Op-Ed
From the Office of State Senator Royce West - District 23

For Immediate Release
CONTACT: Kelvin Bass
214-467-0123
July 22, 2009

Making dwelling places more tenable for tenants

by Royce West
Texas Senate

Recently, I was deeply moved by The Dallas Morning News’ story of 10-year-old Ashley Hernandez, who lives in a Pleasant Grove apartment complex that has little to no air conditioning in many of its units.

"We have to take washes before bed" she said, "or we can't go to sleep." She also described how her mother had to bathe her baby sister five times a day to soothe the crying infant.

Texas’ notoriously hot summers have claimed numerous lives every year. Many of the victims are infants or the elderly. In states like ours that routinely experience extreme heat, this is unquestionably a concern of habitability, health and safety.

For the past two sessions, I've served as Chairman of the Senate Committee on Intergovernmental Relations (IGR). Most matters regarding housing and landlord/tenant relations are referred to IGR, including issues of tenant habitability, health and safety. While these issues seldom generate front-page space or lead-story status like transportation or education issues, they are equally, if not more important.

The occurrence of several tragic incidents compelled us to look at state laws concerning the health and safety of multi-family properties. In Houston alone, two little girls were electrocuted by an unprotected transformer, two boys were killed under a collapsed stairwell and an infant drowned in a stagnant pool that had no enclosures. All of these properties had previously been cited for numerous health, safety and structural violations.

The committee found that no single entity has responsibility for addressing habitability concerns, so largely, the burden falls on our cities.

A few years ago, Dallas initiated an aggressive campaign that resulted in court-ordered repairs and improvements to many substandard, multi-family properties. This type effort however, requires extensive financial investment by now cash-strapped locales.

Current law requires tenants to pay the cost of such repairs, and then gradually deduct those costs from future rent. This method does not benefit most tenants who cannot afford to personally finance repairs. It also forces them to endure weeks of delays and a lengthy notification process before engaging this "repair and deduct" strategy.

As we saw in Pleasant Grove this month, a tenant can also go to a County or District Court to seek an "Order of Repair" for health and safety violations. But for families who cannot afford an attorney, this also is not a viable option.

I believe that tenants should have the ability to address these problems. That's why I filed Senate Bill 1448 during the recent Legislative session.

SB1448 will allow tenants to file suit for repairs in local Justice of the Peace courts for a small fee, and in some cases for free. The bill extends the authority of the courts to issue Orders of Repair for up to $10,000.

We also discovered a loophole in the law which makes it almost impossible for cities and counties to serve legal notice of health and safety violations on many multi-family properties. To correct this problem, I filed SB1945. It will allow officials to serve property managers unless the means exists to directly serve the property owner.

Finally, my SB1715 requires landlords to install visual smoke detectors for tenants who are deaf or hearing-impaired. State law already requires audible smoke detectors, but there have been tragic consequences where deaf tenants did not receive the same protection. The bill was named after Sephra Burks, who died in an apartment fire here in Dallas with her two small children.

Each of these bills had the support of the Texas Apartment Association. All three passed into law and will become effective January 1, 2010.

They are consistent with my belief that all Texas families should have a safe, decent and affordable place to live.

Hold on Ashley! Help is on the way.

For more information, please contact Kelvin Bass at 214.467.0123 or Tim Thetford at 214.741.0123.

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