to no-income families.
Tenants have reported that they have been concerned about their electric bills, which residents pointed out to me were significantly higher than usual due to construction teams using their electricity while the units were vacated. Residents told me that lights were left on overnight, windows remained open, and the power tools used during construction further escalated the electricity costs. Some tenants were told that their belongings would be secure remaining in their home, given that these units only had minor renovations. However, these tenants were later very concerned about theft, as doors were left open after the construction teams departed for the day. Communication was lacking, and the process of moving itself is undoubtedly challenging.
Residents have found themselves hungry and stranded in a hotel, hoping for change when the next wave of tenants undergoes a similar transition. They’re optimistic that they’ll be reimbursed for the out-of-pocket expenses they incurred for transportation and food, but some tenants are returning to their homes with no money left to sustain themselves until the next payment cycle. Typically, when tenants are in their own homes, they can manage their resources and are able to budget and cook for themselves in their own kitchens, and perhaps lend a hand or food to a neighbor if need be. That is impossible under this relocation.
In a bid to make their needs heard, tenants are both writing formal letters and initiating petitions. The letters, addressed to Southwest Housing, TDHCA, and HUD, ask each of these entities to step in to offer the necessary support and guidance to make these apartments livable. One tenant aptly expressed in the letter, “We deserve to be treated fairly.” This sentiment resonates strongly among the tenants, who are merely seeking the respect and consideration that every individual deserves. The tenants have received some early responses, but talks are ongoing. The petitions to City of Houston, TDHCA, HUD are asking on behalf of those who are voucher holders to have an opportunity to relocate. While tenants share both sentiments, stay or go, they all feel they deserve to have a choice in where they should live.
It is crucial that the new ownership of Coppertree is held to the highest standards of accountability, with laws in place to ensure that they must provide decent living conditions and prioritize the safety and well-being of their tenants. As this redevelopment will eventually conclude, this must include proactive measures such as preventative maintenance and rebuilding when necessary, with oversight that is just as stringent as the surveillance and social control that tenants report feeling subjected to.
Local and state leadership must also recognize that the federally subsidized housing system is deeply flawed with regulations that have historically privileged white, wealthier individuals and left Black and brown residents trapped in poverty with limited opportunities for safety and economic mobility. It is important to acknowledge the ways in which race has shaped policies and regulations within this system, and to address these issues head-on in order to create lasting change. To truly address these issues, we must have a thorough understanding of the root causes of the problem and work to reimagine and undo the racist policies that created it. Empowering people with knowledge and understanding will lead to action.
The problems at Coppertree are just one example of a larger fight for social justice and survival. While subsidized housing in the United States requires improvement overall, this blog aims to shed light on the pressing need for attention and support specifically for tenants in project-based Section 8 housing.
At Texas Housers, we will continue to provide support to tenants through research, utilizing reliable data to navigate the system. We will join forces with allies in the legal system, such as Lone Star Legal Aid and other experienced attorneys, to help educate tenants about their rights. Our team on the ground will serve to rally and inspire tenants and redirect them when necessary.
We are actively listening to tenants as they navigate through this process. We are committed to standing beside them, supporting them and communicating their demands with Fairstead’s leadership and elsewhere if they do not listen. Through my time at Coppertree, I have gained a thorough understanding of what tenants have experienced and what they are entitled to, and we plan to ensure that Fairstead adheres to the living standards where previous management has failed. Additionally, we are in communication with state and federal officials and departments, sharing information with them every step of the way.
Overall, the situation is complex and multifaceted, encompassing the concerns of temporary relocation, health and safety standards, financial implications, accessibility, and the quality of construction. What continues to drive the solutions to all of these issues is the tenants. The key driving force behind finding solutions is the voices of the tenants themselves. Their engagement and involvement are essential in the process of creating and facilitating change, not only for their own households but also for future renters. While there are other valuable partners and mechanisms involved, such as organizations like Lone Star Legal Aid and local officials, it is the tenants’ voices and experiences that are crucial in instigating real change. Without their input and advocacy, meaningful progress may be cannot be achieved.
The inclusion of tenants from the outset when addressing housing issues can significantly expedite and streamline the solution. It’s not necessarily a complex fix; rather, it’s a matter of implementing a straightforward approach, and the results can make a world of difference.