Texas law gives several protections to apartment renters whose homes were flooded in Hurricane Harvey, but many landlords for the first time are using special provisions to make residents leave on short notice, legal experts said.
“If someone’s apartment is totally uninhabitable, the law says the landlord or the tenant can terminate the lease,” said Richard Tomlinson, director of litigation for Lone Star Legal Aid’s Houston office. “The most common lease is the Texas Apartment Association lease, which says you have to provide a five-day notice.
The law hasn’t changed recently, but is being used in ways not often seen before, some legal experts said.
“What we are finding is that a lot of landlords for the first time have been exercising their rights under this. They’ll give tenants notice and say they have five days to dispose of all of their materials and get out.”
Hurricane Harvey made landfall Aug. 25 in Rockport, about 200 miles south of Galveston County. It dumped more than 50 inches of rain in some parts of this county, swelling creeks and bayous and flooding an estimated 20,000 homes in the county and devastating parts of Houston.
The storm severely damaged many apartment complexes in the region. A survey of about 2,600 complexes in the area showed more than 14,800 apartments sustained damage from Hurricane Harvey, said Suzy Hartgrove, spokeswoman for ApartmentData.com.
Connie Shown, who lived in Ebbtide Apartments, 100 Market St., in Galveston, was told by owners to move because of damage from Harvey, she said. Shown said the damage — some leaks in the hallway — was present before the storm.
Shown and her roommate didn’t know their rights as renters, but after contacting attorneys, the two were surprised to hear there wasn’t much they could do, she said.
“We didn’t have a choice,” Shown said. “They have the right to terminate our lease. It’s so bad when people can do people like that.”
After multiple requests for comment, apartment managers at Ebbtide declined to speak on the record about the situation.
While having a limited time to move everything out of an apartment is difficult for anyone in the immediate aftermath of a hurricane, the situation is especially dire for elderly residents, Tomlinson said.
“It’s been really hard for them to find alternative housing anywhere near where they currently live,” Tomlinson said. “Moving fragile residents is hard on them. I fear for their safety if forced to move really quickly, especially if it’s involuntary. It’s the nature of the beast right now. It will hopefully get better with time, but that could be months.”
Cheryl Smith, a former Dickinson resident, said her lease was terminated because of the storm, and she still hasn’t found a permanent place to stay. Smith lived at Creekside Apartments, 406 Deats Road, where the Dickinson fire marshal ordered power to be shut down in late September because of fire and other safety concerns.
“We found ourselves in a predicament,” Smith said. “They haven’t compensated us in any way.”
Residents forced out of their apartments are finding the nearest advertised places to move are as far as 75 miles away, Tomlinson said.
“There’s not much affordable housing,” Tomlinson said. “So many homes were destroyed.”
The average monthly rent has increased $16 since Hurricane Harvey to about $1,000 a month, Hartgrove said.
The average before the storm was about $984, Hartgrove said.
Shown and her roommate experienced the rising rents firsthand, she said. They eventually found a place to stay in Texas City because it was more affordable, she said.
“We wanted to stay in Galveston, but everybody’s rent was going up,” Shown said. “That’s always been our dream to live in Galveston.”
Lone Star Legal Aid volunteers have already filed seven lawsuits — four in Harris County and three in Jefferson County — fighting the short-notice evictions renters are facing, Tomlinson said.
“In Texas, there are special statutes about casualty losses — the big events that could damage rental housing,” Tomlinson said. “It’s pretty clear what happens and what you can do. Of course, there are always then disagreements about whether the law applies or not.”
Under Texas Property Code, a tenant can terminate a lease only if the apartment is totally uninhabitable in its current condition, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid officials said.
If the apartment is partially usable, residents are eligible to request a temporary rent reduction, but that may require a court order, officials said.
Shown, on the other hand, said she barely had time to think about the situation before leaving her apartment.
“It was such a quick thing,” Shown said. “We thought life was going to be good but we never thought this was going to happen.”