From despair to hope — and disrepair, refugees in Dallas’ Vickery Meadow start a new life

Most of Vickery Meadow’s residents hail from countries around the globe, many having fled civil war, famine or economic hardships. They live in one of the dozens of apartment complexes, some of which have fallen into disrepair, but many residents are reluctant to complain, fearing they’ll be kicked out of their apartment or suffer another kind of retaliation.

By Stella M. Chávez, KERAMay 10, 2022 10:02 am,

From KERA:

Step inside Today’s Discount Food Mart near the corner of Park Lane and Fair Oaks Avenue and you’ll likely be greeted with música norteña, a type of regional Mexican music. The store is stocked with a rainbow of helados (popsicles), tortillas and an array of Mexican spices.

In a nearby shopping strip, a store carries the ingredients needed to make traditional Ethiopian dishes, just a few steps away from an Ethiopian café. There’s also the Burmese Asian Grocery Store next to a Mexican grocer that offers mail delivery service.

This is Vickery Meadow, a densely populated, ethnically diverse neighborhood in Northeast Dallas. Most residents here hail from countries around the globe, many having fled civil war, famine or economic hardships. They live in one of the dozens of apartment complexes, some of which have fallen into disrepair with appliances that don’t work and leaky pipes.

But many residents are reluctant to complain, fearing they’ll be kicked out of their apartment or suffer another kind of retaliation. And in a neighborhood where residents live near the financial edge, not raising eyebrows is sometimes better than the alternative.

Weary of complaining

Mary is a recent immigrant from Africa and one of those residents. She says she’s frustrated by the conditions in her apartment complex. She asked that her real name not be used because she is worried about retaliation.

In the evening after cooking, there’s a good chance, she says, of seeing mice scurry inside.

But she’s grown weary of complaining about it.

“I don’t like going to the [apartment] office because you go to the office and no one shows you respect,” she said. “You have a problem, you go today, you go back tomorrow. ‘Which apartment number?’ They write [it down]. No one comes to fix it.”

Mary walks around her unit pointing to numerous concerns, like a leaky ceiling.

“We have too many problems in the restroom, in the kitchen,” she said, describing how water leaks in both places. “It’s anytime, even probably can happen today. If my neighbor have problem, the water come in my home. People upstairs have a kitchen problem, all the water come in my kitchen.”

Her apartment complex is one of two named in a lawsuit filed by the City of Dallas against a property management company called Nuran, Inc. The lawsuit alleges multiple code violations in The Ivy and Sunchase Square Apartments.

KERA sought comment from Nuran in emails, phone calls and in-person. Written questions were submitted to an attorney for Nuran, including one that specifically asked for comment on residents’ concerns about retaliation. The attorney did not respond to those questions and did not sit down for an interview.

Refugees are typically placed in Vickery Meadow by one of three resettlement agencies in North Texas. They’ve traveled far from their homes: Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nepal, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The neighborhood is their entry to American life, the place where they’ll raise their kids and learn a new language. It’s where they’ll figure out how to use public transportation, access health care and navigate the school system. It’s also one of the few places in the city where they can find housing. The refugees join other low-income families, including immigrants from Mexico, Central America and U.S. citizens.

Ana Lopez, who’s originally from Mexico, has lived in Vickery Meadow for more than a decade in a different apartment complex. She’s complained about broken windows and a central air conditioning and heating system that doesn’t work properly. So, she bought her own air conditioning and heating units.

“I can’t afford to go anywhere else, but I also can’t afford to file daily complaints,” Lopez said in Spanish. “That’s what everyone is dealing with. We adapt, so we’re not calling the manager every day.”

These problems are just one example of the many challenges facing the neighborhood, like its concentrated poverty. About 41% of Vickery Meadow residents live at or below the poverty level, and according to the resettlement agency International Rescue Committee, more than 20% of its clients had a net monthly income of less than $100.

It’s why some past and present community leaders have pushed for improvements, such as adding sidewalks and repairing streets.

Some have also voiced concerns about developers’ plans for the neighborhood. A constant fear is that Vickery Meadow could be seen as the next trendy, hip neighborhood, attracting new development and displacing its low-income residents.

Former City Council member Jennifer Staubach Gates, whose district included Vickery Meadow, said housing is controlled by the private sector, which can complicate the city’s planning process.

Before her term ended in June 2021, she held a meeting with residents and developers to, as she put it, “do some proactive planning.”

“I was afraid that if the zoning was just done on a spot-by-spot basis…we were not strategically planning for the neighborhood and that we would also lose some affordability,” Gates said. “You would go from an affordable complex to a really expensive apartment.”

Gates said developers pushed back because they were concerned the city would rezone the neighborhood in a way that wasn’t favorable for them.

“When neighborhoods are needing redevelopment, it needs to be done in a really thoughtful manner to be representative of that community and hear the voices from the residents that are there as well as the landowners.”

Diversity — and a disconnect

Every morning during the school year, kids fan out across Vickery Meadow. Some stand outside apartment complexes waiting on school buses. Others walk with fellow students or their parents to nearby campuses. Some girls wear headscarves; moms and dads dress in traditional clothing too.

There’s a rich cultural diversity, but there also can be a disconnect with American culture. So, at the beginning of every year, the school district holds workshops for parents and students. Among the goals: to help students understand that their classmates come from different countries with different customs and traditions and make their transition go more smoothly.

At the Vickery Park Branch Library, branch manager Patty Ramirez said she serves a population that speaks dozens of languages. Books, magazines and other materials are available in several languages.

The library opened during the pandemic, but library officials say that hasn’t deterred residents from visiting. In fact, it’s become a popular meeting place for refugee resettlement agencies that offer programs like computer classes.

The library also partners with Parkland Health and Hospital Systems to provide free COVID-19 testing and health screenings. And this summer, the library plans to partner with the school district for its annual summer reading program.

Ramirez said she’s planning to invite the police department and fire rescue to participate as well.

“Anybody that’s in this community that you would walk upon and see on a daily basis, we’re inviting them because we want to put faces, so the community [will] go, ‘Oh, I know you’” she said. “And they don’t just see them in the fire station or just see them at the story.”

Ramirez said there’s another objective.

“It also helps that if we’re welcoming to the community, we’re no longer just the library with books and library materials,” she said. “We’re now the community center.”

A demographic shift

Vickery Meadow is bordered by Royal Lane to the north, Northwest Highway to the south, Central Expressway on the west and Skillman Street and Abrams Road on the east. Drive five minutes west to the other side of Central Expressway and you’ll find multi-million dollar homes, high-end restaurants and shops in affluent Preston Hollow and University Park.

It started as a small farming community in 1850. In 1945, the City of Dallas annexed it and the area’s population — as well as businesses and other establishments — grew. The neighborhood even had its own amusement park at one time, according to city documents.

In the 1970s and 80s, many “yuppies” moved into newly-built apartment complexes. It was the place to live if you were young and single, close to restaurants and bars; a place where you could meet others from similar backgrounds.

A change to the federal Fair Housing Act in the late 1980s banned apartments from discriminating against families and children. That sparked a demographic shift as singles moved out and families moved in.

And as the apartments aged, rents dropped, which also contributed to the demographic and economic profile of Vickery Meadow today.

Access to help

After last year’s winter storm, nonprofits that have had long-standing relationships with Vickery Meadow residents turned out in force. Some went door-to-door checking on them. Others handed out food, water, diapers and other supplies. Many residents were without power and water for days.

That access to organizations and services is why agencies resettle refugees in Vickery Meadow. Mark Hagar, area director for Refugee Services of Texas in Dallas, said resettlement agencies like his have partnerships with several apartment complexes in the area.

“When a family is announced that they will be arriving in two-week’s time, we would go to our list of housing partners and say, ‘We have this family of five who needs a two bedroom. Do you have one available?’”

The agency then reserves an apartment unit and walks newcomers through the leasing process. Resettlement agencies also provide some financial assistance.

“Our mission is to make sure that everything we’re doing is leading to self-sufficiency,” Hagar said. “So that’s why we’re not subsidizing an entire contract, and the other things we do will equip them with a job, have their kids in school so they can go to their job, and they can start taking over the responsibility of paying that rent.”

The agency provides interpreters, so residents understand their rights as a tenant. Resettlement agencies and other groups also offer job training skills and English-language classes.

It makes sense to place refugees in Vickery Meadow, Hagar said, because there’s already a network of people, including relatives and friends, from the same countries.

“That is so meaningful when you’re new and you don’t know the language, you don’t know how to get to the food store where you can get that ingredient, that spice, that’ll make you feel like home,” he said.

Resettlement agencies often face a conundrum: Finding places for refugees to live is a struggle — the options are limited. They can’t afford to pay expensive rents. And in a tight housing market, reasonably-priced apartments are few and far between. Sometimes the choice is between an apartment complex that has a history of code violations, or no choice at all.

“Yes, they’re placed there and yes, the apartments and the housing that they’re being placed in is a complicated situation because it is substandard,” said Janet Morrison-Lane, executive director of the Vickery Meadow Youth Development Foundation. “But even it is going up. So where do they go after that?”

As resettlement agencies continue to relocate refugees in Vickery Meadow, the city of Dallas has been waging a battle with apartment complexes there, issuing citation after citation over serious code violations.

What residents see versus what the code inspectors sees and write up speaks to the dichotomy and contradictions in the neighborhood. Residents may feel comfortable living near family and other refugees, but they’re living in apartments that have numerous code violations. Those are the opposing forces that define Vickery Meadow.

All they can afford

Jonathon, a 20-something college student who lives with his parents in one of the Nuran-operated apartments, said he wasn’t surprised to hear about the lawsuit.

“What I realize is that the management is not really good and you have a lot of complaints from the people,” he said. “Even from my house…our sink was not working or our A/C was not working.”

Jonathon also asked to be identified by a pseudonym, fearing retaliation. Nuran representatives did not respond to KERA’s written questions about tenants’ fears of retaliation and issues raised in the lawsuit.

Jonathon said his family moved to a different apartment in the same complex, but they continued to have issues, like an infestation of roaches and other insects.

He walks around the apartment pointing out other problems, mold and rusted spots caused by water leaking from the bathroom ceiling, closet doors that don’t close properly.

“But that’s what my parents can afford,” he said. “I cannot complain much.”

This is the second story in a four-part series. Read the first, third and fourth stories.

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