Austin may spend $600,000 to move tenants from crumbling complex


City Council preps for vote on $600,000 package to aid tenants as owners face possible jail for contempt.

Court hearing and relocation aid comes fives years after inspectors first identified problems with buildings.

After five years of inspections, fines and legal fights, this week might mark the end of the road for two deteriorating apartment buildings whose tenants are being relocated under a judge’s order.

The Austin City Council is expected Thursday to provide as much as $600,000 to move the tenants to housing elsewhere, marking the first time in recent years the city has sought funding to relocate families because of substandard housing. Meanwhile, the owners of the apartment buildings at 1127 and 1205 E. 52nd St. face a court hearing and possible jail for contempt of court on Friday.

“It shouldn’t take this long, and I’m glad they’re accelerating this court action the way that they have,” said Council Member Greg Casar, whose District 4 includes the complex. “If someone is living in dangerous conditions, our city needs to work faster.”

RELATED: Austin program to track, improve unsafe housing isn’t enforced, report says

The two apartment buildings have been in the cross hairs of city inspectors for years.

The building at 1127 E. 52nd St. has unrepaired fire damage, crumbling and cracked concrete stairs and supports, and a buckling joint that holds up the second-floor overhang for the building, according to records. At the neighboring building at 1205 E. 52nd St., the wood on the second-floor walkway and overhang is rotting and decaying, the rock facade of the building is cracked, and the balcony and rooftop cantilevers are damaged, city records state.

Over the last four years, the two buildings have racked up more than $800,000 in fines. City spokesman Bryce Bencivengo said the city has liens against both buildings.

In the middle of it all are more than 20 residents of the two buildings, who are by turns concerned about the conditions, worried about losing their homes, uncertain about where they will live and suspicious of City Hall’s motives.

“It’s not good at all,” said Diane Cruz, who has lived at the complex for three or four years. “Sometimes, I feel like the floor is going to fall in.”

Her boyfriend, Barry Porter, was less bothered.

“I wanted to live here because I thought it was nice and peaceful,” he said. “I’d love to stay, but it don’t look like it’s possible.”

Others were less concerned about the safety issues flagged by the city, noting the apartments are within their price range. Court records indicate tenants are paying between $400 and $700 a month.

“I’ve felt satisfied,” said Vanessa Yarbray, who has lived at the complex for seven years. “I really couldn’t afford anything else.”

Don Cooper, who has lived there for six years, disputed the findings by the city and the court that the buildings are unsafe.

“The building’s not shifting,” Cooper said. “I think the city’s been overreaching and underhanded.”

RELATED: Austin expands crackdown on unsafe rental properties

The owners of the two buildings, Walter Olenick and Rae Nadler-Olenick, didn’t return a phone call seeking comment or answer Wednesday when a reporter went to their office and apartment, both located at the complex.

The couple is due in court Friday, two weeks after a Travis County state District Court Judge Karin Crump found them in contempt after failing to make ordered repairs.

The contempt order effectively closed the apartment complex for business by barring the Olenicks from charging rent after April 1 and from admitting new tenants. It also required the two to allow city workers on the premises to aid with the relocation.

“Based upon the dangerous conditions … and based upon Defendants’ failure to undertake repairs, residents at the two properties may be at risk for personal harm and should be relocated to safe housing as soon as practicable,” Crump wrote in the March 28 ruling.

Failure to comply, she warned in the order, could result in jail.

So far, city workers have managed to contact tenants in nine of the 14 units that are believed to be occupied about the relocation, Bencivengo said.

The aid package the council will vote on Thursday will set aside more than $36,000 per unit to provide residents with services and rent subsidies as needed: $1,600 for moving expenses, $9,000 for emergency housing, $3,000 for deposits at their new apartment and an estimated $22,500 to subsidize rents at their new apartments for up to 30 months. The money would come from the city’s Housing Trust Fund.

Crump’s contempt order was the latest chapter in a multiyear legal saga surrounding the buildings. The building at 1127 E. 52nd St. is on the city’s list of “repeat offender” properties, which face more inspections and can lose the ability to rent to new tenants if problems aren’t fixed.

Walter Olenick had a 2013 municipal court trial and conviction over building without a permit at the site. That year, the city’s Building Standards Commission found the 1205 E. 52nd St. building was in violation of city codes.

RELATED: Code violations plentiful at Austin apartments, but tickets and fines rare

It was one of the commission’s first cases since the 2012 collapse of an exterior walkway at the Wood Ridge apartment complex in Southeast Austin — which led to revelations that the property had been repeatedly cited by code inspectors to no apparent effect.

Eventually, all of the walkways at Wood Ridge were condemned and 160 residents had to find emergency housing, which included temporary use of a gym the city obtained at no cost.

Back at the Olenicks’ property, the commission in 2015 deemed the building at 1127 E. 52nd St. out of compliance as well. The Olenicks took both the 2013 and 2015 findings to court for a judicial review and lost, records show.

Finally, in September 2015, the city sued the Olenicks to get a court to enforce the code requirements. In December 2016, Crump ruled for the city and gave the Olenicks 90 days to get the buildings fixed.

Three months later, Crump declared the Olenicks in contempt after “defendants failed to timely present proof of repairs.”

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