Residents of Beaumont, TX, who fled Hurricane Harvey’s path of destruction returned home expecting to find their homes and apartments damaged by the storm. But some local renters found something even more alarming: eviction notices.
“Unfortunately, the damage to your unit is so extensive that your unit has become totally unusable as a practical matter for residential purposes,” a letter to residents of Sunlight Manor apartment complex, obtained by the Beaumont Enterprise, explained. According to the notice, (soon-to-be former) residents had just five days to move out. Any property left behind would be considered trash, and disposed of.
According to the Enterprise, the letters were not dated, and were discovered by some returning residents as early as last Wednesday. To make matters worse, in addition to kicking their renters out, the property management company was nevertheless demanding this month’s rent.
“September rent is currently due,” the letter reportedly stated. “However, due to the current circumstances there will be no late fees charged for the month of September.”
Sunlight Manor, whose management company ITEX did not return the Enterprise’s multiple requests for comment, is not unique in demanding rent from residents in spite of the devastation wrought by the storm. In Houston’s St. James Apartments, Maria Soto said that moldy walls did not stop her rental agency from coming to collect.
“They told me I have to pay, and that if we don’t, there will be an eviction,” Soto told the Houston Press. “I have to pay for other stuff. I have to pay for clothes for the kids, shoes — all the shoes got wet. I have to buy new shoes for everybody. I’ve been looking for a new apartment for a week, but it’s so expensive everywhere. And a lot of places say they don’t want evictions.”
While rental agencies clearly have an obligation to repair their damaged units, evictions—like those facing the residents of Sunlight Manor, and threatened against the St. James Apartment renters—could end up adding to the already massive number of Texans forced to relocate to shelters.
“This is not the right time to evict [renters],” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner declared during a recent city council meeting. “There’s not adequate housing for them to go to if they’re evicted.”
Speaking with the Press, Lone Star Legal Aid Litigation Director Rich Tomlinson explained that Texas’ rental laws are skewed heavily to favor landlords, which grants them wide discretionary powers to determine when to break leases and evict tenants—or whether to keep tenants in their potentially damaged units while still demanding rent.
“If the place is a huge wreck, you can argue it’s totally unusable,” Tomlinson explained. “But there can be disagreements about that. Landlords might say it’s not. And you owe the rent until the lease is terminated.”
And it’s not just renters who are at risk in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. According to Black Knight Financial Services, some 300,000 home owners may fall behind on their mortgages, with approximately half of them becoming seriously delinquent. And while Freddie Mac, Frannie Mae, and the Federal Housing Administration recently announced a temporary moratorium on evictions and foreclosures as a result of the storm, the possibility of late payments, growing interest on said payments, or homeowners who are simply unable to shoulder the cost of repairing their houses sets the stage for major problems down the road.
For renters at Sunlight Mannor, however, the problems are much more immediate.
“They took the rent,” Erielle Templeton told the Enterprise. “And then kicked us out.”