Renters Displaced By Harvey Worry About Their Legal Rights
Like thousands of Hurricane Harvey victims, Patricia Belcher spent her time last week in limbo. She and her family were stuck in a shelter in Austin after the managers of her Victoria apartment complex called with bad news.
“There’s no way for us to get into [the apartment],” she said. “[The storm] damaged the roof, so we have no roof. They’re trying to go over there and put a tarp on it. But [the managers said] for us not to come home yet, 'cause we can’t go into the apartment.”
A call like that can prompt a ton of legal questions: Do I still need to pay rent? Can I be evicted while my landlord renovates? What happens to my things?
And those are exactly the types of calls Texas RioGrande Legal Aid says it has been getting lately.
“They want to know what their rights are,” Robert Doggett, a lawyer with the group, said. “We’ve gotten many, many calls about this particular problem. The landlords are out there giving everyone notice to get out. And there’s no place for them to go.”
He said if a property is unlivable a landlord can terminate a lease, but there’s a process for that.
“Ultimately, a landlord can’t just throw their stuff out and can’t just lock the door. They’d have to file an eviction in court, and a judge would have to make that determination,” he said. “It’s not the best route, but if that’s all you’ve got, then that’s what you’ve got to do and hopefully the landlord will be more reasonable.”
Other questions evacuees might ask include: Can I put off mortgage payments? Can I be charged a fee for late rent? Am I eligible for unemployment benefits?
Doggett said rules can change after a disaster. Cities can institute rent control, for example, which is something he advocates. For those seeking unemployment payments, he said, “there’s a special disaster employment compensation package that’s offered in these situations.”
His group has a table set up at the new resource center for storm victims in Austin to answer those questions.