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Tuesday, August 16, 2016 by Audrey McGlinchy

City contract hopes to protect tenants who speak up

Black mold and a stack of documents

Legal notices and lease copies blanketed a plush beige couch in a North Austin apartment. Rebekah Jara rummaged through the papers. Lawyers had urged her and her fiancé, Juan Aranda, to keep copies of everything.

More letters would come. But up to that point, Jara and Aranda had been struggling to get repairs done on their apartment on Sam Rayburn Drive in Austin’s Rundberg area. (The building owner, Raymond Hernandez, through his lawyer, would not comment on the record for this story. To complicate things, Hernandez was, at one time, married to Jara’s mother.)

Jara notified the city’s Code Department on May 5, 2016, of several repairs needed – holes around a bathroom vent, windows that did not close properly, a broken dishwasher.

Most of those have since been fixed. (Except for the dishwasher – it was removed by the landlord and has not been replaced.) Now, it was something else.

“It’s been going on about a month without hot water here,” said Aranda, as he pointed to his kitchen sink. Used dishes had been stacked. The couple had been boiling water to wash them.

Then Aranda peered beneath the sink. Black mold dotted the wall, stretching out as if grasping for air – or for more wall space. The mold cropped up when they had a leak. They complained to their landlord. A plumber came, but he didn’t do much.

“He went to his truck, got a mask, came in, and he said he was refusing to do the work on it until a mold expert or mold crew would come in here and remove that mold,” Aranda said. No one did.

Despite all this, when the couple received a letter in May asking whether they wanted to renew their lease, which expired at the end of April, they were ready to sign in favor. “We like living in this area,” said Aranda, who works as a cook at a Golden Corral. “It’s close to my work.”

But just a day later, a letter came rescinding that offer. Since then, the couple has been living without a lease, paying month to month. On Aug. 3, the landlord returned their latest rent check, along with a letter telling them to leave.

In it, the landlord lists four reasons for not offering to renew their lease: failing to cite repairs in a timely manner, housing a pet (the lease allows for one cat, but Aranda and Jara also have a dog), drying pants on the fence (Aranda admits he did this once) and complaining about the condition of the apartment. This last reason has raised eyebrows.

A new city contract

“One of the problems which has been difficult for folks to address has been retaliation,” said Shoshana Krieger. She is the project director of Building and Strengthening Tenant Action, known as BASTA. Housed under the nonprofit Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, BASTA helps people like Jara and Aranda.

“So, we are working with tenants right now who have called (the Austin Code Department), Code has come out, done an inspection, and then the landlord is saying, ‘You need to get out. We’re not renewing your lease,’” said Krieger.

In Texas, a landlord has significant leeway for evicting a tenant. According to Krieger, unless someone can prove that they were discriminated against or the victim of retaliation after asking for repairs or organizing with other tenants, there are few legal barriers to eviction or the termination of a lease. (Texas RioGrande considers failure to renew a lease the “termination” of one.)

Last year, the city of Austin decided to do something about this imbalance of power. In December, City Council approved a contract diverting $350,000 from the Code Department’s budget to Texas RioGrande to create the BASTA project. Should the city renew the contract over several years, it could end up spending $1.75 million on the project.

Krieger emphasized that the city’s support of BASTA is one way to bolster the work of the Code Department, which is responsible for making sure building owners remedy unsafe conditions. Reports out of the University of Texas School of Law’s Entrepreneurship and Community Development Clinic have criticized the department’s work. In 2013, the clinic published a report citing understaffing and a backlog of cases. Ironically, when code does its job effectively, it can sometimes backfire if a tenant has a retaliatory landlord.

“[Code inspectors] have the power to cite for a health and safety violation, which they did. And, as a result of that, and as a result of the order to make the repairs, now the landlord’s retaliating against the tenants,” said Krieger, describing an oft-occurring scenario. According to the Code Department, complainants can ask to remain anonymous; however, the department sometimes has to alert the landlord to which unit needs repairs, in which case it’s hard to maintain a tenant’s request for anonymity. After that, the department’s power is limited.

“We try to protect the tenants by trying to get landlords to comply and have at least minimum standard conditions for a tenant,” said Edgar Hinojosa, a manager with the Code Department’s legal division. “But, in terms of protecting them legally, that’s something that we don’t handle.”

“Code doesn’t have the power to tell that landlord, ‘Oh, you need to renew the lease,’” said Krieger.

Tenants coming together

Back in Rundberg, Aranda and Jara walked to the apartment next door. There, at least three other tenants were meeting with people from Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. One goal of the BASTA project is to educate and empower tenants to demand action as a group.

jara

One of the first steps BASTA took in May was to send a group of letters from individual tenants via certified mail to the building owner demanding specific repairs. In the meantime, one lawyer and one outreach coordinator sat at a tenant’s kitchen table collecting documents – copies of bills, letters from the building owner – should they eventually have to go to court.

Aranda and Jara’s documents were stuffed into a ripped yellow envelope. The story they told was winding, and pieced together by often crumbling pieces of papers. Just four days after Jara complained to the Code Department, the couple was offered a lease renewal.

But then, just a day after that May 9 letter asking about their interest in renewing, the couple got a second letter – this one of a different tone.

The letter read: “Unfortunately we will not be able to renew your current lease agreement. Please consider this letter to be formal written notice that your lease will not be renewed, and that you will need to vacate the leased premises by the end of your current lease term 6/31/2016 at owner request. We are revoking our previously notice on 05/10/2016.”

Their lease had been extended three months – but their monthly rent would be $50 more. And still, no lease renewal. After that, their August rent was returned. The couple is still in their apartment, unsure if they will receive an official eviction notice. If so, lawyers with Texas RioGrande say they’re ready to defend them.

Top photo: Shoshana Krieger, project director of Building and Strengthening Tenant Action; photo by Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT News. Bottom photo: Juan Aranda and Rebekah Jara in their North Austin home, by Miguel Gutierrez Jr./KUT News. This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin Code: Formerly known as Code Compliance, this is the city department that handles enforcement of city code violations. Its work is complaint-driven.

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