UPDATE, 12:07 p.m. Dec. 7: Representatives of Silver Tree Residential, owner of Estelle Village LLC, did not respond to the Observer's requests for comments for this story until after it was published Nov. 30. They contend the company is being unfairly blamed for problems that long predate their recent purchase of the property from the Dallas Housing Authority. A letter from the company with a detailed response is below.
Residents in three low-income housing projects formerly managed by the Dallas Housing Authority say their complaints about poor maintenance and unsafe living conditions have been met not with repairs, but draconian regulations enforced by private security they believe are intended to drive them out of their homes.
The authority, they say, abandoned tenants when it transferred management and then sold the properties to a for-profit company earlier this year. A group of tenants alleges new owner Estelle Village LLC, whose owner is based in Tennessee and manages Section 8 housing in 26 states, is deaf to their complaints.
On Nov. 5, Tramonica Brown was working in a Section 8 housing project not far from the Barack Obama Male Leadership Academy in Dallas’ Highland Hills neighborhood. She was canvassing for a free turkey drive sponsored by the anti-police brutality group she founded, Not My Son, and arrived at the apartments locals call “the Pinks,” whose real name is either Estell or Estelle Village, depending on where you look. By any name, you probably wouldn’t have heard of them unless you live in the Highland Hills neighborhood near Paul Quinn College.
Estelle Village is a product of a previous era of public housing — drab, barracks-like buildings spread across a relatively barren patch of land. All of the residents are low-income and most are Black. It is one of three projects DHA sold as a group in July. Of the three, at least two of the projects have become sites of tenant-organized protests regarding management. The privatization of these public housing projects is a part of a broader national shift in public housing management driven by years of funding cuts that allows public housing to be converted to privately managed housing funded by Section 8 vouchers, which pay part of tenants’ rent.
While there, Brown says, she saw resident Jacqueline McMaryion receive a lease violation for standing outside.
“A ton of people came out. It was a big scene,” Brown says.
“The security was trying to get me out of the public area,” McMaryion says. “They also gave me a lease violation previously because it smelled like marijuana in the breezeway outside of my door, but it didn’t smell like that in my apartment."
McMaryion, a mother who has lived in Estelle Village for five years, believes management is trying to get rid of residents like her who have complained about their apartments being run down and vermin-infested. She opened her doors to the Observer, and the conditions inside her apartment were shocking. The smell and sight of black mold are immediately apparent; the ventilation system is in disrepair; smoke detectors are missing or inoperable.
“There is a hole in my closet wall where rats get into my apartment,” says McMaryion, who claims her home also is infested with roaches and bedbugs.
Rhonda, an Estelle Village tenant who spoke after we agreed not to give her full name, says she faces similar conditions in her home, along with multiple incidents of flooding and her oven catching fire.
“We are not allowed to fix these problems on our own,” McMaryion says. “We have to call in a work order, but they tell me they don’t have my work orders.” Both DHA and the owners have not returned her calls. (A copy of an Estelle Village's lease agreement confirms that no aspect of the apartment may be changed by the tenant and to do so without the written consent of the property management would constitute a lease violation.)
McMaryion is just one of many residents at Estelle Village who have spoken out about living conditions, policy changes and aggressive citations for lease violations. They’ve also made allegations of harassment by members of the private security firm hired to patrol the property. Multiple residents at Estelle Village have accused security guards of intimidation and racism. (Attempts to identify the security company were unsuccessful.)
“They are saying we can’t hang out on our steps or in our breezeways, calling it loitering,” says Estelle Village resident Amanda Vandergriff, who has lived there for two years. “There are no common areas for adults to hang out."
Vandergriff says she has been threatened with a lease violation for playing a radio outside while her children played during the day, which the lease rules suggest would violate other residents’ right to quiet.
Another sore point has been a new requirement for residents to show a driver’s license to receive a parking pass, something that is not specifically required by Texas law.
State code says a landlord "may require a tenant to provide only the make, model, color, year, license number, and state of registration of the vehicle to be parked."
“There are a lot of elderly people here who have a car registered to their name and address but don’t drive it, they have someone else drive them around,” says Vandergriff. Tenant organizers and residents tell the Observer that the management is requiring a valid driver's license, registration and proof of insurance. They also never gave a written notice about the parking pass rule change, which is also something required in the state code.
Residents say these new rules have resulted in cars being towed and the issuance of at least two requests to vacate to residents who have received multiple lease violations. Other changes have also been unwelcomed, including the placement of a police surveillance tower in the center of the property and the welding shut of all entrances and exits except for one. Much of this amounts to ghetto-like conditions: a segregated environment where the movement of residents is highly monitored and heavily restricted.
But many problems at Estelle Village don't appear new; the mold, pest infestation and disrepair witnessed by the Observer could not have materialized in less than four months. Many residents say the quality of life has long been an issue, and DHA was not particularly responsive to their requests.
Representatives from DHA declined to comment on the properties, saying they are no longer under their management, despite the fact that recipients of Section 8 vouchers are still their clients. Attempts to contact Estelle Village's corporate owner for comment did not get a reply.
Frustrated with a lack of response, Vandergriff reached out to Dallas Stops Evictions, a coalition of activist groups formed in August just before the end of the COVID-19 eviction moratorium, after reading about their efforts to organize residents against evictions at another apartment complex. With the help of Dallas Stops Evictions activists, Vandergriff began organizing other Estelle Village residents into an informal tenants association. Their work canvassing, documenting conditions and compiling lease violations culminated in a list of 24 demands.
On Oct. 23, Vandergriff delivered the demands to the management’s office with a Dallas Stops Evictions organizer and assured the management that further action would be taken if there was not a meaningful response.
On Nov. 13, a protest organized by the Estelle Village tenants association was livestreamed on Facebook by Word On Da Street W/ Judah, an independent online news show focusing on issues in Dallas’ Black community. After holding a brief news conference to state their demands, the group delivered them in writing to the property management office. Another protest held Nov. 17 delivered the same set of demands to the property management office and to the empty office of District 8 City Council member Tennell Atkins, where the group taped their list of demands to the door.
Three days later, Atkins sent a formal response via letter to Estelle Village residents, encouraging them to reach out directly: “Our community realizes that Estelle Village Apartments have suffered years of ramped (sic) crime, threats of eviction, and basic necessities such as internet and maintenance. We have vested interest in the success and turnaround of this community in which we serve.”
Five days later, residents received a reply to their demands from the Estelle Village management that provided line-by-line responses to each demand. Ryan Ahmadian, an organizer with Dallas Stops Evictions, says residents are not happy with the responses. “These are short answers to complex issues,” Ahmadian says.
In its responses, Estelle Village LLC defends its decisions and practices, often citing issues of safety and cleanliness as well as plans to improve residents' quality of life. In other instances, the company questions the basis of the complaints.
Demands to improve the playground and lighting were rebuffed. Between promises and reassurances of plans for improvement, many responses seemed to place much of the responsibility for problems with mold and pests on the residents.
“Poor housekeeping will increase insect and rodent activity and limit the effectiveness of the pest control services,” one response reads. Regarding mold, of which there are many cases, the letter encourages residents to “report all maintenance issues to the office as you discover them in compliance with the HUD lease agreement.”
The very issues the new owner encourages residents to report could ironically result in a lease violation.
“People feel scared to complain because they are looking for reasons to evict,” McMaryion says. “A lot of people don’t have another place to go.”
McMaryion herself requested several times to relocate to a different apartment but has been told for one reason or another that is not possible, despite DHA documents showing a consistent vacancy rate of at minimum 14 units for several years. “It’s like they don’t expect us to fight,” she says.
Other facts raise questions about the company’s sincerity in engaging with its tenants. In its response to resident demands, management claims to address “misinformation” yet presents factually questionable statements. Most notably, the letter states that certain changes like welding the gates shut have reduced the number of calls to the police. A review of police incident data shows that more calls were made to the property in August and September than any previous months for several years; eight calls regarding criminal trespassing appear to have been made by the property management, according to Dallas open data records.
Silver Tree also manages Forest Green Manor and Lakewood Manor in Dallas. The management of Forest Green, which is a housing project that specializes in elderly and disabled individuals, faces similar protests and allegations.
On Sept. 11, Smash Da Topic livestreamed a protest organized by residents of Forest Green Manor complaining of discriminatory and abusive practices from the management. One man said to the camera that people are being kicked out. A woman in a wheelchair held a sign that read: “DHA Abandoned Us!” Another woman wondered aloud prophetically: “I can only imagine what Lakewood Manor and Estelle Village will be going through if we are going through this.”
Stu Becker, an organizer with Dallas Stops Evictions, sees a pattern. “It seems like a part of gentrification, like they want to get people out so they can tear them down and build more expensive units for profit,” Becker speculates.
Since 2012, housing authorities across the country have moved away from traditional public housing like Estelle Village and toward other sorts of subsidized housing vouchers as more than $12 billion in tax credits and federal assistance have been doled out to for-profit companies — multiples more than the entire budget for federally owned housing stock. Housing advocates have raised alarm about lax oversight of the program for several years and have alleged it has been used as a pretext to evict unwanted residents. A HUD internal investigation in Mississippi revealed that a local housing authority improperly evicted two dozen families amidst the privatization of their housing because an official said it smelled of marijuana in their apartments.
The parallels in Estelle Village are notable, and residents fear this pattern may repeat itself in Dallas. With little left to lose, they do not appear willing to stay silent. A statement from Dallas Stops Evictions posted on Facebook on Nov. 19 states: "We are not satisfied with the apathetic response we have received and lack of action, and therefore we are still pushing to coordinate a transparent meeting between the tenants association, Councilperson Atkins, and representatives of DHA, HUD and code compliance."
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