(The Dallas Examiner) – In Texas, landlords hold the bulk of the power when it comes to the laws that govern the tenant-landlord relationship. Despite this, tenants do have rights, and it is essential renters are aware of their protections and the standards that must be upheld.
To educate tenants on how to handle repair requests, requests for reasonable accommodations, unethical landlords and when to involve an attorney, Self Help Tools for Tenants was presented by the Area Agency on Aging of North Central Texas and the North Texas Fair Housing Center. The free virtual webinar was facilitated by Marty Mascari of the North Texas Aging and Disability Services, with presenter Fair Housing executive director Frances Espinoza.
Handling repair requests
One of the top reasons tenants contact Fair Housing is unresolved repair requests. Espinoza encouraged tenants to always put their repair requests in writing. For communities that require tenants to submit requests via an online portal, She suggested tenants take a screenshot of the request in the event the portal does not provide a receipt or confirmation email. If mailing the repair request, send it via certified mail with return receipt requested or via another trackable mail carrier. If you hand deliver the repair request, always take a witness who is 18 or older and have the landlord or property manager sign a copy acknowledging receipt of the request.
“Landlords generally don’t like when tenants put stuff in writing. When you start documenting things, they seem to take it a little more seriously. All of this is in the hope that they will make the repairs that you need before you have to go an extra step,” Espinoza explained.
Espinoza said tenants should follow up with a second request, in writing, if the first repair request is not resolved promptly. The second repair request should state that the landlord’s or property manager’s failure to comply with the second request will result in the tenant exercising their rights under Chapter 92, Subchapter B of the Texas Property Code and will exercise their right to repair and deduct.
“The purpose of this letter is more like, maybe put them on notice that this stuff really needs to get done, but I don’t ever recommend following through on that repair and deduct thing. Unless you know you’re going to follow every single step in the statute for what the problem is that you’re having,” She cautioned.
Requests for reasonable accommodations
“This is the most common type of discrimination issue that we see at our office,” Espinoza stated.
A reasonable accommodation is a request to change or be exempt from rules, policies, or procedures. Under the Fair Housing Act, people with disabilities are entitled to request accommodations that allow them equal use and enjoyment of housing.
One of the most common accommodation requests is for an emotional service animal to be exempt from pet deposits. Other common requests include getting a parking space closer to the unit and allowing a caregiver to live in the tenant’s unit, according to Espinoza.
“We analyze them on a case-by-case basis because what’s reasonable at one apartment might not be reasonable at another, and what’s reasonable also may not be exactly what the tenant wants, but there may be another reasonable alternative that fills the need for the accommodation,” she said.
Similar to repair requests, reasonable accommodation requests should be in writing.
Unethical landlords – JP Court
Because Texas is a pro-property owner state, there aren’t many laws that guide the landlord-tenant relationship.
“Because of that, most of the elected officials don’t prioritize tenants’ rights, and so, even when there is new legislation proposed, it most times doesn’t even make it out of the committee so it can get voted on,” she explained. “If we want more laws that are helpful to tenants or talk about tenants’ rights, then we need to elect people that care about that issue.
Tenants’ recourse for unethical landlords or landlords who do not follow the law is to file a complaint with the Justice of the Peace Court, also called small claims court. JP Court has jurisdiction in civil matters involving no more than $20,000. The complaint must be filed at the JP Court, which is in the same city as the rental property.
An attorney is not necessary for most tenant-landlord disputes. In JC Court, tenants can represent themselves for affirmative claims and defend themselves against an eviction filed by a landlord. If you are being evicted, do not miss your court date, according to Espinoza. She suggested tenants contact Fair Housing’s legal aid for advice about defending themselves in court.
“I always recommend before you move into a rental and before you start unpacking your stuff, take photos of everything, and then when you move out after you move all your stuff out, take photos of the whole apartment again so you have something to compare how it was when you moved in and how you left it. Those are really important pieces of evidence for security deposit claims,” Espinoza advised.
When to involve an attorney
It is difficult to get a private attorney in a tenant-landlord case unless the tenant can afford to pay the attorney.
“One, they’re not big money cases. Number two, the damages that you’re seeking probably aren’t going to be economically attractive to an attorney,” she said.
An attorney may be more interested in a case with multiple tenants, such as widespread habitability cases.
If you are injured on the property due to a circumstance that should not have occurred, tenants can retain a personal injury attorney, who typically does not ask for payment upfront because they usually take approximately 33% of the damages awarded.
In closing, Mascari encouraged residents to talk to their local representatives and elected officials to let them know what issues are important to them regarding the tenant-landlord relationship and the laws that govern it.
For additional information or to report an incident, visit https://www.northtexasfairhousing.org.
Espinoza provided the following templates: Tenant’s first repair letter request, Tenant’s second repair letter request, and Tenant’s accommodation request letter.