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What Austin renters need to know during the coronavirus pandemic

From rent strikes to RISE, how the city is working to protect tenants

A five-story apartment building shot from the ground. It has two columns with windows separated by a balcony on each floor.
Austin renters have been hit hard by economic impacts of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
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The city of Austin has reallocated $15 million from its 2019-2020 fiscal year Emergency Reserve Fund to better and immediately provide emergency relief to residents impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout.

On April 9, the Austin City Council unanimously passed two ordinances creating the Relief in a State of Emergency (RISE) Fund with cash from the $25.6 million in the city’s reserves and directing the city manager’s office to work with existing nonprofit partners to offer support services and direct financial assistance to lower-income residents and those ineligible to receive financial aid from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act or unemployment benefits. Half the funds are earmarked for “direct relief services” to assist with essential needs, such as food and diaper access, as well as rental assistance. To qualify, residents must have incomes at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level ($52,400 for a family of four).

“We know tens of thousands of Austinites have already lost their jobs, and they need help as quickly as possible,” Councilmember Greg Casar, who sponsored one of the two ordinances with Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza, told Curbed Austin after Thursday’s virtual meeting. According to Casar, the “number-one concern we’re hearing from working-class communities right now is inability to pay rent. The RISE Fund will provide direct housing support and payments to those at risk of losing their homes.” That support could be in the form of housing vouchers, rent and mortgage assistance, and direct financial assistance to those who’ve lost income.

More than a dozen people called into Thursday’s meeting to ask councilmembers to approve the resolutions for those who will not receive a federal stimulus check due to immigration status. One Spanish speaker (whose call, like many, was translated to English) said, “We all need that help no matter what status we have, because they always use our labor, but now that we need their help, they’re just putting us aside.”

Many also emphasized the need for “cold, hard cash,” as Grassroots Leadership’s Maria Reza put it. Earlier this week, the criminal justice reform nonprofit worked with more than 200 civil rights and immigration organizations to urge the council to provide direct cash assistance to those most in need. Since Austin’s stay-at-home order was issued on March 24, Grassroots has reached out to its members, many of whom Reza said “lost their jobs overnight,” to find out what they needed most. According to Reza, the answer was: “We just need cash right now to pay for our immediate expenses.”

Grassroots has since declared victory following the council’s passage of RISE, which Garza said allocates half of the $15 million to direct financial support. An April 10 press release confirmed that Austinites in need will receive “direct financial assistance such as one-time payments through prepaid debit, gift cards, or ACH transfers provided to eligible Austin residents by a social service provider.”

The goal of RISE, Garza told Curbed, was to ensure help was provided with “equity and expediency” to those most in need. Her district, she said, is home to lower-income families and many hospitality workers who’ve been greatly affected by the COVID-19 shelter-in-place order intended to flatten the curve in the rate of COVID-19 infection. When asked why $15 million was the magic aid number, Garza explained: “We know there are going to be other needs over time. We wanted to balance this immediate need with all the other things” ahead.

With the passage of RISE, the city seeks to roll out assistance within two to three weeks. Instructions on how to apply will be released within the next few days.

Coronavirus’s toll on Austin

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to have a substantial impact on Austin. Texas school campuses remain closed through May 4, and while the city and county’s original shelter-at-home order is set to expire on April 13, County Judge Sarah Eckhardt told county commissioners on April 7 that she expects another to be put in place April 14. With the exception of essential businesses and workers, this means most Austinites will stay homebound—keeping many from returning to work or receiving a much-needed paycheck.

These changes have led to a wave of business closures, with the restaurant and hospitality industry hit especially hard, resulting in many workers losing their jobs or having hours cut. In a city like Austin, where more than half of the residents are renters, these changes have ushered in another fear: the growing potential that many people will be unable to pay rent. According to Rent Strike ATX, a grassroots community organizing group that formed in mid-March, “most renters in Austin” were already one to two missed paychecks away from not being able to pay their rent.

Even before RISE, local lawmakers have been scrambling to help tenants. The county suspended court eviction hearings in mid-March and, two days after the city’s stay-home order was issued, the City Council passed an anti-eviction ordinance. A temporary solution, the ordinance forbids landlords from issuing notices to vacate until May 8 and grants tenants a 60-day “opportunity to cure”—meaning, for the time being, renters will have an additional 60 days to catch up and pay rent before landlords can start the eviction process.

Some renters who live in housing covered by the Violence Against Women Act are also temporarily protected under the CARES Act. The same bill responsible for the much-anticipated stimulus checks implemented a 120-day moratorium on evictions and late rent fees (which is not part of the local ordinance). Protected properties include public and Section 8 housing, as well as properties that have a federally backed mortgage loan or a federally backed multifamily mortgage loan. “These are very important protections for those living in ‘covered housing,’” explained Nelson Mock, a housing attorney at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. But according to Shoshana Krieger, project director at Building and Strengthening Tenant Action, a nonprofit working to create safe, affordable housing for Austin renters, housing advocates are still trying to decipher exactly who and what properties the federal protections extend to; she believes many tenants in Austin should be protected under the March 27 act.

Still, Krieger explained, these solutions “buy tenants more time to pay April and May rent,” but for those not protected by the CARES Act, “if you don’t pay within those 60 days, you can still be evicted.” While authorities do encourage landlords to work out payment plans with tenants as necessary during this time period, Austin’s ordinance does not prohibit late fees or order a rent freeze (a moratorium on paying rent). Krieger noted that while groups such as Rent Strike ATX are calling for rent forgiveness (i.e., ensuring that tenants don’t go into debt for not paying rent) across the United States, that “has not happened yet.”

Some local organizers say the eviction ordinance isn’t good enough.

Sam Law with Rent Strike ATX pointed out that while the 60-day grace period is helpful, some “estimates say the coronavirus crisis could last up to 18 months.” During those 60 days, and beyond, Rent Strike ATX believes “unemployed renters will continue to fall behind, accrue late fees, and face eviction—setting the stage for an intensified housing crisis once the public health crisis has ended.”

Rent Strike ATX was formed by roughly a dozen people who realized thousands of Austinites wouldn’t be able to pay their rent come April 1. Leading up to the first of the month, Law said the Rent Strike hotline received 20 to 30 calls per day from folks who had lost their jobs or been laid off.

Jax Freasier was one such person. A manual laborer who frequently gets paid in cash (and therefore has incomplete documentation of their employment history), Freasier lives in a 10-person housing cooperative where half of the housemates “totally lost their jobs,” while others lost a large bulk of their income in some way, Freasier told Curbed Austin. Only two are still working. “We got together after the shelter-in-place order was issued and realized we couldn’t pay rent in April, or the coming months, until the order was lifted,” Freasier elaborated. The housemates got in touch with Rent Strike ATX and uniformly decided to withhold rent for April 1.

According to Freasier, the goal of a rent strike is to prompt negotiations with a landlord in an effort to meet the needs of tenants. Freasier’s household managed to contact tenants at other properties owned by the same landlord and were offered a rent reduction, but one Freasier said was “not a lot.” As of April 8, the members of Freasier’s household still hadn’t paid April’s rent and were negotiating with their landlord’s management company in an effort to reach a “reasonable solution” by May 1.

“Especially during a pandemic, housing is a human right,” Law said. “No one should be forced to choose between paying rent and buying groceries.” This week, Rent Strike ATX, along with Austin Community Law Center, created the Austin Renters Action website that houses a petition calling for rent relief from the Austin City Council and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. Along with demands for rent forgiveness during the current state of emergency and broad reform for renters, the petition makes three asks:

  • Make it illegal to evict renters for being unable to pay rent during the state of emergency;
  • Prevent landlords from discriminating against these renters;
  • Implement rent control to stop landlords from hiking rent because of the pandemic.

Reza at Grassroots Leadership said they’ve heard stories of landlords raising rent and threatening evictions; Mock with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid said he, too, has seen some cases—outside of Austin—of landlords raising rents, and noted that tenants living on a month-to-month lease are most vulnerable to rent increases. When asked if the City Council could implement rent control under the current state of disaster, Mayor Pro Tem Garza said she did not believe that was possible, since rent control is illegal under state law, as is a rent freeze. “I wish we could do that, but we can’t, unfortunately,” she added.

BASTA’s Krieger expanded that there is a caveat to the state law on rent control that allows a city to implement the measure “in times of disaster.” However, the governor would ultimately have to approve the measure, which Abbott is unlikely to do.

What to do if you can’t pay

“First thing I would say is take a deep breath, sit down, you have time,” Krieger offered. Despite this “myriad of confusing things,” people have time to figure out their next moves and get connected to funding streams to “weather this storm,” she said. “People are scared of losing their homes, but there is time for the social safety net to catch up with the crisis—unlike normally.”

The next step, according to Krieger, is to figure out the situation as it pertains to you (BASTA has some helpful one-page explainers). Identify the type of property you live in and consider reaching out (safely) to neighbors and community members. Krieger recommended emailing, phone calls, texting—anything to instigate a virtual group chat with the other people living on the property.

Like most experts, Mock said Texas RioGrande Legal Aid is currently advising people to pay rent if they can, since there is currently no waiver on rent payments within the city. He also stressed the importance of communicating directly with one’s landlord. “The hope is going to be that landlords will be willing to work with tenants” to waive late fees, set up payment plans, or offer a potential rent reduction, but “in most cases, communication is going to be key.” Krieger agreed, calling this an “interesting moment” when landlords and tenants share a common interest: “Tenants want to find money to not be evicted and landlords want the money [from rent] in order to pay their bills.”

As for rent strikes: If they sound risky, it’s because they are, especially in Texas, where state law offers more landlord protections than renter protections. Brian McGiverin, the executive director at Austin Community Law Center—part of Austin Renters Action with Rent Strike ATX—called rent striking a “bold plan” as a tool for negotiating, noting “it’s also dangerous in its boldness.” McGiverin compared it to working with demonstrators and protestors who might get arrested. In that scenario, “I give them information about the scope of potential risk and gain. … Sometimes you just have to decide if the risk is worth it.” For those considering a rent strike, McGiverin said to “make sure they understand the framework of the law,” because Texas has a very different legal landscape than those of other states.

Krieger also noted that it’s important to shine light on both good and bad behavior from landlords. Some, she said, have already stopped charging late fees; others have handed out cleaning supplies. During this time, Krieger said, “landlords can actually alleviate a lot of panic, and tenants can and should try to work with landlords.”