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There is some good news to add to the bad-news tale I shared earlier this week about low-income residents getting kicked out of an Old East Dallas apartment complex.
The tenants at Bryan Song Apartments, preparing for its inevitable high-end makeover, won’t have to be out by Feb. 10, as their notices to vacate said when delivered by the new management two weeks before Christmas. David Eitches, whose development company bought the rundown complex last month, said these words to me when I called Thursday evening to see if he’d come off his original deadline: "They have up to 120 days from Dec. 10," Eitches said. "That’s for sure."
I asked several times to be clear, to get his promise on the record. Because those words will serve as some small measure of comfort to Bryan Song residents.
Many of them hold federal housing vouchers and have yet to find places willing to accept them because this cruel state allows landlords to turn away people who need help paying their rent. Many of the residents, too, are elderly and infirm; for them, 60 days might as well be 60 seconds.
None of the Bryan Song tenants — many of whom rallied Tuesday afternoon for news cameras that briefly broadcast their wrenching plight — knew of Eitches’ extension Thursday when I left Bryan Song. Neither did the woman who runs City Hall’s Fair Housing office, who dispatched a dozen workers to the complex Thursday to assess the grim situation.
I relayed the news to Sandy Rollins, executive director of the Texas Tenants’ Union. She was relieved — "a good step forward" — but not exactly pleased.
Rollins wants more for those who have almost nothing, save for a few belongings and small Supplemental Security Income checks and federal housing vouchers. She wants the new owner to provide relocation fees. But Eitches said residents would receive "up to $200 once they turn over the unit," and nothing more. And they’ll have to pay rent until the bitter end, no exceptions.
Without Rollins, this would’ve been another of the countless tales of displacement gone untold in a city where other Bryan Songs are emptied and flattened at breakneck speed. I told her this city would never have noticed what’s happening here had she not called a news conference.
"The tenants at Bryan Song would have noticed," she said. "The children would have noticed. The homeless shelters would have noticed."
Most of the residents have lived here for a long time — some for more than a decade. A few have found places, among them Peov Reouth, who is 66 years old — "and three months," she said with great pride. She came to Dallas from Cambodia in 1985 and shares an apartment with her 93-year-old mother. Reouth doesn’t want to move but found a new place on Gaston Avenue, which she will split with her 78-year-old neighbor Neang Chan. I asked how they found it.
"She just walked and looked for it," said Kimberly Nam, a Dallas Police Department translator who, coincidentally, knew these women when she was a little girl.
Chan works two jobs to pay for these places, both in dry cleaning. She showed us her hands and arms scarred by years of working with the solution.
"Just walked," Reouth said. "And walked."
Odette Edwards and Gerald Miller, too, found new places. But they haven’t yet left, in part because they tend to Bryan Song’s elderly and disabled. Edwards is a 50-year-old black woman on a housing voucher, Miller a 60-year-old white man from Pleasant Grove who lives with a woman he met long ago in Narcotics Anonymous.
Miller pointed to the garden next to the barbecue pit he dug into the desiccated courtyard. In spring and summer, he said, "We hang out here, and everyone’s welcome to the tomatoes and peppers I grow here."
"We’re like a little family," Edwards said. "We take care of each other."
One of the tenants they keep watch over is Soun Yath, a Cambodian woman confined to an electric wheelchair after a long-ago motorcycle accident left her a shadow of the vibrant woman seen in photos throughout her dark, dirty apartment. Yath cannot speak for herself. Nam found her name on a bill stuffed into a plastic bag.
Conditions in this complex, built in 1955, are dreadful. A woman named Dionne Lee said she has seen "rats as big as cats" stalking her apartment, which she shares with her two teenage boys and a 3-year-old grandson. But they still don’t want to leave.
"Because I can walk everywhere," said Lee, a Katrina evacuee living on Social Security. Bryan Song is her fourth complex since moving here: The others, in Oak Lawn and East Dallas, have been razed and remodeled, too — a wearying version of Groundhog Day. Lee had hoped to stay here longer, if only so her boys, 17 and 14, can finish at North Dallas High School. They walk to and from the campus every day — a 2-mile trek each way — no matter the weather.
"I love the area," Lee said, as we stood on Bryan Street. Her grandson Alfred bounced a basketball; her little dog Casper warmed in the afternoon sun. Across the street, kids at the Uplift Peak charter school played soccer. Some stopped to wave and say hi.
Folks all over the neighborhood know Dionne and the kids, including Jeff White, who runs the meat counter at Jimmy’s Food Store two blocks away.
"It’s awful what’s happening down there," White said. He grew up in this neighborhood — went to nearby Alex W. Spence for middle school and has seen the old in Old East Dallas quickly erased in recent years, as new and expensive things take root where tumbledown complexes once stood.
"I mean, I get it — you bought the place, it’s yours," White said as stood at the counter Thursday, lamenting displacements all over this neighborhood in the last four years. "But you bought it knowing people are there. What’s the right thing to do?"
The city is powerless to do anything. Fair Housing was here for intel, to take names and find out who’s on a voucher and who has a place and who’s stuck and who’s scared. Sandy Rollins wants the City Council to pass an ordinance protecting tenants. City Manager T.C. Broadnax said Friday that’s worth looking into, maybe as part of the new housing policy.
Said Broadnax, "It’s something we’re open to."
Which is good. A start. Finally. But hurry. Because this is happening all over this city. Every day. Right now.
"They’re building, so they’re pushing," Edwards said before we parted ways, "Pushing us out."