Photo by Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT
Thursday, September 24, 2020 by Audrey McGlinchy

Audit calls Austin’s ‘bad landlord’ program ineffective, says it doesn’t ensure safe housing

A city program intended to make sure landlords maintain safe apartments is failing to do its job, a new audit finds.

The report released Wednesday by the Office of the City Auditor looks at the Repeat Offender Program within the city’s Code Department. Created by City Council in 2013 and paid for with a monthly fee charged to utility customers, the program allows the city to keep a list of landlords who’ve been cited for health and safety violations, like not ensuring a tenant has hot water. Landlords on the list are required to pay an annual fee, and their properties are subject to regular inspections.

But low fees and a lack of city enforcement means landlords have little incentive to make fixes, the report said.

“Austin’s Repeat Offender Program, as currently administered, does not ensure renters are living in properties that meet minimum health and safety standards,” auditors wrote. “The program, though well-intended, is not meeting this goal in part because rental property owners have not been regulated or incentivized to correct code violations.”

Auditors recommended the city be more willing to sanction landlords who fail to make repairs. Three of the 10 properties with the most health and safety violations had no action taken against them, even though the properties received an average of 317 code violations. And while the Code Department has for years had the ability to suspend rental licenses, revoking a landlord’s ability to rent vacant apartments, the department did not start doing that until this year.

“Code has not used all available enforcement tools to pressure owners to improve property living conditions and safety,” auditors wrote. The Code Department first suspended a landlord’s license in June and has since suspended the licenses of eight property owners.

Auditors also recommended that the city recalibrate the fees it charges landlords who fail to make repairs. Owners on the Repeat Offender list are required to pay a yearly fee of $372, regardless of how large their building is. Auditors note that inspecting an apartment building with 500 apartments can be costly and take up to two weeks, compared to a one-day inspection for a single-family home.

One fix may be to create a citywide rental registration program, which exists in other cities including Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth. Not only would this allow Austin to better understand its stock of rental properties, auditors argued, it could also be another source of revenue for the city.

Auditors also recommended the Code Department change the name of the program, pointing out that renters may be less likely to report poor conditions to a program that references a term used to describe people in the criminal justice system (“repeat offender”).

All in all, tenant advocates were not surprised by the audit.

“The audit highlights concerns that both tenants, tenant advocates and even Code staff have articulated for some time about frustrations with the Repeat Offender Program,” Shoshana Krieger, project director of BASTA (Building and Strengthening Tenant Action), told KUT.

Krieger said the result is that many tenants stop speaking up if there’s a problem with their homes, discouraged by a lack of support from the city.

“Something we hear repeatedly on almost a daily basis from the tenants we work with … is their frustration of making an endless series of complaints and getting nothing done. At a certain point, tenants just give up.”

Council members had planned to discuss the audit at a committee meeting Wednesday, but postponed the conversation until next month.

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 City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

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

Office of the City Auditor: This city department is created by the city's charter in order to establish and ensure "accountability transparency, and a culture of continuous improvement in city operations."

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