Austin: Tenants Living in Squalor since Winter Storm Fight for Demands

By Josefina Morales

Tenants of Mount Carmel Apartments in East Austin have started to organize against inhumane living conditions and voice demands to the management and ownership of the complex, which is one of several apartment complexes in the area facing persisting disruptions in utilities since the capitalist crisis following the extreme winter storm last month. Tenants have been without heat, hot water, and the ability to cook since February 20, and recent disruptions to water have compounded their struggle to take care of their children and elderly family members.

City of Austin Code Enforcement notified the owners of the complex over one month ago of the infractions, but since the notice, management has avoided tenants’ questions and requests for information. Eureka Management, the company who owns the complex, has reversed itself on timelines for gas restoration while refusing to acknowledge the tenants’ concerns of rent, repairs, safety, and their relocation.

On March 22, Jennifer Guerra, vice president of Eureka, sent a letter explaining that tenants must relocate immediately, as the replacement of the gas line will take up to 90 days to complete. The letter also states that tenants are not entitled to prorated rent or to relocation help if they choose to terminate their lease.

Some tenants have tried out the hotel rooms offered by management, but report unsanitary and unsafe conditions, not to mention a lack of assistance for elderly and disabled tenants. “Most of the elderly can’t leave, they don’t know what is going on,” one tenant told Tribune. “We go check on our elderly, we go check on each other because that’s what we do as a community.”

Tenants are struggling with heightened food insecurity, spending extra money for fast food to sustain their families. Many tenants didn’t accept Eureka’s electric camp stoves because they felt that it was a trap to penalize them further. Others are relying on microwaves and borrowed electric stoves to heat small amounts of water for dishes, mopping, and “bird baths” for their children.

A primary concern is their children’s safety, and their ability to keep attending school remotely. Management was reported to have told tenants to “go to the YMCA for a shower” in response to their outrage over unsanitary temporary showers.

Construction work on the complex’s gas line

Mount Carmel management has begun trying to intimidate tenants, hiring a private security firm to patrol the complex and eject outsiders, and threatened to call the cops on friends attempting to deliver food to tenants in addition to tearing down flyers for a new tenants’ council which some members of the community are forming. “It honestly feels like a concentration camp,” one tenant with children and other relatives living at Mt. Carmel told Tribune.

Tenants are working on a petition at the suggestion of a local housing non-profit BASTA (Building and Strengthening Tenant Action), but don’t hold much hope for real solutions to be achieved through legal channels. Several leaders say their primary demand is the safe, fair relocation as a group at no cost to tenants and, secondly, the repair of all longstanding and current infrastructure and safety issues, and are preparing to fight if Eureka does not meet their demands.

During a meeting led by BASTA on Tuesday evening, many tenants walked out, and others voiced clear confusion and dissatisfaction with the lack of answers, direct resources, and plan of action. Many tenants are refusing to pay rent, and some have voiced demands to oust Jaramillo, have their rent prorated back to February, and launch a general improvement of the safety of the complex.

As one tenant explained, “We’ve been coming together as a community to get our voices heard, you know, to be treated fairly. This should have been fixed years ago, even before I came nine years ago. We’re being put in danger, period. Treat us like we’re equals—[the owners] wouldn’t live in these conditions that we’re living in. We’re not asking for much.”

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