Apartment code violations could lead to legal action

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Austin’s Code Compliance department has written 1,700 violations for 126 Austin rental properties since 2007, and UT’s Legal Services for Students represents an average of 15 students per year in court regarding health and safety code violations in those rental properties.

According to data obtained by the Austin-American Statesman, the city has taken legal action against 25 of those 126 properties since 2007.

Thomas Butler, assistant director of legal services, said one-third of the legal services department’s clients inquire about landlord and tenant matters.

“Whether or not [a student’s problem] rises to the level of allowing them to breach the lease is pretty much determined on a case-by-case basis,” Butler said.

The only apartment code violations that would warrant legal action or a lease termination are health and safety violations, Butler said.

“There is a state statute that says that the landlord has the duty to remedy a condition which materially affects the health and safety of the ordinary tenant,” Butler said. “If the dishwasher’s broken — it’s not leaking — and you can still wash the dishes by hand, that’s probably not a health and safety violation. If there’s a hole in the roof, obviously it is.”

There have been issues with rental properties flooding lately because of the recent rain, Butler said.

Biology sophomore Alison Sidoran said her apartment at 26 West had a crack in the ceiling because a pipe broke, and although the apartment complex fixed the pipe quickly, the crack is still there.

“The [landlords] wait until pipes leak all over people’s things, then don’t give any pay for the damage done,” Sidoran said. 

Though students have the ability to take action through student legal services, some city leaders think the city should play a larger role in monitoring apartment living conditions. Councilwoman Kathie Tovo said she wants Austin to implement a rental registration program requiring regular inspections of certain multi-family and single-family housing developments. 

“[In other cities], it’s been a really successful way of making sure that the city can spot unsafe conditions in housing before it gets to a point of being really unsafe for the tenants who live there,” Tovo said. “Because we’ve had several situations where housing and apartment complexes deteriorated to the point where people were really in danger and had to be immediately removed from those properties, we needed as a city, I believe, to take some more assertive action.”

Tovo said this program would be successful because inspections based solely off of tenants’ reports are not proactive enough.

“People who are living in apartments may not want to call in and complain to the city, and they may not want to complain to the landlord because they may fear that they’re going to lose their housing as a result,” Tovo said.