Evicted in Texas Over Hot Real Estate Market

     AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — Austin landlords profited from a hot real estate market by illegally forcing 69 people out of their apartments to demolish the buildings and sell the land to Oracle for a cloud campus, 23 families claim in court.
     The former tenants say the landlords refused to make repairs and used “illegal and improper intimidation tactics” to force them out of their apartments.
     Lead plaintiff Joel Jimenez and 22 heads of families who formerly lived in the Lakeview Apartments sued Cypress Real Estate Advisors, CRV Shoreline, Cypress V GPREIT, and four managers, on June 27 in Travis County Court. The 23 plaintiff families have 69 members.
     Jimenez says they were among 200 low-income families who lived at the Lakeview Apartments, which has been demolished for an Oracle development.
     The complex had 224 units and was on Lady Bird Lake in the Riverside neighborhood, which has become “a highly coveted area of Austin as of late.”
     Jimenez says the illegal evictions are part of a recent trend in Austin’s red hot real estate market.
     “Many apartments in the area have suffered the same fate as the Lakeview Apartments and have been demolished or rehabilitated. Rent in the surrounding area has increased rapidly in recent years. Therefore, finding affordable housing for low-income families in the Riverside neighborhood is difficult, especially with short notice and with limited resources,” the complaint states.
     The plaintiffs say their landlord, Cypress Real Estate Advisors, intimidated them in a “rush to make millions on the sale” of the property.
     The 38-page complaint describes the experiences of each family, many of whom are Hispanic and do not speak English fluently. One family are refugees from Rwanda.
     “Plaintiffs had differing experiences with defendants depending on their lease status, ability to speak English, knowledge of their rights, relationship with defendants, and ability to find housing. What they all have in common is that they all lost their homes and were treated improperly in the process,” the complaint states.
     “Of the 23 plaintiffs, 12 had leases that were terminated early without cause, 16 did not receive their security deposits or an explanation, 15 were denied the use of property promised to them by defendants before they had moved away, 16 were refused repairs, 10 experienced emotional distress due to defendants’ intimidations, one had her utilities cut off improperly, one was wrongfully locked out of his home, and two plaintiffs lost all their personal possessions. …
     “Plaintiffs are now paying an average of $240 more per month, but that is if they were lucky enough to find replacement housing at all in the time they had.”
     Jimenez says the defendants stopped making necessary repairs on or about January 2015. Apartments and buildings became unsafe and unsanitary, with nonworking electrical and air conditioning systems, and infestations of rats, roaches, bedbugs, and spiders.
     On June 26, 2015, residents received initial notice that the Lakeview complex was being demolished and their leases would not be renewed. They received multiple reminders in the form of notes taped on their doors saying Lakeview would be closing on Sept. 30, 2015, that all utilities would be shut off and they must be out of their apartments by that date.
     “Plaintiffs were expressly or impliedly led to believe and fear that if they stayed beyond Sept. 30, 2015, their utilities would be shut off, locks would be changed, and personal possessions would be taken out of their homes,” the complaint states.
     Some plaintiffs had leases that did not expire on Sept. 30, and a few lasted through Dec. 31. But Cypress forced them to sign “releases” of their unexpired leases with no explanation. “Plaintiffs were simply told they had no choice or were threatened with bad tenant references. Defendants demanded plaintiffs honor those releases they signed,” according to the complaint.
     The tenants met regularly to discuss the closing of the apartments and collectively asked the defendants for more time and relocation assistance.
     “But defendants ignored their collective efforts while accommodating only certain individuals and continuing to threaten others. Defendants allowed some plaintiffs with expired leases or who were forced to sign releases to stay for a short amount of time, on a case by case basis, some up to one month. Defendants did not communicate this policy with all residents and would only agree to such ‘extensions’ if requested by a resident and accepted by defendants,” the complaint states.
     “The lack of clear communication and equal treatment from the defendants only exacerbated their emotional distress.”
     Cypress began filing evictions on Oct. 13, 2015, against the plaintiffs who remained, unless they had been granted a special extension. By then it had already begun boarding up and demolishing buildings that had been fully vacated, though residents remained in other buildings.
     By Nov. 30, all the plaintiffs had vacated their apartments and all structures on the property had been demolished. On Dec. 22, the property was sold to Oracle America for the site of its new cloud campus.
     The Lakeview Tenants Association issued a statement through their attorney on June 27, saying they “hope to recover their damages but also to bring to light the compounding issues low-income renters in Austin face, including displacement.”
     The Austin City Council will consider a Tenant Relocation Assistance ordinance in August.
     Defendant Steven Clark, a Cypress representative, told the Austin American-Statesman: “I am pretty certain we have acted in good faith throughout the process.”
     Oracle, which is not a party to the lawsuit said in a statement: “Our state-of-the-art campus will be designed to inspire, support and attract top talent — with a special focus on the needs of millennials.”
     The plaintiffs seek damages for fraudulent inducement, breach of contract, property code violations, emotional distress and discrimination. They also want exemplary damages equal to 5 percent of the sale price of the apartments to Oracle America.
     They are represented by Stephanie Trinh with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid.

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