- James Barragan American-Statesman Staff
Twenty-three people sued their former landlord for what they called deceptive practices that forced them to leave their East Austin apartments to expedite the sale of the land to a technology company that plans to build its new campus there.
The lawsuit, filed by former residents of the Lakeview Apartments in Travis County state District Court, accuses Cypress Real Estate Advisors of terminating leases early, failing to make health- and safety-related repairs for months, unlawfully locking residents out of their units and making false representations to pressure residents to leave before they had to.
“In their rush to make millions on the sale, defendants intentionally misled tenants, put tenants through undue hardship, discriminated against tenants, and created an environment of fear and anxiety to induce tenants into leaving,” the lawsuit reads.
Steve Clark, a Cypress representative who is named in the suit, said that a call from the American-Statesman was the first time he was notified that the group had been sued. He said he was reviewing the details of the case and that a third-party property manager from Dallas was in charge of maintaining the Lakeview Apartments.
“To the best of our knowledge, our property manager did not engage in any of those practices,” he said. “I am pretty certain we have acted in good faith throughout the process.”
The plaintiffs are seeking between $200,000 and $1 million in damages for loss of past wages and emotional distress. The plaintiffs also ask for damages from fraud, malice and gross negligence, and seek the payment of their attorney fees.
In December, Cypress sold the land for an undisclosed price to Oracle Corp., which will build part of its new 27-acre campus on the land that formerly housed the Lakeview Apartments, west of South Pleasant Valley Road near Lady Bird Lake. Oracle wasn’t named in the suit.
Clark said the process to move people out of the complex began long before talks about a sale to Oracle began.
In June 2015, the lawsuit said, apartment residents received a notice that said the complex would be demolished and management wouldn’t renew leases. In August, tenants received another note that said all residents had to be out of the complex by Sept. 30.
Some residents had leases that extended beyond that date, the lawsuit said, including some that ran through the end of that year. The suit alleges that residents were forced to sign “releases” of their unexpired leases “with no consideration or explanation” and were threatened with bad tenant references if they didn’t comply.
They were also told their electricity and water could be turned off and were refused repairs on air conditioning, heaters, stoves and refrigerators, the lawsuit said. They were also denied extermination of pests, the lawsuit said.
The plaintiffs allege the landlords used policies that discriminated against people based on race, color and national origin. The apartment complex was home to a large group of Latino residents who had trouble communicating in English as well as a family of Rwandan refugees who don’t speak English and, the lawsuit alleges, were forced to sign papers they didn’t understand.
On Sept. 30, the landlords taped a note on the on-site office door window that read “Closed for Eviction Hearing” and told some plaintiffs they would be kicked out of their homes at midnight if they didn’t move out that day, the lawsuit alleges.
In October, the landlords began filing evictions against residents regardless of when their leases expired, the lawsuit said, unless they had been granted an extension.
Several months later, former residents are still recovering from the hardship of being displaced, according to a news release by Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, which is representing the plaintiffs. Residents who found new housing saw an average increase of $240 per month to their living costs, the group said.
In part as a response to the displacement of Lakeview Apartments residents, the Austin City Council will take up a tenant relocation assistance ordinance on Aug. 4. The ordinance would provide assistance to people who are displaced by redevelopment in Austin.