As Audrey Alvarez drove home from work Friday and past the electric gate of her apartment complex, her husband was on the phone, questioning her.
“OK, do you see anything by the trash cans?” Eric Limón asked. No, nothing.
Alvarez got to their building at the back of the complex and parked.
“Is there anything outside of where our steps are?” he asked. Nope.
She walked up the stairs to their apartment on the second floor.
“Do you see like a block or a lock on our door?”
“No, the door opened,” Alvarez told him over the phone.
“Take a deep breath,” Limón said. “No more today.”
At the end of April, the owners of their Austin apartment complex sent Alvarez and Limón a notice saying their two-bedroom apartment, which had been damaged by burst pipes during the February winter storm, was “totally unusable” and they had one week to leave. If they didn’t, the letter said, the landlord would remove their possessions.
“Now we can’t be here? Now it’s not safe? Now it’s uninhabitable?” Alvarez asked, emphasizing the word “now.” The couple lives in Mueller Flats, a large apartment complex just off I-35 in North Austin, where tenants have been protesting living conditions following the storm.
In February, water began gushing behind their bedroom wall after a pipe burst in a neighbor’s apartment; Alvarez and Limón said it sounded like a waterfall, and the noise kept them up. The couple quickly moved their things into their second bedroom, which they used as a guest room for when their kids visited.
Eventually, the wall in their bedroom began bulging from the moisture and mold grew. At least a month passed, Alvarez said, before repairmen hired by the owners showed up. But the job remains half-finished; last week, a plastic sheet hung over a strip of wall that had yet to be replaced, and the bedroom was cold from a lack of insulation.
“We have been working with an independent third party to assess the level of damage, and they determined that to perform the necessary work, some tenants will need to move out to ensure the safety of all of those involved, which is our top priority,” Cary Krier, president of the company that owns Mueller Flats, wrote in an emailed statement provided by a public relations firm.
“Those tenants are able to end their leases with no penalty whatsoever, and we are offering a no-rent transition period, allowing them to find other housing. We are actively working to address every resident’s needs and do everything we can to minimize impacts during this challenging time.”
Each night Alvarez and Limón pull their mattress from the second bedroom into the living room; that’s where they’ve been sleeping since February.
“It’s embarrassing that we’re living this way,” Alvarez said. The couple said they’ve continued to pay their rent, which is $1,600 a month. They’ve contacted a lawyer and plan to fight their landlord’s kick-out.
“To think that we’re paying all this money for a two-bedroom and we’re only able to use the living room,” Alvarez said.
State law gives a landlord or tenant the right to end a lease early if an unexpected or unusual event damages the property, making it uninhabitable. Renters in the Austin area have been receiving these notices after freezing temperatures in February left much of the city without power and running water.
Tenant advocates fear that, coupled with rising rent prices in Austin and little legal recourse, landlords’ use of this state law will displace low-income renters from the city altogether.
“People are probably going to move out of Austin … that’s what some people have told me. They’re just going to go to Houston because what’s affordable here is a slum,” Gabby Garcia, project coordinator with Building and Strengthening Tenant Action (BASTA), said. BASTA has been helping renters, including those at Mueller Flats, organize tenants’ associations and protest delayed repairs.
Tenant advocates can’t say how many renters in the Austin area have been affected by notices like these; some estimate dozens, others thousands.
“The more that these storms happen,” Garcia said, “the more of these situations we’re going to see.”
‘A Slap In The Face’
When Maria Rico asked the property management company at Mueller Flats if she could have more than seven days to move out, it suggested she use Google to find a new place.
“We recommend you calling an apartment locator to assist you in finding a new home quickly. These are usually a free service and can be found quickly by doing a Google search,” reads an email Rico shared with KUT.
On Friday, half-full moving boxes were scattered around the two-bedroom apartment she shares with her boyfriend, two kids and a cat. What hadn’t been packed up was the mold: It dotted the wall in the corner of her bedroom and a portion of her closet. That’s where water gushed from the light fixture, she said, when a pipe broke during the freeze.
The family planned to be out by the end of the weekend. On the last day of April, they got the same notice as Alvarez and Limón: You have seven days to move out, otherwise we’ll remove your things.
By sheer luck, as Rico described it, she and her family found another apartment. But she had to borrow money from family to put down a deposit.
“No one is prepared to be thrown out in seven days. Who throws you out in seven days?” Rico asked in Spanish. “Especially when I have been paying rent.”
Marissa Latta, a lawyer with Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, said tenants feel insulted.
“It can feel like a slap in the face to people who have been living in that unit and paying rent in that unit for months to then be told you have five days or seven days to get everything out or else we will threaten to evict you,” she said.
Latta has been working with the tenants’ association at Mueller Flats, advising renters of their legal rights. BASTA has been doing the same; Garcia handed out flyers to tenants Friday evening, telling them to hang them outside their apartment doors.
“This unit is occupied!!” the flyer reads. “Do not change my locks or take my belongings. I have a right to go through a judicial process before my possessions and my household can be legally removed!!”
City’s Role Is ‘Limited’
According to a presentation to City Council members last week, Austin’s Code Department has issued 349 warnings to landlords who failed to repair damage caused by the winter storm and 10 violations.
The Code Department has the right to prohibit landlords who don’t make repairs quickly from renting apartments to new tenants, but the city has to first establish that landlords have a history of negligence before the department can restrict them. A spokesperson for the department said Tuesday it has not suspended any rental licenses in response to winter storm damage.
When the director of the Austin Tenants’ Council reached out to City Manager Spencer Cronk’s office in late March to ask what the city could do, the city said its power was “limited.”
“Because tenant-landlord issues are primarily regulated through state law and leases, the City’s role in these issues is limited,” Patricia Bourenane, assistant to Assistant City Manager Rey Arellano, wrote in an email shared with KUT.
“This means that the City lacks the authority to require a landlord to waive payments until water is restored. It is also not within the City’s authority to require landlords with a history of violations, to provide alternate housing or prohibit landlords from issuing notices of early lease terminations.”
Meanwhile, rent prices that had dropped during the pandemic have begun rising quickly. The place where Rico and her family moved to costs about the same per month — roughly $1,400 — but she’s worried because they had to find a new home so quickly, they may end up in the same situation. She didn’t have time, for example, to research how the management company at her new apartment treats its tenants.
“I don’t know if we’re moving to a better place,” Rico said in Spanish. “I don’t know if I made the best decision.”