Apartment damaged from the winter storm? Here are some answers about what you should do next

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Apartment tenants across Central Texas, who have severe damage from the winter storm or who have been displaced until repairs can be completed, have lots of questions about their rights.

Michele Seif, who lives in Bee Cave, saw water pour from her walls as the overhead sprinkler system pipes split from the freeze.

“It was a waterfall and it was filling up so fast. I was standing in the hallway and looking, like, ‘what’s going to happen?'” Seif said. “I just stood there. I didn’t know what to do.”

On Wednesday, she spent the afternoon moving her belongings around, searching for dry spots to air out her moldy furniture. She and her two daughters have been staying in a hotel since last week. Seif said she is upset that her apartment complex isn’t helping foot that bill or taking more immediate action to remedy the situation.

“It’s been over a week so I feel like there should have been more help,” Seif said. “Carpets still aren’t replaced, they haven’t really helped at all and now we are finding that there is mold everywhere. My bed is covered.”

KXAN reached out to the Austin Tenants Council to find out exactly what a landlord’s responsibilities are for a tenant. Molly Jensen, the executive director of the council, said that her team has been flooded with calls and online messages asking for help and clarity.

Jensen said that landlords have a “reasonable amount of time” to fix repairs, typically presumed as seven days. However, if the landlord needs to file an insurance claim to fix that damage, repairs don’t need to begin until an insurance check is received to cover the costs.

Also, in most apartment lease agreements, there is no responsibility for the landlord to pay or find alternate accommodations, even if the unit is inhabitable. But FEMA can help pay for that. You can file within 60 days following the official disaster declaration.

There are also important nuances with renter’s insurance plans, which could provide funds to replace destroyed furniture. Jensen said to make sure you read your plan carefully. Also, continue to take and store pictures and documents that will allow the claims process to move quickly and allows you to settle disputes effectively.

In the end, Jensen said to just be honest with yourself and your apartment management about your needs. She said she has seen a lot of grace between both parties, with many landlords allowing tenants to break their lease early or move into an available unit elsewhere.

“We are really encouraging folks to talk to their landlord, first and foremost, so it doesn’t have to be a contentious issue,” Jensen said.

The Austin Tenants Council has supplied this long list of frequently asked questions that can help provide clarity during this period of uncertainty.

(1) What federal disaster assistance is available?  

Because Travis County and surrounding counties have been declared a federal disaster area, FEMA assistance is available for tenants who qualify. To be considered for assistance, tenants will need to file a claim if they have suffered damages.  Tenants will need to take photos and document conditions. 

FEMA Helpline: 800.621.3362 (emergency assistance)  

Disaster Recovery Centers may look different during a pandemic. You should try to apply online or by phone as soon as a Major Declaration of Disaster has happened. You can apply online at DisasterAssistance.gov and check your application status there as well. You can also apply through the FEMA app on your smartphone or by calling FEMA at 800-621-3362. Disaster survivors who are deaf, hard of hearing, or have a speech disability and use TTY may call 800-462-7585. Disaster survivors who use 711 or VRS (Video Relay Service) may call 800-621-3362  

Note:  FEMA will not cover damages when insurance provides coverage.  It will not cover the insurance deductible. 

Tenants in doubt should apply within the 60-day application period. 

(2) How should I notify my landlord of damage and request repairs 

A tenant with a repair issue should not only notify the landlord by repair portal, text, email, telephone, or an n-person visit to the management office of the needed repairs, but should also send a formal written request for repairs by regular mail and certified mail.  Such notice enables a tenant to invoke their legal remedies for a landlord’s failure to repair if the landlord does not repair as required. 

(3) What if my rental unit had a pre-existing issues that my landlord neglected to fix and these issues were made worse by the storm. Do I have any recourse?  

 If (1) a landlord is negligent in failing to repair and (2) the negligence results in tenant property damages, and (3) the damage was foreseeable, the tenant may recover in a suit against the landlord under a common law theory of negligence.  If the landlord denies knowledge about the defect, it is a question for the court whether the landlord knew and can sometimes be difficult to prove; but when a landlord’s negligence in repair results in foreseeable property damage, a tenant may recover without having given the required notices under the Property Code. 

(4) Are tenants entitled to prorated rent or prorated utilities based on service interruption?   

No.  But utility costs will be less when tenant not using utilities. 

(5) What if my unit is part of a master metered property and the entire building lost water? Will I be charged under the same allocation formula?  

Yes, absent something in the lease. If questions, tenants may file a complaint on the landlord with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. 

(6) Can I terminate my lease based on disaster damage? 

The same conditions for lease termination would apply after the disaster with casualty loss being the exception. 

For more information go to: https://texaslawhelp.org/article/renters-rights-and-disaster-relief 

(7) How much time does my landlord have to make repairs of disaster damage? 

Landlord must repair within reasonable time period.  That is presumed to be within 7 days of notice, but, broken water pipes, sewage overflows, require immediate attention. But if the repair condition resulted from an insured casualty loss, the repair period does not begin until the landlord receives insurance proceeds. 

(8) What if my unit is not in habitable condition after the disaster?  

This is governed by 92.054 of the Property Code: “(b) If after a casualty loss the rental premises are as a practical matter totally unusable for residential purposes and if the casualty loss is not caused by the negligence or fault of the tenant, a member of the tenant’s family, or a guest or invitee of the tenant, either the landlord or the tenant may terminate the lease by giving written notice to the other any time before repairs are completed.  If the lease is terminated, the tenant is entitled only to a pro rata refund of rent from the date the tenant moves out and to a refund of any security deposit otherwise required by law.” 

(9) Is it possible to get assistance with moving costs when the move is necessitated by disaster damage? 

Moving costs are not covered under section 92.054(b) of the Property Code.  But FEMA may cover the costs for tenants.  Tenants should document the condition, keep all expenses records and file claim with FEMA on-line.  

(10) Do landlords have a financial obligation to cover alternate accommodations until disaster damage is repaired and unit is habitable? 

Landlords do not have this financial obligation unless the lease requires it. Tenants can file a claim with FEMA for financial assistance related to alternate accommodations.   

(11) Can a landlord just prorate rent, leaving the tenant responsible for 1) finding accommodations and 2) paying out of pocket.  

See 92.054 of the Property Code.  Tenant does not have claim against landlord to provide other shelter.  Tenants should file FEMA claim. 

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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