I thought pigs would fly first, but landlord and tenant advocates work together

A strange, good thing came about in Texas in landlord tenant relations during this session of the Texas Legislature. After decades of fighting, tenant advocates and the apartment industry representatives successfully cooperated to make important improvements in landlord-tenant law.

SB 1448 by Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) and Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston) is the case in point. This legislation was two years in the making. It passed through the skillful efforts of the bill sponsors and with the joint support of both tenant advocates such as my colleague Robert Doggett (representing tenants) and the Texas Apartment Association.

At present tenants have few options when repairs are not made to their homes. If they are caught up on their rent, and have given appropriate notice to their landlord, they can terminate their lease and move out, make the repair themselves and deduct the amount spent from their rent, or sue their landlord. The problem is that terminating one’s lease is rarely a good option because it is expensive to move, and if the landlord disagreed with the tenant’s use of that remedy then the landlord keeps the security deposit and places more rent on the tenant’s credit report.

The option for the tenant to make repairs themselves is no better because if a landlord claims the tenant did not follow the proper procedure (there are numerous traps), then the landlord can demand the rent and evict the tenant quickly if it were not paid. Then the tenant has an eviction on their record (even if they win the case).

The last remedy — filing a lawsuit — is not an option many want to take but it is the safest (of course there is always a legitimate fear of retaliation). The problem with suing is that it is hard to do without a lawyer unless the tenant files in justice of the peace court. The problem with justice of the peace court is that this court had no power to order a repair –until SB 1717 (the law actually takes effect January 1, 2010). Before SB 1717 all a justice of the peace court could do after waiting months and months for a trial, is award money damages. Under SB 1717, a tenant can file a suit and obtain a hearing within 6 – 10 days and request a justice of the peace court to order the landlord to repair. This is a significant change because tenants for the first time will have a decent tool to use against landlords who refuse to make repairs.

The Texas Apartment Association (TAA) negotiated with us over language on this issue dating back from last session and we finally arrived at a solution. As a result of that cooperation, TAA supported this change openly and if not for their efforts it would not have passed. While some landlords will not appreciate it, there are many checks and balances in the law preventing tenants from bring bad claims and this procedure also helps secure the current system as it is (e.g., a tenant cannot use repair issues as a defense to a nonpayment of rent eviction as in other states).

This new repair procedure is similar to the one landlords use to evict residents for violations of the lease and it was clear that taking a contrary position was unreasonable to some members of the Legislature. While some associations ignore appearances and fairness as long as possible, TAA’s forward thinking leads to reasonable changes and demonstrate responsible conduct of an association.