Landlord’s misinterpretation prompts proposed change to help displaced tenants

Thursday April 21, 2022 by Emma Freer

District 4 Councilor Chito Vela’s staff recently learned that tenants in his northeast Austin district were being denied the protections they are entitled to under the Tenant Relocation Ordinance. The law, passed in 2016, established reporting requirements for anyone applying for a demolition permit and, in some cases, relocation assistance requirements for evicted tenants.

“There is no question that tenants are covered in this case, but because the language was so skewed they had to reach out (to the city) for clarification,” said a spokesman in Vela’s office.

Because of this case and other cases across the city since the ordinance went into effect, Vela has promoted a change to the ordinance. If approved, the amendment would clarify the regulation’s applicability to tenants permanently evicted not only through demolition, but also through conversion, renovation and repair. It would also declare an emergency given the number of “Austin residents who are at risk or are already in the process of losing their homes,” according to the statement design language.

The city council will consider the proposal at its meeting on Thursday.

In a Monday post Writing to the City Council’s message board, Vela said the amendment would not change the ordinance significantly — for example, it would not cover additional tenants — but would clarify it to fulfill its original intent.

The complaints process can be unduly burdensome for tenants who are protected by the regulation but lack protection based on their landlord’s interpretation of the law.

“Many of the tenants affected live in lower-income communities, have much lower incomes and often are not native English speakers,” Vela’s spokesman said. “That leads to a massive uphill battle for them when it comes to filing any type of legal challenge.”

Many tenants are unable to fight back, she added, putting them at risk of eviction.

This scenario is familiar to many renters in Austin’s red-hot housing market, where the seemingly endless demand for homes is outstripping supply, making older residential buildings viable development opportunities for demolition.

Average monthly rent in the greater Austin area rose to $1,602 in April, up nearly 22 percent year over year and outpacing growth in the Houston, San Antonio and Dallas-Fort Worth metro areas, the agency said current market report from ApartmentData.com.

According to the draft language, the ongoing housing crisis justifies a declaration of emergency.

“If someone is given 30 days to cancel their lease, they often cannot find an apartment during that period,” the spokesman said. “And so people become … homeless because 30 days isn’t enough, especially without the relocation assistance.”

The original ordinance required that anyone applying for a demolition permit give tenants of 12-unit buildings or more 120 days and trailer park occupants 270 days to apply for a rezoning, change of use or site plan approval.

Photo made available under a Creative Commons license.

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