The Big Squeeze: Surviving Dallas' Affordable Housing Crunch Makes Roommates Out of Strangers | Dallas Observer


The Big Squeeze: Surviving Dallas' Affordable Housing Crunch Makes Roommates Out of Strangers

Hernandez, 49, and Sanchez, 70, were born and raised in Oak Cliff and have lived in Dallas or surrounding suburbs all their lives. Their path to becoming roommates is one that’s familiar to people living on the economic margins.
Hernandez, 49, and Sanchez, 70, were born and raised in Oak Cliff and have lived in Dallas or surrounding suburbs all their lives. Their path to becoming roommates is one that’s familiar to people living on the economic margins. Nathan Hunsinger
Although they had met just months earlier, Hector Hernandez and Alecia Sanchez moved into a small duplex as roommates last November. They were thrown together not by romance but by necessity. Although the space they share is tiny, it’s better than the group home they had moved into briefly after they were priced out of their own homes in an apartment complex in Oak Cliff last July. Now, they share a single room, bathroom and kitchen for about $1,500 a month.

Unable to work because of physical disabilities, they each receive about $1,200 a month in Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). With more than half their incomes going to rent, they’re not certain how long they can stay in the duplex as prices keep rising.

Hernandez, 49, and Sanchez, 70, were born and raised in Oak Cliff and have lived in Dallas or surrounding suburbs all their lives. Their path to becoming roommates is one that’s familiar to people living on the economic margins. Forced to move because of gentrification, they’ve scrambled to find a secure home in a city where affordable housing is scarce. The places they can afford are most likely either in bad shape, in crime-ridden neighborhoods or both.

Options like boarding homes offer refuge for those down on their luck and looking for housing, but living conditions at these facilities are often terrible, and recent city efforts to regulate boarding homes could limit options even more. The situation has grown so bad that the two lifelong Dallasites might be forced to leave the only city they’ve ever known.

A group called Fighting Homelessness and its founder, Lisa Marshall, have been helping them and others navigate it all. “This is the reality of what’s out there, and you see what it is. It’s horrible,” Marshall said.

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Alecia Sanchez talks with Lisa Mitchell.
Nathan Hunsinger
Less Than Optimistic

Hernandez and Sanchez each sat on their own twin mattresses as advocates with Fighting Homelessness moved their belongings into the duplex on Nov. 17. It was the first place they could call their own since being priced out of their separate apartments nearly six months earlier.

They had been living at the Oakridge Apartments on North Marsalis Avenue in Oak Cliff and hadn’t met until new owners bought the complex and raised their rent. That’s when volunteers with Fighting Homelessness offered to help find them a new place. Previously, Sanchez would probably have laughed at the suggestion to move in with Hernandez, but they’ve been through a lot in the last few months and have come to know each other along the way.

“If I didn’t know him, he wouldn’t be with me,” Sanchez said of Hernandez. She said they were considering getting a divider for the room so they could have more privacy.

One of the things Hernandez likes about the new place is that it has a laundry room. At the group home where they had lived before, Hernandez said, “I would have to walk like, not a mile, but a couple of blocks down [to do laundry]. Being arthritic and the sidewalk being all lopsided and cracked up and stuff, I would twist my leg.”

The two are happy to be at the new place, but they’re nervous about the future. Hernandez is not optimistic. “That’s what me and Alecia always talk about. It’s not going to get better,” Hernandez said.

To help cover their rent, they’ve applied for housing vouchers from both the Dallas Housing Authority and Housing First, the lead homelessness response organization for Dallas and Collin counties. But the demand for vouchers is high and resources are limited, and they’re still waiting for a response. With the right kind of assistance and a willing landlord, they could have places of their own, but the long wait for the vouchers has made Hernandez pessimistic.

“As fast as the city allowed the wealthy people to just come in and get that property and throw us out, they could have at least checked us, that we were on time with our rent,” Hernandez said. “They could have at least said ‘These people are on time, there’s no complaints or nothing.’ They should’ve tried to help us out. No, they just threw us out.”

Both of his parents were laborers. His father worked in construction and his mother was a housekeeper, and the family moved often. He remembers having to move from the apartment complex his family was living in 1988 because it was going to be demolished. The family then rented their first house in Oak Cliff, but the management company they were renting from sold the property to someone who wanted to remodel it. They moved into another apartment complex after that. This kind of thing happened to the family again and again, Hernandez said.

“They’ve never been evicted or anything,” Hernandez said. “There’s the problem of being forced to move out because of places being sold, or, you know, something’s always happening. So, they’re always having to find somewhere to stay.” These days the cheapest place they could find was a trailer park in the city, but it, too, is becoming increasingly unaffordable for his parents.

Hernandez was about to turn 27 when he got an apartment with his girlfriend in East Dallas. She was employed at a retail store, and he was working temp jobs in warehouses. They had a daughter in March 2001. A few months later, Hernandez had a stroke that paralyzed his left side and robbed him of vision in his left eye. He’s been legally blind since then.

Hernandez couldn’t work anymore. His partner was still working, caring for their newborn daughter and helping Hernandez as he pushed through rehab, learning how to function again, but the couple grew apart and ended up separating. He moved in with his parents, staying with them as he worked to recover from his stroke.

Around 2005, he signed a six-month lease on an apartment in Oak Cliff, but he said he gets bored easily and likes a change of scenery, so at the end of the lease, he moved into a new place. He was subsisting on Social Security benefits he started to receive after the stroke.

In 2008 he was diagnosed with arthritis in his knees, which restricts his steps to just a few inches. In 2010, he moved into another place in Oak Cliff, at Lancaster Avenue and East Seventh Street. He liked the complex and stayed there for years, but, he said, the area started to change and he started to feel unsafe. So, in 2015 he moved into a place at Ewing Avenue and East Seventh Street. That area, too, started to feel unsafe. He said his neighbors would have wild parties, and he suspected some were up to criminal activity. In 2020, he moved into the Oakridge Apartments, where he became neighbors with Sanchez.

Sanchez had been at Oakridge Apartments since 2006. In 1971 she married her first husband, but they divorced less than two years later, and she moved in with her family, who had just bought a house in Oak Cliff. A few years later, she met her future second husband. They were together for 20 years before they married in 1998.

They had their own house in Oak Cliff until he died in 2004. As the surviving spouse, she continued to receive her husband's SSDI benefits, and she spent a couple of years living with her niece before moving into the Oakridge Apartments in 2006. When she first moved in, rent was $615 a month, but under the new owners it nearly doubled. The last job she had was as an assistant manager at a nursing home in Lancaster. Before that, she was working at a local restaurant. Eventually she was diagnosed with diabetes, arthritis and kidney failure, all of which prevented her from holding a job.

The Oakridge Apartments were nice, she said. But over time, the place got worse. Management would ignore maintenance requests, she said, and residents feared retaliation if they complained.

Then, last summer, notices were posted on their doors informing them that the complex was being renovated. They’d need to keep up with rent increases or find a new home.

After the Oakridge Apartments, the only place Hernandez and Sanchez could afford in the area was El Shaddai Bed and Board, which is registered as a group residential facility with the city. Although it’s not technically a boarding home, El Shaddai essentially functions as one. (One issue confronting the City Council early this year as it discussed new regulations for boarding homes is that there are different kinds of facilities that essentially do the same thing but aren’t licensed as boarding homes.)

They each paid $650 a month to stay there. Each got a small unit equipped with air conditioning and a bathroom with just a toilet and sink. They shared the facility’s only working shower with the 15 other residents. Sanchez said the place was nice enough, but she hated sharing the shower and said maintenance requests were ignored. The toilet in her unit, for example, was never secured to the floor, and she would often worry about falling off and injuring herself.

Although Hernandez and Sanchez started to feel unsafe at El Shaddai, they had no choice but to stay there and wait for Fighting Homelessness to find another place they could afford.

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John O’Callahan offers Hector Hernandez some renter's advice.
Nathan Hunsinger
Hernandez said his room often felt like a prison cell. The facility is sectioned into six zones, each with a different-colored hallway and rooms on either side. Hernandez and Sanchez had rooms along the lime-green hallway. Other than cameras at the end of each zone, Hernandez said, there’s no security at El Shaddai, and he’d sometimes hear people fighting outside his room as he tried to sleep at night.

“People would come in and out throughout the night,” he said. “I would listen to people walking through the hallway, just listening. Nah, I didn’t feel safe.”

Hernandez and Sanchez watched out for one another at El Shaddai. At night, Hernandez would tell her to lock her door and not answer unless he came knocking. They got better acquainted as they looked for housing.

Marshall, who started Fighting Homelessness, said she saw all of this coming. She knew this part of town was being gentrified and predicted that as soon as someone else bought the Oakridge Apartments the tenants living there would be at risk of becoming homeless.

When the complex went up for sale, she tried to get the city involved. She warned that without intervention the tenants would likely become homeless. She hoped the city would be able to give Hernandez and Sanchez vouchers. Instead, the city offered some alternative housing options, but many were out of their price ranges, especially without vouchers. The others were too far away from family and services they rely on. On top of that, they had no way of paying for things like application fees and security deposits. They were out of luck and running out of hope.

Unlike Sanchez, Hernandez didn’t think too highly of El Shaddai. He said he had a bad feeling about the place when he first set foot inside. He said the place had a foul smell, and he thought it was starting to have a pest problem.

“It just wasn’t worth it,” he said. “I was spending more money cleaning the showers.”

They stayed there for nearly four months. Hernandez would try to check in on Sanchez every day and would often spend time with her in her room. Every now and then, he said he’d hear gunshots on the streets near the property. He felt unsafe anytime he’d walk to a nearby store for groceries.

Advocates with Fighting Homelessness were trying to get Hernandez into the duplex where they now reside, but he wasn’t sure he’d be able to afford it on his own without a voucher. The alternatives were staying at El Shaddai or moving in with his parents and niece, who occupy a single-bedroom trailer in Dallas.

While at El Shaddai, Sanchez considered moving farther away from Dallas and her doctors, but worried her care would suffer. She started talking to Hernandez about it, and that’s when Hernandez pitched an idea. Why don’t they both move into the duplex? It would be a tight squeeze, but it would be better than the alternatives.

“They have a very shitty circumstance, and they’re just doing the best they can.” - Lisa Marshall, Fighting Homelessness

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The Observer tagged along with Marshall and a few volunteers with Fighting Homelessness as they moved Hernandez’s and Sanchez’s belongings from the El Shaddai to their new duplex.

Sylvia Hendrix, the owner of El Shaddai, was upset that we went into her place and took photos and videos without her knowledge. She said we wouldn’t have done so if the group home was in a white neighborhood. “If it was University Park, you wouldn’t have done that,” Hendrix said. “Y’all only come to hurt people.”

Hendrix believed that Marshall was intent on seeing her property come under new ownership and that the Observer was aiding this effort. She said someone with the city stopped by the property the same day Hernandez and Sanchez moved out, and that someone contacted the City Council about her facility.

She’s determined to keep running the place. “All of this is a setup,” she said. “The City Council and the city came by that same afternoon when y’all left. And the people that live there, I was not there, but they told me that that’s what it is. So, sir, I don’t know. But I’ve got to fight for myself and I’ve got to fight for those people.

“I’m going to fight for that building. I’m going to fight for those people to stay there. If y’all want to take some property, y’all better go find somewhere else.”

The Observer, of course, has no interest in who owns Hendrix’s property, but that doesn’t mean she’s necessarily wrong about the threats coming her way. The last time City Hall made a major push to improve the quality of rental homes for poor people was around seven years ago.In that round, the city targeted property owners it called “slumlords” in West Dallas and South Dallas, demanding the owners improve the quality of their rental houses, some of which were renting for around $500 a month. The landlords pushed back, arguing that bringing their properties up to newer, tighter codes would require higher rents. Their homes might wind up in better shape, but many of the tenants wouldn’t be able to afford to live in them. One landlord opted instead to sell his properties to his renters.

Dallas officials know there are quality of life issues at places like El Shaddai, and part of the problem in regulating them is that they’re not all registered the same way. El Shaddai, for example, is considered a group residential facility, so the city’s rules for boarding homes don’t apply to it. This was brought up in City Council and committee meetings over the last year in the run-up to the council’s approval in February of new rules for boarding homes.

The rules came in response to state legislation enacted in 2021 that increased fines for people operating boarding homes illegally. The council updated its ordinance to increase the fines and began to consider an overhaul of the city’s boarding home rules.

Dallas has some 180 registered boarding homes, according to the director of code compliance, Christopher Christian. City Council District 8, which is represented by Tennell Atkins, has 63. City Council member Carolyn King Arnold’s District 4 is home to 36 boarding homes.

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Alecia Sanchez and Hector Hernandez became unlikely roomates after facing an affordable housing crisis.
Jacob Vaughn
No Easy Answers

City Council members and staff wanted to find ways to deal with boarding homes that aren’t in compliance with city code and to protect tenants from retaliation if they complain. Some City Council members also worried about what would happen if they were too heavy-handed on boarding homes and ended up shutting some down.

“I worry about the people in the gray area … the bad [boarding homes] we’ve heard about,” City Council member Chad West said during a meeting last April. “I guess those residents, if there’s an issue, they’re probably too scared to reach out because they may not have anywhere else. They’ll be homeless if they’ve lost that. I don’t really have a solution for that. It’s just a gap that concerns me.”

Council member Adam McGough shared similar thoughts. “This council wants to really strongly support restrictions against unauthorized, illegal houses where the conditions that are mentioned are absolutely atrocious and people are being warehoused,” he said. “At the same time, we’re trying to navigate an increasing homeless number where [displacement] is absolutely an issue.”

No one seemed to have an answer about what to do about displacement, but the council still wanted to find ways to improve the homes. Dallas also didn’t have any rules about how close boarding rooms could be to each other.

The rules the council passed in February require owners to provide residents with refrigerators of a certain size and access to kitchens with a stove or microwave. They also require owners to post information about their tenants’ rights and responsibilities, including language stating that retaliation against residents is prohibited. In addition, the new rules require a distance of 1,000 feet between boarding homes. Before the council voted to approve the new rules, District 12 City Council member Cara Mendelsohn suggested that 1,000 feet between each boarding home was not enough.

That’s when City Council member Omar Narvaez, who represents District 6, suggested 2,000 feet instead. He said at the meeting that West Dallas and Northwest Dallas are inundated with boarding homes. “People need homes, and we all understand that,” he said at the meeting. “But at the same time, there should be a little bit higher scrutiny on them just because of what’s going on as far as the people that are ending up in these types of facilities. And the general public has zero ability to do anything about it.”

City Council member Adam Bazaldua of District 7 asked the code compliance director at the meeting whether the city had any data to suggest there were density issues regarding boarding homes. Christian said the city had no such data. Despite this, the new distance requirement was unanimously approved, and the new set of rules for boarding homes was passed by the City Council. The new regulations also require each boarding home to have its own license and impose a penalty of $2,000 and/or 180 days in jail for falling out of compliance.

Hernandez and Sanchez have been living in the duplex with each other for months now. They’re still happy to be out of El Shaddai, but they’d be lying if they said it didn’t feel like a tight squeeze at the duplex.

They’re not sure if they’ll ever get housing vouchers, so they’re still looking for options outside of Dallas.

Hernandez said he and his parents are considering moving to Wellington, about a four-hour drive northwest of Dallas, where they might be able to find a cheaper place. Sanchez said she’s not sure yet where else she could go, but she’d like to have her own place again by Christmas.

Marshall said she thinks the two could still make living together work. Sometimes they argue with one another but they always make up, she said. If they can wait, she’s hoping to find an apartment for them in the near future where they could at least have their own rooms. “They have a very shitty circumstance, and they’re just doing the best they can,” she said.
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Jacob Vaughn, a former Brookhaven College journalism student, has written for the Observer since 2018, first as clubs editor. More recently, he's been in the news section as a staff writer covering City Hall, the Dallas Police Department and whatever else editors throw his way.
Contact: Jacob Vaughn

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