Walk down North Marsalis Avenue and you’ll pass by James Bowie Elementary School, smell what’s cooking at Dallas Tortilla and Tamale Factory and see a handful of places just like the Oakridge Apartments. If you asked the tenants there, they’ll tell you the living conditions haven’t been the best or anywhere close to it.
But its better than being homeless, or at least that was the case until the apartments were sold to an institutional investor, said Lisa Marshall, a homelessness advocate who started an advocacy group called Fighting Homelessness and has been working with Oakridge residents at 515 N. Marsalis Ave.
Tenants there generally paid between $600-$700 for rent. That’s a steal in this market until you consider tenants complaints about gas leaks, rats and the alleged unwillingness of management to respond to complaints.
For a long time, tenants at places like the Oakridge knew not to complain or understood their complaints would go unheard, Marshall said. There, the application fee is about $75. The application itself is only a page, she said. They don’t do background checks. They don’t even check renters’ histories. If you can pay the fee and the monthly bills, you’re in. It’s that easy. Living there, though, is a different story.
There’s kind of been a kind of devil’s bargain: Poor people need a place to live. Some landlords have places people with little money can afford as long as the landlords don’t have to fix them up.
“There are people with pickled pasts,” Marshall said. “They know that and the way they get by with it is they just don’t fix anything. When there’s nobody regulating low-low income, then they like it this way because then they’re not pushed out.”
The conditions likely wouldn’t have changed at 515 N. Marsalis in the foreseeable future, and prices likely would have hovered somewhere around affordable for the people living there. That may not be the case now that the complex is under new management.
Marshall said this is one of the results of institutional buyers gobbling up properties across the country, including in Dallas.
The National Association of Realtors put out a report in May that looked at the effects these “institutional buyers” have on home sales and single-family rentals. It found that investors made 52% of 2021 home purchases in Tarrant County and 43% in Dallas County. The report defined “institutional buyers” as companies, corporations or limited liability companies. Indio Management, which now owns the Oakridge apartments, falls under one of those categories.
The effects companies like Indio have on the housing market have sparked a Congressional investigation. Jenny Schuetz, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institute’s Metropolitan Policy Program, spoke to a Congressional subcommittee about the effects of investors’ buying up affordable housing.
“We’ve been talking today about the single-family rental market, but we also know that institutional investors are buying multifamily rental buildings that are older, often doing a rehab, and then raising the rents on them,” Schuetz said. “If public entities or nonprofits were to acquire those apartment buildings and put them under longterm affordability, that would increase the affordable stock and do it very quickly.”
Companies like Indio, which didn’t respond to requests for comment, are buying them instead. Indio Management was incorporated in 2011 when it bought its first property. Over the next 10 years, it came to manage some 10,000 units, including those at Oakridge.
Indio has been sued before by a tenant who used to live at one of their other properties, The Centennial on Lake Avenue in Dallas. According to court documents, the tenant claimed they were on a lease, paying $700 a month and a separate $20 fee for utilities. The tenant claimed in court that while they were still under their lease, Indio started charging more for rent and introducing new fees.
Investors are doing things like this across the country, according to witnesses who testified as part of the Congressional investigation. The Centennial tenant eventually sued Indio for breaching the lease, but the suit was dismissed after the tenant failed to show up to court.
Eventually, Indio bought the Oakridge apartments and started making changes that would push out residents like 48-year-old Hector Hernandez.
Hernandez is a blind, on a fixed income and now needs a new place to live. He’s lived at the Oakridge Apartments for about a year. There was too much crime and too many murders where he used to live, he said. That’s what brought him to Oakridge.
There, Hernandez said, he usually has to make three service requests before anything gets fixed. “The first time I complained was about a rat infestation,” he recalled.
“I guess the rats chewed through the wall and would come in through the water heater.” – Hector Hernandez, Oakridge apartments resident
“I guess the rats chewed through the wall and would come in through the water heater,” he said. “These days, the bath tub, every time I shower, it floods up. So, I have to use a plunger and do it myself. I can’t let them know. You know what I’m saying? We’re supposed to be leaving anyways, so …”
Then, there was the gas leak. “I thought I was getting a sore throat,” he said. That was until Marshall showed up and said she smelled gas.
“We called the fire department and, sure enough, they shut everything off,” Marshall said. “They wanted to open windows so that the gas would dissipate. You can’t even open the windows. They’ve all been painted so many times and calked so many times. So, he just had to come out here and just let his apartment air out.”
Hernandez’s mom stops by every month to visit him and drop off his rent check. One day, she found a note posted to Hernandez’s door. It said the complex was under new management that was going to rehab the place. Hernandez was free to reapply for a lease, but prices would skyrocket to something close to market rate. Now, he’s trying to find a new place to live. His parents live in Dallas in a two bedroom trailer. He can stay there for a couple weeks. Then, he needs to find something permanent. Otherwise, he’ll be homeless.
The tenants living at places like Oakridge and similar properties, Marshall said, will soon be part of a new wave of homelessness in the city. She held the handout from new management with the new rates. “All of these require way more income than they make because they’re on fixed [Supplemental Security Income] or [Social Security Disability Insurance] income, so they can’t make any more money,” she said. “This is going to be the newest and fastest growing population for homelessness.”
In 2020, Marshall said she figured the Oakridge Apartments would see some revitalization, so she started reaching out to the city to see if it could somehow keep the place accessible to people considered low-income.
“That just kind of went on deaf ears, and we just never moved forward with that,” she said. The building went under contract in 2021 and eventually sold. Around this time is when Marshall began working with the tenants to try to get management to fix things like the rat infestation, the gas leaks and other “horrific living conditions” they were living in.
The new management refused initially but dealt with some of the issues after pressure from the city and code compliance officers.
In July, the work was apparent. Holes along the exterior of the apartment complex building were patched up with small cuts of wood. “That’s supposed to keep the rats out,” Marshall said, pointing to the patch job. “But the rats are already in the building. I mean, it’s infested with them.”
Earlier this year, Marshall and residents from the complex spoke to the City Council to explain some of the problems.
“They don’t even have money to move somewhere, much less deposits and application fees.” – Lisa Marshall, Fighting Homelessness
The new management said the tenants had a few months to look for a new place or reapply. Rent would go up from about $650 a month to anywhere between $1,200 and $1,400. To qualify, tenants must make three times the rent. “None of them could do that. None of them made that kind of money,” Marshall said. “So, they knew that was a moot point. They were not going to move back here.
“That’s when we were like, ‘If they’re going to pay $650 or $675, they should not have rats. They should not have gas leaks,’” she said. “As soon as we started putting pressure to have those things fixed and eradicated, they were sending them eviction notices.”
Verbally and in written notices, the tenants have been asked to leave, Marshall said.
“We’ve failed them by not helping them out while they were living in horrible conditions, and then we didn’t help them get out of these conditions,” Marshall said. “Now, they’re homeless.
“They don’t even have money to move somewhere, much less deposits and application fees. They have to have someone help them with that, and the city just didn’t do that.”
Places like 515 N. Marsalis are “just getting gobbled up by new people who want to flip it,” Marshall said.
“I know that that’s great for the district, and it’s good for the economy, but we are forcing a whole other population of people to the streets,” she said. “You may take two from the encampment. You’re going to get six from a low-income housing that we just forced out of there.”
She referenced the city’s new line of incentives for developers to build affordable housing. It includes an option for developers to pay into a fund dedicated to building affordable housing instead of actually building it in their developments.
Marshall said maybe some of that money should also go toward helping relocate residents who are being displaced or toward fixing up the places where they’re already living. “I don’t know what the answer is,” she said. “I just know that there’s going to be a lot more of this and we don’t have any plans for them.”
Chad West, the City Council member who represents the neighborhood where Oakridge is located, said the city offered the help it could to Oakridge residents. “This property has been an issue over the years, a code compliance nightmare,” West said over the phone on Wednesday.
Now that it’s being renovated, West said he thinks the complex will stay in the realm of affordability, but he knows that some people living there now are going to be pushed out. “That is a reality for this particular property,” he said.
“For this particular group of tenants, we have our bridge to assist folks who have nowhere else to go — the Office of Community Care,” West said.
These folks, he said, are usually making somewhere in the range of 10-30% of the average income in Dallas. “There’s not enough of that housing in the city or even in the region,” West said.
He said the Office of Community Care has been working with these tenants to try to get them relocated, and they’ve provided options. The challenge is, the housing may be in Farmers Branch or Grand Prairie, not in Dallas, closer to where they work, West said.
Marshall shared emails between her and the city regarding the Oakridge residents. Most of the residents were looking to pay somewhere in the $700 range for rent. About half of them were referred to a place called Strawberry Creek Outreach Center, which charges $650 a month for fully furnished units and all bills paid. Others were connected with county rental assistance resources and told the city’s case workers would continue to be at their disposal.
“Anything in developing areas like North Oak Cliff or other parts of Dallas are at risk of losing housing stock.” – Chad West, City Council
These options aren’t the most ideal, but it’s what the city has to offer, West said. “This is a bigger, more systemic problem.” Situations like what’s happening at the Oakridge apartment complex have shown West that while there may be services and resources for people who become homeless, there’s not enough to keep them from becoming homeless in the first place.
Some form of rent control could help, but that’s not allowed in Texas.
“Even states like Mississippi and Kentucky have it and we don’t,” he said. So, the only answer is to try to help facilitate the building of housing for them. “Anything in developing areas like North Oak Cliff or other parts of Dallas are at risk of losing housing stock,” he said.
That’s why West said it’s important that as more of these properties go market rate, the city helps create workforce housing. The challenge with that is overcoming NIMBYism. So, the question is, West said, “How are we going to educate our community to be willing to accept more of those types of communities and individuals?”
Marshall also thinks more should be done to crack down on predatory investors and landlords. “The landlords have all of the rights here,” Marshall said, and it’ll take legislation to change that.
“If you’re going to buy a building like this and you’re going to displace people, you should have to pay for their relocation,” she said. “If you’re going to reap the benefits of all of the new rent rates and all that, why can’t you help the people that you’re pushing out? Right now, it’s on the tax dollars. We’re having to do that. Why are we letting landlords come in and reap the benefits and the taxpayers have to pay for it?”