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Thursday, February 13, 2020 by Audrey McGlinchy
Austin landlords repeatedly cited for health and safety violations could get right to rent revoked
José Pérez and his family were afraid of their stove.
It caught on fire when they tried to cook, so the family bought prepared food. They had other problems in their apartment, too: The air conditioning went out for a week one August, there was no hot water for a month, and mold grew in the walls. But the stove is what made Mariana Pérez scream one day, when she saw her husband get electrocuted by some faulty wiring.
“I was literally glued (to the stove) for about three seconds,” José Pérez said in Spanish. “I could not get myself off the stove.”
The Pérezes have lived in the one-bedroom apartment in North Austin with their two kids for six years, three of which were spent with a busted stove. The 200-unit complex, called Creeks Edge, is on a city list of rental properties with a history of poor maintenance. Landlords of properties on this list, known as the Repeat Offender Program, are subject to mandatory inspections.
Since the program’s creation in 2013, the city has had the ability to go one step further: to suspend or revoke property owners’ rental registrations, barring them from renting to new tenants. Tenants and housing advocates say doing so could better persuade landlords to make repairs, especially in a state with few tenant protections.
But until this month, the city has failed to enforce the penalty.
Pérez said he can’t understand why.
“If they spent one night or one weekend in an apartment without services like we have done, they would understand and they would take action,” he said.
A Wake-up Call
In 2012, more than two dozen tenants were evacuated after a second-story walkway in their Southeast Austin apartment complex collapsed. According to the Austin American-Statesman, the balcony fell onto a building next door.
“That really was a wake-up call to the community that we needed to put a better focus on our rental properties,” Daniel Word, a division manager with the Austin Code Department, said.
A year later, City Council members voted to create the Repeat Offender Program to keep a better eye on problem properties. It has since grown to include 73 rental properties, representing roughly 10,000 housing units.
This is how it works: Tenants can report health or safety violations by calling 311 or through the city’s website. Property owners get on the list if they’ve received several violations from the city within a two-year period – about anything from a loose handrail to mold. They then have to pay a $372 fee and are subject to periodic inspections for at least two years.
The city or a judge can also assess fines through the courts, an administrative hearing or a city commission. But that takes time – often months before property owners are fined. Even then, some landlords still don’t pay.
Jeanne Luttrall uses an electric scooter to get around, so when the elevator in her apartment building in North Austin stopped working for a week, she was stuck.
“If I hadn’t had aides, I don’t know what I would have done,” she said. “They brought groceries in, and they had to haul them up the three flights of stairs.”
Even when a landlord is fined, it can take time for them to pay up. Creeks Edge, the complex where the Pérezes live, was recently fined $6,118. To collect that money, a city spokesperson said, the city sends a bill, then two demand letters, before possibly turning the case over to the legal department. The city had already sent its first demand letter.
Luttrall argued landlords would lose more money, more quickly, if they couldn’t rent out vacant apartments.
“We’re not getting anywhere,” she said. “The only way to get owners to do anything is to hit them where it hurts – in their pocketbook. If you can’t rent to new tenants, then your money goes down and you’re stuck.”
For example, she said, if a property had 10 empty apartments renting for $1,000 a month, that would be $10,000 lost in a month.
Now, Word said, the city will start enforcing what it’s been able to enforce since 2013: the ability to bar landlords from renting to new tenants.
“It took some time to get the ordinance up and running, get the staffing in place to handle the ordinance,” he said. “We are now ready to go forward.”
A Call For Better Enforcement
In 2013, the same year the Repeat Offender Program was created, a report from the University of Texas noted the code department lacked “an adequate enforcement system to take more aggressive measures against landlords who fail to fix dangerous building conditions.”
Housing advocates say that while they think the code department has been more responsive to complaints about landlords in the last year, a lack of enforcement still plagues the department. They say they wish more landlords were subject to fines and that the process didn’t take so long.
Emily Blair with the Austin Apartments Association, a lobbying group for landlords, said she hopes the city will suspend or revoke a rental registration as a last resort.
But Pérez and his fellow tenants want their landlord to be the first sanctioned by the city. (CSC North Realty LLC, which owns Creeks Edge, did not respond to a request for comment.)
It took showing up to a city commission for Pérez to get a new stove.
“This is not the first time we’ve had problems,” he told commissioners through a translator last August. He held up photos of burns on his kitchen wall, allegedly from the sparking stove, for members of the Building and Standards Commission to see. He said he’d put in 18 work orders to get it fixed.
The day after he testified, Pérez said, management replaced the stove. He said while he’s had positive interactions with code department inspectors, he wished funding was being spent on getting repairs done faster.
“Not in their new trucks, not in their uniforms,” he said. “We want to see it in their actions.”
This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. Top photo: José Pérez sits in the kitchen of his North Austin apartment with his children, Marina and José Marcelo. Both photos by Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT.
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