AUSTIN (KXAN) — An extended outage affecting water, natural gas service or electricity could make it possible for Texas tenants to break their leases more easily — but only if a new piece of legislation makes it through this legislative session.
State Rep. Terry Meza, D-Irving, filed House Bill 1173 earlier this month that would allow someone to terminate a residential lease after certain outages of “essential utilities.” The utilities in question are electricity, water or natural gas, according to the proposal.
During an interview Friday with KXAN, Meza said the deadly winter storm in 2021 inspired the initial version of this legislation that she filed during the previous legislative session. This time she amended it to not include air conditioning and heat as some of the essential utilities, saying she did so after receiving feedback about some people’s concerns with that.
A lot of apartment complexes didn’t have basic needs. One of my own interns had gone 12 days without water where she lived because of the broken, busted water pipes,” Meza said. “It’s a long time, so tenants need to have some redress or ability to vacate and avoid liability protections.”
The legislation reads that a tenant who “does not have an essential utility due to an outage caused directly or indirectly by severe weather conditions may terminate the tenant’s lease, vacate the dwelling, and avoid liability for future rent and any other sums due under the lease for terminating the lease and vacating the dwelling before the end of the lease term.” However, someone would only be able to do this if three things happen first.
According to the bill, tenants would have to have written their landlord about the utility interruption. The affected utility would also have to not be restored before 48 hours after the tenants notified their landlord. Plus, the tenants would have to have notified their landlord in writing “about the intent to immediately break the lease because the essential utility was not restored.”
The bill specifies this would not apply to someone who lost an essential utility because of a planned interruption from a provider. It would also not waive the liability of “delinquent, unpaid rent” and “damages to the leased premises not caused by normal wear and tear.”
The Texas Apartment Association, which advocates for the state’s rental housing industry, is not taking a stance yet on this proposed legislation. However, David Mintz, the organization’s vice president of government affairs, shared a statement criticizing Meza’s bill.
“Massive utility outages can affect all customers in a utility’s service area, including rental properties, single-family homes and businesses,” Mintz said. “A widespread outage in a community shouldn’t be grounds for terminating a legal contract. Under this bill, an apartment community could lose all of its residents because there’s a boil water notice due to flooding or electric lines got knocked out after a hurricane.”
In response, Meza said tenants should not have to remain somewhere without knowing when their utilities would be restored.
“Hopefully, it won’t cause that kind of mass exodus from an apartment complex, but sometimes there are people who need to leave that area, right?” she said. “We don’t force homeowners to stay in their homes if their homes have been damaged by a storm and that it’s not livable. They’re allowed to have other recourse or go somewhere else. They’re not forced to stay in a damaged home. Why do we make tenants in apartment complexes be forced to stay there under conditions that are really not livable conditions?”
If this legislation clears the House and Senate and gets signed into law by the governor, the bill would take effect on Jan. 1, 2024. This proposal stipulates that it would only apply to a lease signed or renewed after this effective date.