Houston’s stressed tenants battle landlords with new help: tenant union

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Raimy Aguilar had started to cringe in his sleep.

After a year of rain that seeped into her apartment and a week without running water, she decided in February to join her neighbors in Villas del Paseo for a rent strike.

Texas law was not on their side. Whether or not an apartment is habitable or maintained in a timely manner, landlords have the right to evict if tenants withhold rent. But Aguilar and his neighbors felt trapped – they couldn’t stand the living conditions, but neither could they see a way to escape until their leases were running out.

“Something had to be done,” Aguilar said, recalling the stress of the situation. “They must have been held accountable somehow.”

Houston tenants are increasingly coming to similar conclusions. In situations where they have little recourse under the law, they band together to exert pressure through other means, such as rent strikes and bad publicity. The Houston Tenants Union, a relatively new organization that acts as a sort of consultant, goes behind the scenes, explaining how the law works, what strategies can be used, and how frustrated tenants can connect with each other. other.

In Villas del Paseo, in western Houston, it was the Houston Tenants Union that recommended tenants knock on their neighbors’ doors to involve others, like Aguilar. And it was the group of tenants who explained the issues when tenants raised the possibility of withholding rent.

Stress has set in among tenants who have chosen to strike over the months since paying their last rent, and talks with Comuna Property Management, which operated the complex, have not advanced. Aguilar collapsed crying and asked her boyfriend, David Kinard, if he was going to be kicked out. He reassured her that they would take care of things as they came.

Aguilar and his neighbors wanted a rent credit of $ 500 per apartment for weeks spent without water, exemption from late fees, and the ability to break their lease without penalty. They also called for regular progress reports on repairs, inspections and mold treatments, and a promise to respond to messages and calls from tenants within 24 hours.

Tenants who make such demands and are satisfied with them are almost unheard of in Texas. Tenants’ lawyers have long lamented the ineffectiveness of Texas law in protecting those who lack the resources to take legal action against uncooperative landlords.

But on May 10, after 71 days of a rent strike that began after the winter storm in February, their landlords agreed to all of the above, organizers said. Comuna Property Management did not respond to a request for comment.

Houston Apartment Association board member Stephanie Graves said that in general tenants and landlords should work together to resolve their issues. The rent retention tactic worried her, she said, as the loss of income could force a landlord to sell and the new buyer could raise rents and evict tenants.

Instead, she pointed to the Houston Apartment Association’s Resident Relations Committee, which receives complaints from tenants and attempts to resolve them, as a less risky route to resolving issues.

“Not paying rent and saying, ‘We’re not going to pay rent because we don’t think we’ve been treated fairly,’ I don’t think that’s the right way to sit at the table, ” he said. she declared. .

However, Aguilar said the deal not only relieved her – she was no longer cringing her teeth – but also a feeling that the balance of power between tenants and landlords had shifted.

“They listened and sat down with us and came to the table. “

Members of the Houston Tenants Union and other citizens stand in solidarity during a protest march at West University on Thursday, June 9, 2021.

Annie Mulligan, Houston Chronicle / Contributor

A growing effort

The Houston Tenants Union was founded on June 14, 2019 in the living room of an apartment in the Third Quarter. Many of the dozen people who gathered that evening were involved in other organizing efforts in the city. Oliver Lawrence and Stone, for example, had organized tenants in Greenspoint, where they lived. Gus Breslauer had done similar work in Southwest Houston and the Third Ward.

Together, they crafted a vision for what they hoped to achieve: a network of organized tenants spread across the vast Houston area who would be able to lobby landlords to tackle issues such as mold, pests, lack of repairs, predatory towing practices and unfair evictions.

The last time community organizers remember a tenants union in Houston was in the 1970s. At that time, there was no state law stating that landlords had to keep properties in good condition. living conditions, and the Dallas-based Texas Tenants Union had branches statewide.

According to Sandy Rollins, executive director of the group, many tenants were organizing in neighborhoods like East Dallas, where property values ​​were increasing but buildings were decrepit. There, some landlords racked up code violations until the city closed them down and then sold the property.

Now, say housing advocates, tenants are in a hurry again.

On a recent panel on the state of housing in Houston, Zoe Middleton, Southeast Texas director of advocacy group Texas Housers, noted that much of the current housing stock was built during the oil boom. 1970s and early 1980s. A report from the Kinder Institute shows that 1983 was the peak year for construction of rental properties in Harris County.

On HoustonChronicle.com: “Stuck in this hell”: the anemic protections of tenants in Texas

“We have a lot of that stock that’s hitting the 40-year mark and has to withstand heavy… rains, extraordinarily high temperatures,” Middleton said. “And so you see this real problem with mold and other health impacts.”

At the same time, more and more people are finding it difficult to find rents suited to their budget. Housing is considered affordable if it occupies no more than 30 percent of a household’s income, yet 51 percent of renters in Houston and Harris County pay more than that for housing.

“Rents are rising and conditions are deteriorating,” said Zoey Stone, one of the founding members of the Houston Tenants Union, explaining why she started organizing tenants.

The Houston Tenants Union launched a website, and in April 2020, during the pandemic, a tenant contacted saying he had his deposit unfairly withheld after moving out. The group has since grown to around 100 members, many of whom remain after previous campaigns. Aguilar, for example, still meets weekly with his neighbors in Villas del Paseo to discuss tenant issues.

Royal Sumikat leads chants during a protest march at Western University on Thursday, June 9, 2021.

Royal Sumikat leads chants during a protest march at Western University on Thursday, June 9, 2021.

Annie Mulligan, Houston Chronicle / Contributor

Apply a pressure

On a recent Thursday night, Nina Mayers walked towards the pillar-flanked door of a two-story brick house at the University of the West. It was the home of a managing director at Arris Real Estate Partners, who owns Mayers’ apartment.

While the hundreds of families at Villas del Paseo were strong in numbers – over 40 percent of the resort decided to withhold rent until demands were met – a large portion of tenants live in houses or apartments. Small apartment buildings owned by mom-and-pop investors.

In these cases, the Houston Tenants Union calls on tenants of other properties to stand alongside the tenant making claims.

About 30 people gathered on the sidewalk behind Mayers, many holding up their cellphones to capture what would happen next. When the residents of the University of the West house said they would not come out, Mayers picked up the speaker.

“We have had over a dozen ignored redress requests,” Mayers said. “Property management has failed to fix the mold, violating a landlord’s obligations to remove conditions that materially affect the physical health or safety of an ordinary tenant, from Texas Property Code 92.056.

“My roommate received a note from a licensed physician that the prolonged exposure to black mold has caused breathing problems and that they are personally recommending that our lease be broken… Let’s break our lease.”

Arris Real Estate Partners sent a request for comment to Asset Living, the property manager hired to oversee the Mayers building. Joe Goodwin, vice president of student housing at Asset Living, disputed the black mold accusations. He and said that by the time a cleaning crew gained access to the apartment, the tenants had moved out.

Asset Living did not agree to release Mayers and his roommate from their lease, which meant they had to pay rent for the time they did not live there. “After contacting the resident to discuss the issue, we were unable to find common ground,” Goodwin said.

At the home of the University of the West, a police SUV pulled up, then a second, then a third. The band erupted singing, “No more black mold! then classified. As they turned the corner, they burst into cheers.

A fourth SUV pulled up – not the police this time, but a man curious as to what was going on. “Whose house was this house?” He asked.

Back at the parking lot, Mayers thanked everyone who had come and urged them to continue taking organized action around the accommodation.

“These are not unique conditions for me,” she said. “We deserve an accessible, safe, clean and livable life. And this is something we should ask if we are paying for it.

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