Texas Tenants Struggle in Hurricane’s Aftermath

Texas Tenants Struggle in Hurricane’s Aftermath

Published: 
September 2017

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Texas tenantsrights and fair-housing advocates are organizing to keep renters from losing their homes, while also trying to ensure that rebuilding efforts serve the needs of low-income tenants.

Renters account for 30 to 40 percent of households in the three main metropolitan areas hit by the storm— Houston, Corpus Christi, and Beaumont-Port Arthur. They are vulnerable due to a combination of provisions in Texas housing law that favor landlords, a rental market severely inflated after the hurricane, and recovery programs’ bias towards serving homeowners.

One major area of concern is the fate of tenants who can’t pay their rent on time because of the storm. With people displaced by Harvey increasing the demand for rental housing, advocates worry that unscrupulous landlords are taking that as an opportunity to evict current tenants in order to replace them with higher-paying households.

Tenant groups such as Houston’s Metropolitan Organization have spent the past two weeks petitioning the Houston City Council and Mayor Sylvester Turner to grant a 15-day grace period to all renters affected by the storm. Willie Bennett, an organizer with the group, noted that the storm— which made landfall just five days before the first of the month—significantly affected working-class renters’ ability to make the rent for September.

“This happened right at the end of the month, and you have some people who couldn’t get to work because their businesses were closed,” he says. “We had six days when people weren’t working, because nothing was open.”

Bennett and the Metropolitan Organization noted that while many larger rental complexes quickly granted tenants a grace period to pay September’s rent, landlords serving the lowest-income households, including owners of complexes where many undocumented people live, did not.

“Most big apartment complexes gave folks a two-week grace period. Mortgage companies gave a grace period of 90 days. Cell-phone companies gave customers a grace period,” says Bennett. “But the people who are most vulnerable, they’re not getting a break.”

In testimony at a Council hearing in early September, Father Edward Gomez of San Pablo Episcopal Church in Houston and the Metropolitan Organization said they knew of at least 40 eviction cases since the storm.

While Texas, like New York, requires landlords to give tenants 30 days notice to commence an official eviction proceeding, the state property code lets them lock tenants out for not paying rent with only three to five days notice. Tenants may pick up new keys while in arrears, but the law places the burden on them to know and assert their rights to regain access. Under Texas landlord-tenant law, being delinquent in rent payments can also prevent tenants from petitioning for repairs.

The state property code also gives landlords the right to break a lease if an apartment becomes completely unusable due to “casualty loss” or any loss related to unforeseen circumstances, such as a fire or hurricane. In these situations, the owner is not required to start making repairs until he or she receives insurance proceeds.

On Sept. 14, Mayor Turner joined the Metropolitan Organization for a press conference addressing the issues facing renters following Harvey. He urged all landlords “to show flexibility by waiving or delaying late fees for at least one month” and to offer “longer notice periods to vacate to the extent practicable when forced to terminate leases due to uninhabitability,” and thanked the owners who had.

“If we determine that any terminations were done improperly, unnecessarily, we will take all necessary measures to protect the rights of those tenants,” he warned, “especially if landlords or apartment owners have accepted September rent and then forced tenants out. To me, that’s the equivalent of theft.”

Austin lawyer Madison Sloan is already preparing for the longterm recovery process. Sloan, who directs the Disaster Recovery and Fair Housing Project at Texas Appleseed, a public-interest justice nonprofit group, was one of the lead attorneys on a federal complaint against the state’s disasterrelief allocations after Hurricane Ike in 2008. In that complaint, she documented widespread poor oversight of funds, resulting in little money dedicated to rebuilding damaged rental housing, including public housing. She is working to ensure that the same mismanagement doesn’t happen after Harvey.

Unlike the Federal Emergency Management Administration, which gives temporary and emergency assistance directly to affected households, congressional allocations for disaster recovery are distributed to localities through community development block grants for disaster relief. These allocations nearly always include funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to address local housing needs. Like all block-grant funding, HUD disaster-recovery grants are expected to serve residents in a range of incomes, with at least 70 percent for households of low and moderate income—although the HUD secretary can waive that requirement. The actual disbursement of disaster-relief funds, however, is typically directed by elected officials or community councils, and tends to favor homeowners, who are seen as more likely to stay in the community (and to vote).

“Even if the housing that’s wiped out is proportional across income levels, the housing that gets rebuilt is not,” says David Rammler of the Fair Share Housing Center in New Jersey. “There’s this built-in systemic pressure to not rebuild that housing.”

Sloan, who has worked to ensure fair-housing outcomes after disasters both in Texas and nationally, is looking closely at the immediate response to the storm as an indicator of how recovery efforts will proceed. HUD allocations are based on damage assessments conducted by FEMA, and if those undercount the effect on tenants, it could reduce the amount of recovery funds available for rental housing.

“Every disaster is different in some ways and brings different challenges,” she says, “but my hope would be that Texas and the federal government have learned a lot from what’s happened over the past ten years. And that we can really use what we’ve learned about how to do recovery more efficiently and more equitably, and how to do it in a way that helps all communities.”