'If You Can, Pay Your Rent' And 4 Other Things To Know If You're An Austin Tenant Amid This Pandemic

Mar 31, 2020

More than half of Austin residents are renters. At the beginning of each month, rent is due for tenants with cut hours, cut wages or no wages at all as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced workplaces to close.

KUT spoke with housing lawyers and tenant advocates to understand what renters can do when the rent comes due.

1. If You Can, Pay Your Rent – In Full And On Time

“If people are able to pay their rent, they need to do that,” said Marissa Latta, a housing lawyer for Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. “If they can't do that, they should talk to their landlord and they should try to pay their rent as soon as they can when they have the financial means to do so.”

On Thursday, City Council members gave renters 60 days to come up with owed rent from the time a landlord starts threatening eviction. But, said Latta, that will include any accrued rent and late fees (tackled below) from those two months. It is not a rent-forgiveness measure; it simply buys renters more time to come up with the cash.

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“None of these protections that we’ve seen at the local or federal level forgive anyone’s obligation to pay rent,” Latta said.

If you live in housing where the rent you pay is based on your income, such as public housing or Section 8 housing, Latta said you should report any change in income as soon as you can.

2. If You Can’t Pay, Talk To Your Landlord

“Communication, communication, communication,” Emily Blair, executive vice president of the Austin Apartment Association, told KUT last week.

Blair said her group has advised its landlord members to reach out to tenants to see if they’ve lost wages because of the pandemic and to consider offering payment plans, as some landlords have done, or waiving late fees.

But if you agree to anything, it’s important to get that in writing.

“Document, document, document,” said Shoshana Krieger, project director of Building and Strengthening Tenant Action, or BASTA. “If you know that you have lost income and you’re not going to be able to pay, put that in writing.”

Austin Tenants Council Executive Director Jeannie Nelson said the dramatic economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic may put renters in better positions to negotiate with their landlords.

“We were in a situation a few weeks ago where landlords had people kind of lined up with money in hand – if you left their property they were just going to just move somebody in right behind you, no problem,” Nelson said. “That’s not the case today.”

“Landlords also need to pay their bills. They are in a position where they probably are going to have to negotiate with tenants at this point," she said.

3. Most Renters Can Still Be Charged Late Fees

The stimulus bill signed by President Donald Trump protects renters in public housing and other subsidized housing from accruing fees for rent paid late. It also extends these protections to tenants in properties financed with federally backed mortgages, although most tenants likely don't know how their buildings are mortgaged. 

But those renting from private landlords without a federally backed mortgage can still be charged late fees, even during the extra 60-day grace period City Council passed. In Texas, a late fee typically equates to 10% to 12% of your monthly rent. Landlords can start charging fees a couple days after rent is due.  

Potential late fees are another reason to pay on time, if at all possible, Krieger said.

“It can be hard to catch up once you’re behind,” she said.

4. Evictions Are On Hold In Much Of Central Texas

Landlords with tenants in Austin cannot file an eviction right now; they can threaten one, but because of the new rules passed by City Council, a landlord would have to wait 60 days before starting the official process.

Some renters may be protected from an eviction for even longer. Included in the federal stimulus bill is a 120-day eviction moratorium for tenants in subsidized housing and those living in housing financed by a federally backed mortgage. But again, this requires renters to know financing details of the property they’re living in.

If you live in a part of Central Texas where landlords can immediately file an eviction, it’s possible a judge won’t hear the case for some time. The Texas Supreme Court has stalled eviction hearings until April 20, while judges in Travis, Hays and Williamson counties have suspended hearings even longer – in some cases until into May.

5. A Landlord Cannot Lock You Out

State law gives landlords recourse other than eviction if a tenant has not paid their rent, including changing the locks on an apartment or taking the tenant’s belongings.

But an order signed by Mayor Steve Adler on Friday suspends these rights.

This story was originally published on March 31.

Clarification: This story was updated to note renters in properties that are financed by federally backed mortgages are also protected from late fees. 

Got a tip? Email Audrey McGlinchy at audrey@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @AKMcGlinchy.

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