Photo by ATXN. Austin City Council, March 26
Council adopts anti-eviction ordinance: Tenant advocates call it a ‘Band-Aid solution’
Friday, March 27, 2020 by Ryan Thornton
City Council adopted a 60-day suspension on evictions Thursday that will buy tenants two months before a landlord can seek to evict them for missed rent payments. Many renters and local advocates, however, say the ordinance only kicks the can down the road for those in need rather than providing real relief for renters who have lost a steady stream of income due to COVID-19.
Emma Holder, a student of social work at the University of Texas, said the ordinance – which would only apply to payments missed through May 8 – is the “bare minimum” of what the city can do to help residents as people continue to lose work and long-term financial stability.
“Many people are going to be out of work for most of April or all of April as well and … owing two months’ rent by the time May comes around is going to be just as hard,” Holder said.
“The number of people in Austin who have to live paycheck-to-paycheck is more than you might realize,” Holder said. “Even those people, if they’re looking for work right now, there isn’t much work to find. The work that is available … the market’s being flooded so it’s really hard to get those jobs, and then, even still, the jobs that are out in the community may not be safe.”
“If we can’t pay in April, we are not going to be able to pay in May, and we are certainly not going to be able to pay in June,” said Lily Velona. “We will have an eviction crisis on our hands in 60 days if we do not have an immediate rent and utilities freeze.”
As a landlord of 15 years, Adam Gates acknowledged the need for rental assistance, but said this ordinance essentially gives renters the right to withhold rent money at the expense of landlords who are not getting a break on mortgage payments through the federal stimulus package.
“I feel for all of these people on the line that have lost jobs. Clearly we are in a crisis, but you can’t ask the private sector to absorb what should be either a federal, state or local subsidy in the form of rent. If you guys want to go partner with … the federal government and get an immediate stimulus for rent relief, feel free to do so. But you can’t step in and arguably take rent away for 30 days, 60 days, 90 days, and expect me in the interim to pay for a mortgage.”
Emily Blair of the Austin Apartment Association spoke on behalf of the organization’s 1,100 property owners, managers and service providers in opposing the ordinance. She called the ordinance unnecessary given the Texas Supreme Court’s suspension of renter evictions through April 19.
“Now is the time for renters and property owners to work together to maintain stability in housing,” Blair said.
Blair said the association’s work helping property managers establish individual payment plan agreements and late-fee waivers is already resulting in fair solutions for both renters and landlords. In some cases, she said these conversations are also leading to rent freezes on renewals. “This ordinance could hinder these conversations occurring in good faith and would even create more confusion.”
Gates alluded to the $2 trillion federal stimulus package soon to be considered by the House of Representatives, saying some of that money “will help assist many of my tenants in paying rent in the future.” But Council Member Greg Casar, who announced the emergency ordinance this week, said the federal aid could take as long as four months to reach some individuals and will leave out many people in need of assistance.
“To some of the landlords that have reached out, I think it’s important for folks to recognize that whether we pass this or not, there is going to be trouble getting rent because there are thousands and thousands of people right now who are going to have a lot of trouble paying rent April 1,” said Casar.
Casar said the ordinance is a first step to help buy residents time so they don’t lose their homes. The next step, he said, is to “work swiftly as a city to get massive amounts of assistance out to the community.”
Although, as Mayor Steve Adler noted, the city is “not in a position to be able to forgive or excuse people from paying rent,” City Manager Spencer Cronk assured Council that expanding and speeding up rental assistance programs is already high on the list of economic development and resiliency efforts.
In addition, Council Member Ann Kitchen said those efforts should be targeted at smaller landlords who rely on a handful of rent payments to get by each month.
Resident Anthony Blanco said the ordinance “falls laughably short” of what is needed and called for an immediate suspension of rent starting April 1, with a guarantee of no rent debt.
“It’s immoral to consider anything less than a full suspension of rent for the next three months,” Blanco said. “Anyone on this Council thinking of voting against this measure, note that you are enabling predatory landlords to put us out on the street in the middle of a pandemic.”
The ordinance passed on consent.
“We are encouraged about the Council discussion to recommend a rental assistance program as well as an assistance fund for property owners also experiencing loss due to this,” said Sandy Eckhardt, president of the Austin Apartment Association, following Thursday’s meeting. “The industry stands ready to work with residents and would encourage the community to partner with us to maintain stability in housing during this unprecedented time.”
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