During a tour of a first-floor apartment in Cypress, Tracy Quach, a piano teacher looking for a home for her family, remembers asking a very specific question:
“Hey, has this place ever flooded?”
She said management told her no, and she moved in.
Less than a month later, Hurricane Harvey hit. Her apartment got four feet of water, and she lost nearly everything — the furniture she’d just bought, her kids’ artwork, even her husband’s ashes. Her renters insurance didn’t reimburse her for any of the belongings she lost, though fortunately she was able to salvage her piano.
“They really should have been upfront and honest, because what I learned was that this was not the first time that they flooded,” Quach said. “They had most certainly flooded before.”
In Texas, as in many states, property owners have to disclose flood risk information to home buyers — but not to renters. Landlords currently don’t have to tell potential renters if a property flooded in the past, or if it’s in an area prone to flooding.
That could change with a bill making its way through the Texas legislature. House Bill 531, authored by state Rep. Armando Walle, D-Houston, would give renters a similar warning.
The impact could be enormous, especially in the Houston area, where around half a million renters live in a floodplain, according to research from the Kinder Institute at Rice University.
“What we would want from the landlords would be just to give a simple notice that the place has been flooded before or is in the 100-year floodplain,” Walle said.
It’s rare for a state to give renters that kind of protection. Georgia has some renter disclosures, but the Texas law would be more comprehensive.
“Texas is probably one of the best states, if not right now the best state, in terms of flood risk disclosure,” said Joel Scata, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council who monitors flood risk disclosure laws. “If this bill gets passed, I think no other state will compare.”
The bill passed the House with bipartisan support. It could make it through the Senate before the session ends in May.
A Houston Public Media survey of city council candidates in 2019 found 97% of respondents supported flood risk disclosure requirements for rental properties.
David Mintz, vice president of government affairs with the Texas Apartment Association, said the statewide group representing landlords is on board.
“We feel that it takes a reasonable approach to providing people with the information that they need while not imposing any undue burdens on property owners,” Mintz said.
Renters deserve the same opportunity to make informed choices that homebuyers have, said Chrishelle Palay, executive director of the HOME Coalition. But tenants typically aren’t held in the same regard, even though they she said they have much more to lose.
That’s because when flooded renters lose everything, they’re less likely to get help from FEMA or insurance companies — renters insurance typically doesn’t cover flooding.
“I think a lot of times the automatic response is, ‘well, if they have renters insurance, they’ll be protected,’” Palay said. “But that’s not true.”
A Texas Senate committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the bill on Tuesday.