Susan Bethke, a seven-year resident of the Scenic Bluff area, chose her house northeast of downtown for its location near her son’s school and their church. From the get-go, she knew the area — consisting mainly of small, modest homes — was prime real estate for developers, both for its views of downtown and its location near the Trinity River Vision project. But she never imagined how abruptly her and her neighbors’ lives could change.
Bethke’s rented house, plus two nearby homes and the 133 duplex units of Parkview Village Apartments, are currently owned by Bob Joplin. In August, residents of these properties were given notice to vacate their homes in 30 days, the minimum time allowed under state law. The hand-delivered letters did not name the property buyer, the Dallas real estate investment group Cienda Partners.
Bethke and several apartment residents say Cienda and its law firm, Jackson Walker LLP, have intimidated most of the residents, many of them low-income single mothers, into fleeing, sometimes under dire circumstances. It’s not that Bethke opposes development, she said, but the short notice and lack of resources to help residents move have put unbearable hardships on her and her neighbors.
Last year, similar evictions by the same investment group in West Dallas caused a public backlash. Here, residents haven’t done much protesting — and have received almost no help from city officials in seeking fair and humane treatment.
At a Sept. 16 Fort Worth City Council meeting, the area next door to the Parkview development was rezoned from residential to mixed-use to accommodate future development by a handful of investors and property owners. The proposed project, called The Scenic, will include upscale condos, restaurants, and other businesses. The zoning commission’s report cites the area as one that has the potential to act as a “gateway to downtown.”
“The city has millions of dollars to promote development but [not to] help the victims of that development,” Bethke said. “I’m not going to let [Cienda Partners] bully me. The kids here had just started school. Many families fled so fast that they left their pets behind. Even a dog deserves to be treated better than this.”
After getting the notice to vacate, Bethke did some research and found the name of the company that had bought her home and the Parkview duplexes.
“I saw on their website that they worked with Habitat for Humanity and other charities, so I thought, ‘They seem like compassionate people.’ I called and left a voice message,” she said.
The response was anything but charitable. Soon after, a Cienda director called Parkview’s owner, demanding that residents not be allowed to call their offices again. The same tactics were being used on the property’s seller, Bethke said. She said Joplin told her that he has been threatened with litigation if he fights the terms of the purchase agreement, which will be finalized when the last tenant leaves.
Carlos Quintanilla, a community organizer in Dallas, has dealt with Cienda before. A year ago, 42 families living in a West Dallas trailer park were given notice to leave within 30 days. Quintanilla was able to organize the residents, who held a protest outside Cienda’s offices. With the public scrutiny brought on by Quintanilla’s work, the company relented and gave the families six months to move and $2,000 per family for moving expenses.
“What they tried to do was scare everyone to move out as fast as possible,” he said. “These people were very nasty, rude, and they don’t hesitate to make threats about sheriffs coming to evict them. When anyone called their staff, they tried to put the fear of God in them.”
In Fort Worth, a month after the notices were mailed, half the Parkview residents have left, uprooted from their fragile network of families and work.
“Many of the residents here are single mothers,” said Bill (not his real name), a Parkview tenant. He asked that his real name not be used because he fears retaliation by Cienda and its lawyers.
“The only way these single moms were able to work was with the help of friends and family living nearby who could watch their children,” Bill said. “Cienda promised to give ample time for residents to move and to provide funds for the transition. They did nothing they promised.”
In the months leading up to the August notices to vacate, an independent developer named Guy Brignon spoke to area residents about the development plans. He never identified the developers he was representing. In an Aug 26 letter, Belinda Norris, president of the Scenic Bluff Neighborhood Association, outlined grievances her group had with Brignon, whom residents can no longer find to question. According to the letter, Brignon promised that ample time would be given for tenants to prepare to move out and that the company would help families find new homes.
“The [abrupt] eviction is a breach of our trust,” Norris wrote. “We are asking ourselves what else we were told that this company will not keep their word on.”
Cienda Partners did not respond to requests for comments on this story.
Kevin Neal, media and public affairs coordinator for the city, said city officials were unaware of the situation at Scenic Bluffs and that the city’s planning and zoning department has not been in touch with “any parties in these transactions.”
Bill said Parkview offices received a call from Mayor Betsy Price’s office congratulating Joplin on the sale.
Bethke said she tried numerous times to get help from the mayor’s office and was referred to council member Ann Zadeh’s office. Zadeh’s staff referred her to the city housing department. Neither were any help, she said.
Wendy Vann Roach, a member of nearby Charleston Home Owners Association, said she searched for help on the city website and looked for assistance through the planning and development department’s Neighborhood Empowerment Zone program. The initiative promotes affordable housing and other benefits in designated areas. Roach said several area residents tried to help Parkview tenants find legal assistance and new places to live.
“What the situation showed me was [that] maybe in this type of circumstance, the renter needs more protection or more time to relocate and a shorter time for security deposits to be returned,” she said.
“In situations like this, you have a property owner who is trying to do business, and these people’s lives were caught up in that. It hit really close to home.”