From a distance it looked like a normal Saturday afternoon outside Mount Carmel Village in East Austin. Families were outside enjoying a picnic with hot dogs and hamburgers. Kids would fly kites, throw balls, and draw chalk art on the sidewalks, to the rhythm of a neighborhood DJ.
However, a closer look revealed that a community was gathering for hot meals, toiletries, and other items as the 100-unit complex of affordable housing goes without gas for a month after freezing in Texas. There is no heat, no hot water and it is impossible to cook on gas stoves.
On February 20, when Austin began to thaw after the weeklong Texas Freeze that left many without electricity or water, the complex lost gas. One resident reported a strong smell of gas that caused the gas company to turn off gas for the entire property. One problem the owners said was exacerbated by the storm.
“The historic frost shifted the ground, which in turn resulted in multiple leaks in the main underground gas line,” said Leslie Jaramillo, Mount Carmel property manager. “After weeks of work, pulling permits, various pressure tests and working with several agencies and providers, we have now been informed that the entire underground gas pipeline cannot be repaired and must now be completely replaced.”
Jaramillo said it could take up to 90 days to resolve.
“A vendor has been identified to do the job and the contract process is ongoing and is currently accelerating,” she said. “We asked that they find a way to get buildings back online instead of waiting for the full project to be completed.”
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“They just expect us to live like this”
But for the many families who live in the complex, they said they had waited too long already, and possibly spending another three months without gas, adds another level of stress and disappointment.
Valerie Mendoza, a single mother with three boys, said the situation was frustrating and required additional coordination for navigation.
She has been based at the complex for two years and said she picked up every day between showers at her mother’s, breakfast and lunch at the complex, and took her eldest son to school and her part-time job. And for dinner, she said, the family relied on microwaveable meals or take away.
“It puts a strain on us mentally and when you go through this it increases your plate and your stress,” Mendoza said.
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Throughout the complex, Beatrice Torres, a single mother of two, described similar difficulties but added that she had no place to shower. Instead, she heated water in the microwave to bathe herself and her young daughters, which added even more time to the process.
“We blew out two microwaves and tried heating hot water to take a bath,” she said.
Torres, who has lived in the complex for 7 months, said she could not leave her apartment to fetch meals from the complex, so was relying on fries, snacks, lunch tables and frozen microwaveable dinners. To survive the cold days, she said, she had to buy space heaters to stay warm.
“We appreciate the little help we got with eating, but it was really frustrating because I still have to pay my rent even though I’m running out of gas,” said Torres. “I hold up my end of the bargain and you don’t hold it back. They just expect us to live like this. ”
She said she wish she could leave but breaking her lease would ruin her credit and that is the last thing she needs. She said she sought legal assistance but would rather just be offered an out of the complex that doesn’t affect her creditworthiness.
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“I still haven’t heard from the complex and I don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Torres. “I just want them to be honest with us because I feel like they are trying to push us out, which is fine. I just want to get out. ”
Natasha Harper-Madison, a member of the Austin Council, of which Mount Carmel Village is a district, has raised concerns about the shortage of gas to the management of the apartment and to the gas company.
The complex – which has to respond to the federal government based on federal funding it receives – has helped residents more than some other Austin apartment complexes that have also had problems with water and gas, Harper-Madison said.
Jaramillo said Mount Carmel offered residents the option to use a hotel and only half accepted the offer. Several residents told the American statesman that while they were grateful for the hotel accommodation, the rooms were often dirty.
The remaining residents have access to eight portable showers on site, which are available from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. Electric pans were also offered to residents and meals were donated.
“That type of accountability is critical,” Harper-Madison said of the federal regulation.
Organize for change
In an effort to feed the residents, East Austin activist and lifelong resident Bertha Rendon has come to help.
With the complex running out of gas, Rendon organized two community distributions for meals and groceries with the help of organizations like the nonprofit Do Good ATX and the Prophecy De Tejas Car Club.
On Saturday the car club donated and cooked 200 hot dogs and hamburgers for the residents and Do Good ATX packed and donated bags with products, baby products, toiletries and blankets.
“It was heartbreaking to hear people’s stories,” said Rendon. “You are only a few miles from downtown Austin where you can see brand new developments. Imagine seeing all of this around you and still running out of gas. This is unacceptable.”
And while she was happy to be helping the community with food and basic household items, she said her other goal was to mobilize residents and teach them to voice their demands.
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Many longtime residents of the complex said their gasoline had been a problem for years. So Rendon linked them with Building and Strengthing Tenant Action, or BASTA, an Austin nonprofit that helps tenants.
Taniqewa Brewster, who has lived at the complex for nearly 15 years, said several residents, including herself, reported strong gas smells in their homes during her time there. She said the fire department had also been called multiple times because carbon monoxide alarms were set in homes, often when the person is not at home.
Just before the gas was turned off a month ago, she said she could hear gas seeping from a pipe down the sidewalk from her apartment, where she lives with her five children.
“We are grateful to all of the organizations that have come here to help and for the accommodations we received from the complex,” said Brewster. “But the fact is, the homeowners still haven’t done anything about the gas.”
According to BASTA, several apartment complexes across Austin have still been without gas or water since the February freeze.
“You are not investing in the infrastructure,” said Mincho Jacob, communications coordinator at BASTA. “Was the infrastructure messed up by the freezing or was it messed up because it hasn’t been updated in 30 years? … It’s storm-related, but the storm isn’t ultimately the cause of all that. The storm was the drop, who broke the barrel. “
Even if burst pipes are ultimately repaired, some problems remain. Mold is prevalent in some apartment complexes that have been hit by flooding, Jacob said.
“The amount of mold we see is just mind-boggling,” he said.
A victim of the same problem, Brewster said that with the help of Rendon and BASTA, she was able to bring dozens of her neighbors together to form a tenants council this week – essentially a union for tenants – to raise concerns that they were running out of gas over one month.
Like many of her neighbors, she and her family have had to change their diet and prepare for cold showers, which they believe is unacceptable
“As neighbors, we’ll get together and start making noise so things can change,” she said. “Today has been 30 days since we went gas-free, and now the complex says it could take another 90 days to fix. That’s 120 days; 120 days without gas, without hot water and without the ability to cook. That’s ridiculous.”
The tenants’ council met once this week via Zoom. The owners of Mount Carmel Village were not immediately available to comment on the tenant council or to meet with the group of residents.
The Austin Code Department sent Mount Carmel a violation notification after renters were without gas for several days. The International Property Maintenance Code, passed by Austin, states that water heaters must be able to supply water at a temperature of at least 110 degrees.
Mount Carmel appears to be on track for relief, said Matthew Noriega, a city code supervisor.
Texas Gas is also communicating with Mount Carmel, said Christy Penders, the utility’s spokeswoman.
“We were originally called about an odor and then we found there was a problem with the pipe and told them they needed to fix it,” Penders said.
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