What rights do renters have following a natural disaster?

Shannon Ryan Image
Saturday, May 25, 2024
What rights do renters have following a natural disaster?
What rights do renters have following a natural disaster?

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- What rights do renters have after a natural disaster? Max Perez contacted ABC13 asking that exact question.

On Friday, Perez's roof still sat tangled in the large ash tree in front of his apartment at Northwest Corners in Spring Branch.

"You feel bad because you lost everything," he explained.

His unit is now cluttered with glass and debris. There is little left of his ceiling but a gaping hole to the heavens.

Horrified, Perez sent his two children to stay with friends.

"I was scared. I just wanted to save my kids' lives," he explained.

Yet Perez slept in the apartment for a week following Thursday's storm.

Perez told ABC13 he was scared to leave because apartment management told him he would break his contract. He shared audio of that conversation with ABC13.

"(Management) told me you can call the police, you can call the government, you can call the FBI, and nobody's gonna help you," Perez said.

Attorneys with the Eviction Defense Coalition, a non-profit tenants rights collaboration, told ABC13 Perez technically would be breaking his lease.

However, because a storm made his unit uninhabitable, thus considered a "casualty loss," any consequences typically associated with a "lease break" are voided.

Simply telling tenants they are "breaking their lease" could be a means of bullying them into staying in a lease they are legally entitled to break without penalty.

"An act of God has happened, and something terrible has gone wrong, and now your place is uninhabitable. There is a law that says you, as the tenant, don't have to stay there anymore," Eric Kwartler, with the Eviction Defense Coalition, explained.

Kwatler says tenants in similar situations must notify their complex in writing, preferably via certified mail, that they are terminating a lease.

"Saying 'I'm out. I'm done. This place is uninhabitable. I'm finding a new place to live,'" Kwartler explained.

The Perez family sent a letter to complex management on Friday and began packing.

ABC13 asked the president of Perez's property management group if tenants in uninhabitable units who wanted to break their leases were made aware of their right to do so without penalty.

He said it was in the lease, and it's the tenants' responsibility to know.

"You know everybody has access to the internet. I would say most everybody has access to the internet," Rajib Batabyal, president of the Monument Property Group, said.

Kwartler echoed, "There are some rights that landlords have to notify their tenants about. This is not one of them."

Perez's neighbor Estella Lopez also had the roof torn off her family's unit.

She told ABC13 that her husband asked to be relocated but was told there was a wait.

Exposure to the elements has led to mold inside the unit she shares with seven family members, including her two infant grandchildren.

She told ABC13 the whole family had been coughing.

"It's hard to breathe," she explained.

Houston Mayor John Whitmire criticized conditions at the complex and a handful of others throughout the city. He said his office was looking into "possible criminal liability."

City Attorney Arturo Michel told ABC13 that the city had sent a housing inspector to assess the site. Depending on the findings, Michel said they may shut it down.

"Good. Hopefully, we can get some help," Lopez said.

Houston Mayor John Whitmire's office told ABC13 that the city is considering taking some of the apartment complexes with "deplorable" conditions to court.

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