Renting in a pandemic: How Austin tenants and landlords are proceeding amid economic fallout of coronavirus

(Chance Flowers/Community Impact Newspaper)
(Chance Flowers/Community Impact Newspaper)

(Chance Flowers/Community Impact Newspaper)

April 1 means rent is due, and marks the first due date for most of the city’s renters since the coronavirus pandemic upended the economy and healthcare system in Austin and across the globe.

Anxiety over ability to pay April’s rent began for many Austinites after local authorities chose on March 6 to shut down South By Southwest—the most lucrative 10 days of the year for many in the service industry— to mitigate potential harm from the highly contagious coronavirus.

Since then, the city and state have issued orders to prohibit dine-in services at restaurants and bars, shut down operation of non-essential businesses and have everyone stay in their homes unless leaving is absolutely necessary. These decisions have tanked local commerce, led to thousands of unemployment claims and traded the health of the economy for the health and lives of Austinites.

Acknowledging these drastic but crucial measures, local authorities have worked in the last several weeks to protect renters and prevent evictions and further economic harm from the pandemic; however, the fallout from the virus has posed significant challenges for renters and landlords alike.

Rent is still due

Thus far, no rent forgiveness plans or laws have been passed by elected officials, which means rent is still due on April 1. Fred Fuchs, an attorney with Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, an organization which advocates for low-income Texans, said those who can pay rent should.

“First bit of advice is, if you have the ability to pay rent, then you should pay rent,” Fuchs said.

According to Fuchs, despite some protections in place, paying now will save renters from problems of rent debt down the line.

For those that cannot pay rent, advocates from Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, Building and Strengthening Tenant Action, or BASTA, and the Austin Apartments Association say renters should immediately reach out to their landlords and try to work out a plan for incremental payments, rent deferral options and late fee waivers.

Renee Zahn, vice president of the Austin Apartments Association, which represents 1,000 landlord or property management members and roughly 212,000 rental units in Austin, said the priority is to “keep folks in their homes.”

The association is urging its members to work with tenants experiencing financial hardship from the virus and to find solutions that work for everyone.

“Our members are certainly concerned with where they are going to land,” Zahn said. “We want to develop a sense of community with renters. Keeping folks in their homes and having rent paid is what keeps housing maintained; it’s what keeps housing affordable.”

Protective ordinances and orders

For tenants whose landlords are not flexible about rent, local leaders have passed a few laws that aim to protect renters from being put on the street if they cannot pay their rent because of the virus.

On March 26, Austin City Council passed a law that requires local landlords give tenants 60 days to pay missed rent before they can begin eviction proceedings. According to the new law, upon missed rent, landlords have to notify tenants of an eviction proposal. From the day the tenant receives the notice of the proposed eviction, they have 60 days to pay the missed rent before an official eviction process can begin. The law covers missed rent up until May 8.

Fuchs called the new law an “extremely significant” protection and a “huge benefit” for tenants across Austin. Typically, three days after missed rent, Fuchs said landlords can issue tenants a notice to vacate the property and begin eviction proceedings.

The Austin Apartments Association came out against the law. Zahn said the law creates confusion as it alters lease agreements throughout the city and landlords now have to operate under opposing state and city regulations. Zahn said she was unaware of any legal action being taken against the city at this time.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler also signed a mayoral order on March 26 that forbids landlords from issuing tenants a notice to vacate, locking tenants out of their units, and removing or seizing tenants’ property for missed payment. The law remains in effect through May 8.

More help on the way

Shoshana Krieger, project director with BASTA, which works to organize and give voice to low-income tenants across the city, said although April’s rent is causing problems, paying rent on May 1 will be the more widespread issue. Krieger said almost half of the tenants BASTA works with have reported job losses.

“There is a ton of anxiety and fear,” Krieger said. “For people who can pay rent this month, are they going to be able to pay next month? How will they be able to absorb the economic hit they are taking? The threats from landlords are just another layer of anxiety.”

When City Council passed the 60-day rule in March, City Council Member Greg Casar acknowledged it was not enough and said the measures were meant to buy time for the city to develop financial relief programs. Those programs could be in front of City Council by next week.

Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza said she is working with her colleagues to draft a resolution for City Council approval on April 9 that would send city budget funds to local non-profit organizations that help vulnerable citizens with rental assistance, food, medication, diapers and shelter. Casar said the money would be drawn from emergency budget funds the city has on hand for such dire situations.

Garza said the package is meant to cover the city’s most vulnerable residents and those who may be left behind by the federal government’s stimulus package.

“There are a lot of families left out of that package,” Garza said of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, signed into law by U.S. President Donald Trump on March 27. “They won’t get a check; they won’t qualify for additional unemployment. We just want to reach our most vulnerable people.”

The mayor and council will also vote on another resolution April 9 aimed at urging financial institutions, from banks to lenders, to work with and help their clients and show flexibility during the pandemic. The resolution follows calls from Austin Mayor Steve Adler for banks to “show grace” during this time.

Much of the resolution is only a strong urging on behalf of City Council and does not carry much teeth; however, the last section of the resolution does direct the city manager to close a loophole that allows payday lenders to charge predatory interest rates. If passed, City Manager Spencer Cronk would come back to City Council with a related law change April 23.