Lisa Martinez walks around her newly renovated two-bedroom apartment at Manchaca Village, pointing out her favorite features: the blue accent wall in her living room, a new washer and dryer, and, best of all, a new dishwasher. She says it has made it much easier to clean up after her four kids.
The 33-unit apartment complex in South Austin is the first of 18 public housing properties the housing authority has renovated as part of an ambitious plan announced last year.
Martinez says she's thrilled about the upgrades, but she’s one of the lucky ones. The repairs on her unit were done within about three weeks. In the meantime, she lived in an apartment just across the hall, where she could see construction crews coming and going.
Other residents have had to move to different properties altogether. The housing authority said the goal is to have people back in their homes within about 60 days, but for more extensive renovations, the wait could be up to 18 months.
“A lot of people don’t like change, especially the elderly people that live here,” Martinez says. “They’ve been here so long and everything is the way they have been doing it for years.”
The improvements are part of a federal program called RAD, the Rental Assistance Demonstration Program. It provides funding that the city’s housing authority can use to complete much-needed repairs. A total of 1,800 apartments are getting renovated.
Residents who qualify to live in public housing pay about 30 percent of their income toward rent. They can also take advantage of job training and assistance programs. But living in public housing also means some of the biggest decisions about their lives – like going through a remodel – are made by other people.
Michael Gerber, president and CEO of the housing authority, says he understands that can make people nervous.
“I think that one of the things that’s been really important to us is making sure that we can keep residents as close as we can to their existing sites or to where they want to be, if that’s close to where they have health care, where they’re close to their kids’ schools,” he says.
Gerber says all residents have the right to remain in public housing and move back to their original properties, though maybe to a different unit. The housing authority is adding apartments to some buildings – in some cases, hundreds more units.
To try and make this transition smoother, Gerber formed what he calls a "tenant protection team." The group includes housing advocate Ruby Roa, who has been working to help residents navigate their temporary relocations.
Roa says the rollout hasn’t been perfect, but she’s working to address people’s concerns on a case-by-case basis. Some of the most common questions she gets are, “Where am I going to get my mail?” or “How will this affect my utility bill?”
“My job is to make sure that none of the families fall through the cracks,” she says.