Last month, after 45 years of living at 5456 W. Ferdinand St. in Austin, Renna Thomas packed her belongings in cardboard boxes and hauled them away. Her father, Floyd Thomas, bought the three-flat in 1970, she said.
“He paid $60,000 for it. Now somebody has gotten it for ten,” Thomas said from the second-floor apartment she’d been living in before the perfect storm washed away her family’s ownership of the property.
The room was refrigerator-cold. Thomas, who had been unemployed for several months, had struggled paying the utilities in the weeks before she was given a notice to vacate the premises. A company looking for a quick profit had bought the home’s delinquent taxes — and thus the house itself.
The home, Thomas said, was a gathering place for relatives who lived in other places, but would stop by on weekends for church or during holidays; a place of respite and security for family members who were trying to get back on their feet; a repository of most of the memories she has of her parents — both of whom are now dead.
Her father was murdered on the lawn — shot close range three times by a neighbor. Her mother died in a bedroom on the first floor from pancreatic cancer — the same room where one of Thomas’s tenants died from breast cancer.
“I’ve lived on every floor in this building,” Thomas said, before stopping to reflect on a birthday trinket she made for her mother in 1996. Across the hall from her mother’s death room, Thomas pointed out the room she in which she was raised.
“When I was a kid, this was my room. I used to play and do my homework in that closet back there. The last family member in this room was my great nephew. That’s why you see animals on the wall. Prior to that, my niece was in here.”
Thomas remembers the holidays. She remembers the silver tree with the lights “that went around like a fan” and flickered yellow, green and red. She still has the couch her mother brought with them when they first purchased the property.
“This house has a lot of memories,” she said. “All I got now are the pictures. I don’t have nothing else … I won’t walk these halls no more.”
How Thomas — the president of her block club, an outspoken community activist, whose knowledge of the block and its people runs deep — got to that moment in the cold living room, standing in the middle of her family’s boxed-up memories, is its own morality tale. But it’s one that’s played out too often, she said. She now wants people to know what she didn’t know, because there are other homes on her block — many of them passed down from parents and grandparents — that are on the verge of being lost.
“Nobody told me when your parents die, you should go to probate court. I learned that through all this stuff I went through,” she said. “We’re not educated on a certain amount of stuff.”