Floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey destroyed homes across the state. As many as 120,000 apartment units across Texas were damaged by the storm and residual floods. On top of that, there were thousands of rented homes, duplexes, and triplexes that were damaged extensively. As the community comes together to focus on rebuilding, tenants and landlords alike are wondering who is responsible for what.
Policyholders with flood insurance are protected up to $250,000 in damages to their home, and up to $100,000 for property destroyed. Homeowners work towards owning their house, and their monthly mortgage payments add to their total equity. Renters do not gain any equity for their monthly lease, and in the aftermath of the brutal storm, some are unsure what to do about damages to their temporary living arrangements. Local and state laws address the rights and responsibilities of landlords and tenants and can be different for each individual lease.
Texas state law mandates that landlords provide safe conditions for tenants, and requires them to immediately repair any condition that affects a renter’s physical health or safety. Homes and apartments that were flooded are considered uninhabitable if there is still water present. If the area is safe to return, tenants should try to set up a meeting with their landlords to go over the property’s damages and assess whether or not it is habitable. Some housing laws in local precincts hold landlords to higher standards than others, so review specific laws that apply to the affected area.
Rentals that have been severely damaged or inappropriately repaired are subject to immediate termination. Other leases provide options for renters to terminate early depending on the initial terms and the extent of the storm’s damage to the property. Experts advise tenants use extreme caution when deciding whether or not to take legal action against their landlord. Withholding rent, terminating a lease early, and filing suit could expose the tenant to countersuits, liability, and eviction.
Most leases prevent early termination and require a tenant to still pay rent if the building is habitable, even while repairs are underway. Landlords that are waiting for insurance payouts before starting repairs are still protected by state law to charge rent and are not responsible for any personal belongings that were damaged within the property. In general, it is illegal for tenants to withhold rent in the state of Texas, according to Texas Property Code Section 92.058 – Landlord Remedy for Tenant Violation.
Texas Property Code Section 92.0561—Tenant’s Repair and Deduct Remedies—addresses information relating to the timeliness of repairs. In some instances, tenants can have the repairs performed themselves, and then deduct the costs from their rent. Tenants are protected under this section if they qualify under certain conditions. They must be current on rent, the repair must cost less than $500, the landlord must have received an official request for repairs, and a reasonable amount of time must be given for the landlord to make the repair themself. After a major disaster, chances are it will take a longer amount of time to rebuild.
Hurricane Harvey proved to be an exceptionally devastating storm, and local law may mandate variations to these protections. For instance, the amount of time deemed reasonable for repairs to be made in the wake of the hurricane could be significantly increased. Furthermore, the costs of repairs for flooded homes is likely to exceed $500. Some estimates claim as much as $10,000 in damages for one-inch of water in moderately sized homes. Water can soak into places that are not obvious, and skilled professionals should be employed to survey the scene and identify all potential places of impact.
Renters insurance may cover damages, depending on the policy, but usually flooding is not covered. Once a disaster has been declared, residents affected by the storm have 60 days to apply for Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance, unless otherwise extended. Authorities predict Texas is undergoing the largest recovery-housing mission that the nation has ever seen, and living situations are going to be challenging while locals rebuild. It is advised that landlords and tenants be patient with one-another while the community works to rebuild. Tenants that abandon their leased properties are still liable for future rent, and could potentially lose any security deposit.
For its part, FEMA is working diligently to move families out of shelters and into temporary housing arrangements. Officials are trying to organize solutions to accommodate work-travel, and to get people back into permanent residences. Other options are available and include money for food, water, diapers, and even vouchers for hotels.
Don’t hesitate to communicate with your landlord and ask about what repairs are needed for the property. Try to establish a loose timeline, and determine if you will need to leave the property while repairs are being performed. If your landlord’s residence was also affected by the recent storms, it might not be prudent to send a check to their address as usual. Contact them and communicate your concerns about sending your rent to the right place. Pending FEMA applications do not protect you from withholding rent, and you are still responsible for meeting your financial obligation; late fees and penalties still apply.
Remember that fair housing rules still apply. The disaster has affected thousands, and total economic damages are estimated to exceed $180 billion. Many residents will be struggling to pay their rent, and employers may also be closed pending repairs. For your protection, it is worth considering canceling the first contract and signing a new one with residents that sustained flood damages while leasing your property.
If a comparable unit is not available for a flooded tenant to transfer, the property manager has the option to offer a different unit at a different price. After a certain amount of damage, a tenant may refuse to accept the non-comparable unit and terminate the lease without penalty. Repairs should be initiated as soon as insurance, safety, and resources allow. Material and labor shortages will occur after such a widespread disaster, and you should communicate to your tenants to keep them informed of your intentions.
Tenants that abandon a residence must be notified that their belongings will be removed if they do not act first. Anything not removed after this notice may be removed without further communication, and items placed in storage can be charged back to the tenant. Landlords are not responsible for lost vehicles and personal property affected by the disaster.
Anyone that still has questions or concerns is strongly encouraged to seek legal advice. In this trying time, no one needs to confront feelings of frustration and confusion alone. Natural disasters are overwhelming, especially when the sanctity of your home has been violated. Williams Hart is a dedicated team of skilled attorneys, adept at providing critical insight in the face of uncertainty. If your property or lease has been affected by Hurricane Harvey, don’t hesitate to contact us today for a free consultation. We are members of the Gulf Coast community fighting for justice across the country. Our nationally-recognized team of professionals has provided landlords and renters with help for over 30 years.