If your apartment or rental home was damaged in the winter storm last week, what are your rights and obligations as a tenant?
Here’s what we learned.
Requesting Repairs, Cancelling Leases
Farwah Raza, an attorney with Legal Aid of Northwest Texas, said landlords must make a diligent effort to make repairs to the property in a reasonable amount of time – usually seven days.
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Raza said the renter should give notice of the repair request, following the notice requirements in the lease agreement. In general, Raza recommends a certified letter and an email. Take photos to document the problems.
“That notice to your landlord is very important because that does trigger a lot of your rights and a lot of the timeliness for things that need to be done by the landlord,” said Raza.
If you’ve given notice and haven’t heard anything back within five days, Raza said, “You can ask the courts to do something about it.”
If a frozen pipe has burst and flooded the unit, leaving it unusable, Raza said the landlord or tenant may terminate the lease by giving written notice before repairs are completed.
Raza said if the lease is terminated, the tenant is entitled to a pro-rata refund of rent from the date of the tenant moves out as well as a refund of any security deposit to which the tenant may be entitled under the law.
“You want to be very specific in that notice. Are you looking to terminate the lease? Are you looking for repair and remedy?” Raza added.
Again, check your lease and consider asking an attorney for help.
Legal Aid of Northwest Texas has a disaster hotline you can call at 1-855-548-8457.
Under Texas law, tenants must be caught up on rent to make repair requests. This is tricky for those behind on rent because of the pandemic and who may be staying in their apartments as a result of the CDC’s eviction moratorium. Raza said turn in your written notice for repairs even if you’re behind on rent.
“The way the Texas property code is set up, it does require you to be up-to-date on rent, but we're in an unprecedented situation here,” said Raza.
NBC 5 Responds
No Quick Fix
“It's like Hurricane Harvey hit every city in Texas at the same time,” said Ian Mattingly, President of the Apartment Association of Greater Dallas.
Mattingly said tenants may see delays to repairs that are beyond the landlord’s control during this disaster.
“Depending upon the severity of the damage that's been incurred to the plumbing system, it could be weeks before water could be restored to a particular location or building simply because materials have been so difficult to come by,” said Mattingly.
He said many association members are also prioritizing health and safety-related repairs.
“We're focusing, most importantly, on those life and safety issues like getting the water restored. That may mean a resident has to live with part of their carpet removed or a hole in the drywall while we're working to correct those more urgent matters,” said Mattingly. “And just recognize that there are thousands of people across North Texas that are dealing with this exact same situation.”
Sandy Rollins with the Texas Tenants Union said if you’re living in an unhealthy or unsafe situation, you can also try to contact your city for help.
“If people are in a city where they have a good minimum property standards code, they could call code enforcement or code compliance if the landlord is dragging their feet,” said Rollins.
“Be a squeaky wheel if you need to be a squeaky wheel,” added Rollins.
Rollins encourages landlords and management to be visible and communicate with residents.
Days Without Water
After more than a week without running water, Helen Mark said she received an email blast from her apartment complex on Monday. It said repairs to the plumbing may take as long as two more weeks.
“It’s been 10 days since I’ve had a shower, it's getting… not nice,” said Mark. “I can rinse off with a bottle of water, but you can only do that for so long.”
Mark said she has been driving to water stations to fill containers and carry them up a couple of flights of stairs in order to flush her toilets. She said she’s most concerned for families with kids and elderly neighbors.
“I try to be understanding. I really, really do. I just don't understand why nobody can help or will help,” said Mark.
Mark contacted NBC 5 Responds which contacted the City of Fort Worth.
Tuesday, Mark said code staff from the city checked on her and said it would be working with the complex to help residents. At last check, Mark said the city told her she may have running water by Friday.
Fort Worth said the complex reported 22 broken water pipes and the city found the apartment complex had a plumber onsite working. Half of all buildings are back up with running water and the goal is to have all buildings restored by Friday or sooner.
Financial Assistance Available
For any personal property damaged by the winter storm, a landlord is not responsible for covering those losses. Tenants should file a claim with their renter's insurance and apply for help through FEMA.
If a renter does not have insurance, FEMA can help cover some of the costs.
To apply for assistance online, visit www.disasterassistance.gov
If you need help or can’t apply online, you can call 800-621-3362 (TTY: 800-462-7585). The lines will be in operation seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.
There is also help for Texans who face homelessness because of the COVID-19 pandemic and need assistance paying utility bills and rent. The program began accepting applications last week using funds approved by Congress in the latest stimulus package.
You can apply online at www.texasrentrelief.com or call 1-833-9TX-RENT or 1-833-989-7368. Calls can be taken Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
NBC 5 Responds is committed to researching your concerns and recovering your money. Our goal is to get you answers and, if possible, solutions and resolution. Call us at 844-5RESPND (844-573-7763) or fill out our Customer Complaint form.
Renters Frustrated with the Lack of Communication
NBC 5 Continues to receive emails from tenants across North Texas who say the lack of updates of from landlords is also adding to the frustration. People say they want updates, regardless if it's bad news.
Shaunessy Voller said the water pipe in her bathroom burst last Monday during the freeze. The water spread from the bathroom to her closet.
"We used all of our towels to contain it. Luckily the rest of my apartment has wood floors, but it was a lot of water. It was a big pipe and was spraying water for 13 hours," said Voller. "A lot of the bathroom as far as the cabinetry is rotted at the bottom and torn up, and paint is peeling and there's mold all over the walls and ceiling. It's bad."
She said she and her fiancé called maintenance but no one showed up until the next morning to turn the water off.
While the water was fixed a week later, Voller said she she hasn't received constant updates with when the hole in her wall and other water damage will be fixed.
“It’s a week out and I have not received so much as an email from the leasing office like, 'Hey we shut off the water, this is when it’s coming back on,' or ,’Hey we’re sending plumbers to your house somebody should be there,' or, 'We plan on fixing the hole in your shower this week, next week," expressed Voller. "I have received zero correspondence and it’s lucky my fiancé has been able to stay home because people have been going and coming from my apartment and nobody has told us who or when to expect them, just showing up."
Rollins said it's important that people first call their landlord to report an issue, but having a request in writing as back up for proof is also important. She said people should detail the damage and ask for it to be fixed, then send it through certified mail to the same place they would send rent.
Landlords are required to respond in a reasonable amount of time, which is considered within seven days.