Tenants race to find new homes after a stairwell collapsed in a San Antonio apartment complex
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The stairwell collapse at the Aristo at Medical Apartments on Thursday left one man injured after he fell from the second to the first floor.
Other stairwells around the property appeared to have rotting wood and uneven railings.
Tenants like Suje Martinez said there are a number of other serious problems in the apartment complex.
“When’s pest control coming in, when’s the electrician going to come in, our garbage disposal isn’t working, we’re having more holes in here, there’s mold,” Martinez said. “Oh, but her answer is on the mold, ‘just get Clorox, and just wipe it.’”
Martinez and dozens of tenants came out to the apartment complex parking lot where nonprofit groups and city staff began to help them seek new housing options on Tuesday. Tenants were offered information and pamphlets about other living arrangements in the area, what their rights are if the property is forced to vacate, and applications for legal assistance.
Martinez said the rats came shortly after her family moved into their apartment in 2020.
“We were letting them know, ‘Hey, we need to go ahead and have pest control coming here for pest control,’” she said. “And they would tell us, ‘Oh we’ll put you on the list. We’ll put you on the list.’ But yet again, nothing was being done.”
She said doctors told her that a case of pneumonia she suffered in April was the result of mold exposure — mold she said is in the bathrooms she and her kids use.
Her upstairs neighbor Ana Gonzales said she’s lived at Aristo for six years and has had to go without hot water for months at a time during the winter. Gonzales said many of her neighbors don’t want to live there but have no choice.
“We are humble people, just like the refugees,” Gonzales said. “All I'm saying is sometimes you can’t afford to move, and you’re stuck.”
Dozens of Afghan refugees also live in the Aristo complex, settled by the federal government in San Antonio after the U.S. ended its 20-year occupation of Afghanistan in 2021.
Faridullah Noory came to the U.S. in 2022. He said conditions have been awful for many of the Afghan refugees living at Aristo.
“We had the problem with the stairs, with the air conditions, with a lot of things, but they didn’t fix,” Noory said.” And every month they try to cheat — like they want to increase the rent for the people and most of the people, they came from Afghanistan, they’re refugees, they have no good income.”
Noory said management at Aristo took advantage of many refugees who are not familiar with the culture or who don’t speak English.
“They want to increase their rent, but at the same time, nobody can speak English,” he said. “So when they go to the office to talk to them, their behavior was so bad with the people. They have no respect, they act like the people are like slaves, you know?”
He said all they want is a safe place to live that they can afford.
“So we want from the City of San Antonio to take out all the people, all the residents that are living right here, to some safe place and better place that we can afford to rent,” Noory said.
District 8 Councilman Manny Pelaez visited the complex on Friday, which is in his district. As he walked up to one damaged stairwell, he put his foot through where a step should have been in a demonstration of the property’s unsafe conditions. In an interview with TPR over the weekend, Pelaez explained how the situation impacted Afghan refugees even more than other tenants.
“There is a huge language barrier, but also there's a trust barrier, right?” Pelaez said. “These folks come from far away to escape chaos in war torn areas. And they show up to the United States just with the shirts on their back, a lot of trauma, a lot of mistrust for government. And we work tirelessly and invest a lot of time to make sure that they find some semblance of stability here in the United States.”
Rich Acosta is the president of the housing nonprofit My City Is My Home, one of the organizations that helped tenants look for new housing options on Tuesday.
Acosta said he’s worked on the issues at Aristo since March, when the Immigration Liaison Office for the city put together an Afghan Refugee Summit to discuss Afghan refugees’ experiences in San Antonio.
“In March 2023, the Immigration Liaison Office of the City of San Antonio put together an Afghan summit where community leaders came and told us about the different situations where the Afghan refugees that came in 2020, 2021, 2022, and where they been,” Acosta said. “Most of them were sent around the medical center. And there are several apartments … all six of them are in District eight that all had complaints.”
Acosta said if there had been more communication from Code Enforcement with other city departments, tenants at Aristo would have been aware of the severity of the situation before the notice to vacate and had more time to look for new housing.
In a statement, the Neighborhood and Housing Services Department said the stairwell collapse “prompted immediate action by the City to ensure the safety of the residents.” The statement said Code Enforcement, NHSD and other departments will continue to coordinate on the issue.
Acosta said he hopes the District 8 Office will offer some of their resources and connections to help the Aristo tenants find new homes.
“We are hopeful that District 8 would start supporting and one of the things that they could help us is reaching out with their landlord connections, their apartment connections, because I believe the Apartment Association is here in District 8 and perhaps they could ask about income-based housing,” Acosta said. “We would really like some support in that way.”
He said he asked the District 8 Office to attend the Afghan summit and provide other assistance for tenants’ code violation complaints but never heard back.
In response, Pelaez said his office has been working on the issues at Aristo for four straight months “around the clock.”
Pelaez said he will make sure tenants understand the resources available to them. “I will be personally involved with making sure that no family is left behind and that they are offered the full spectrum of services,” he added.
The city’s Resident Relocation Assistance Program has funds to help tenants pay for a security deposit, moving costs, application fees, temporary lodging, and some other costs if they are forced to vacate. But it doesn’t include the first month’s rent.
That’s why Acosta said income-based housing is so important for these tenants.
It remains unclear whether the complex will have its certificate of occupancy revoked or if it will address the collapsed stairwell and a number of other code violations on the property. A staff member in Aristo’s leasing office declined to comment.
Many tenants on Tuesday expressed that they want to get out, they just need to figure out how.