Austin renters will get time to pay overdue rent before facing eviction
The majority of people living in Austin rent. That fact often gets lost at City Council meetings, where nearly all the elected officials own their homes and those who tend to show up are also homeowners.
But on Thursday, council members put renters at the forefront of their discussion. Of two ordinances they approved, one could help renters stave off eviction and another is intended to ward off landlord backlash when tenants organize.
The new laws came as a result of months of negotiations between the city, tenant advocacy groups and landlord associations — described, by one council member as a “delicate balance.”
“We know that the majority of Austinites are renters and certainly given the housing crisis we’re in and the escalation of rent that we’ve seen in our community, having this set of policies … [goes] a long way,” Council Member Vanessa Fuentes, who represents Southeast Austin, said between votes.
The first ordinance, referred to as a "right to cure" law, requires landlords who own five or more homes to give tenants more time to either pay rent or fix a lease violation. Currently, state law requires landlords to give tenants behind on rent a three-day notice before filing an eviction in court. But, landlords can write a shorter or longer notice time in their lease.
The ordinance passed Thursday gives tenants at least seven more days to pay rent. It goes into effect Nov. 7.
The second ordinance establishes that renters have the right to organize. Tenant associations have been created, often with the help of the nonprofit Building and Strengthening Tenant Action (BASTA), across the city. Often, these associations have formed at apartment buildings where tenants are protesting poor living conditions.
At a rally outside City Hall hours before the vote, renters and tenant advocates shared stories of having the police called on them for organizing.
“Right now landlords, property managers, have too much power and often humiliate and treat tenants in ways that are undignified,” João Paulo Connolly, organizing director at the Austin Justice Coalition, said. "We have a real opportunity today to change that."
Early in the pandemic, tenants struggled to pay their rent following widespread job loss and stay-at-home orders. The city responded by banning most evictions and making millions of dollars in rent assistance available — much of which came from federal funds.
But both the bans on evictions and rent help have expired. At the same time, rent prices in the city have ballooned since 2020. While that hasn't led to a "wave" of evictions predicted by some, the numbers of evictions filed weekly has started to edge closer to pre-pandemic levels.
“Right now tenants are under some of the greatest pressures they’ve ever been in our city and their leverage for change is much more limited,” Heather Way, a professor at the UT Austin School of Law, said. “It’s more important now than ever that we give them tools to be able to speak out against landlord abuses and misconduct.”
But landlords and groups that represent them came out Thursday to protest the new measures.
Lyndsay Hanes, who said she owns 321 apartments in the city, said giving tenants more time to pay overdue rent could threaten her ability to pay her mortgages.
“Adding an unproven ‘notice to cure’ will give residents that regularly pay late the illusion that the rent due date has changed,” Hanes, president of Metric Property Management, told council members. “It will cause me to be in default of my loan every month, jeopardizing the availability of quality, affordable housing in Austin.”
Emily Blair, executive vice president of the Austin Apartment Association, told KUT the city’s ordinance is out of step with state law, which dictates the eviction process.
“We do believe that the ordinance is not really within the city’s powers to enact,” Blair said. When asked if the association has considered suing the city, she said that has not been discussed.
As for how these ordinances will be enforced, landlords could be fined up to $500 if they retaliate or try to prohibit tenants from organizing. (Tenants are also allowed to invite guests, such as tenant organizers, onto the property.)
Despite the fact that landlords have called the police on tenants who have organized, the Austin Police Department was not involved in writing the ordinance. A city spokesperson said it will be up to the city manager to advise police on how to follow the new law.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the "right to cure" ordinance gives tenants at least two weeks of additional time to pay rent. It gives them at least seven days. The story has also been corrected to show current state law does not give tenants the option to pay late rent to avoid eviction.