Every Wednesday, nearly two dozen people cram into a small office in Dallas to listen to Yasmin Thomas talk about leases.
“This lease is on long legal-sized paper, eight pages long with 42 clauses,” Thomas said while holding up a blank copy. “That’s a lot of information that, in my opinion, a lot of managers benefit from you not knowing.”
This is the Tenants’ Rights Workshop organized by the Texas Tenants’ Union, a local nonprofit. Here, renters get a crash course in understanding apartment basics, like leases and deposits as well as rules for requesting repairs and dealing with evictions. Housing advocates say it’s a necessary resource since renters make up nearly half of the housing market in Dallas County, according to census data.
“We have a handbook that puts Texas property code into layperson's terms. We have form letters to help people request repairs, request the return of a security deposit and find out who owns the property – that kind of thing,” said Sandy Rollins, executive director of the Texas Tenants’ Union.
Rollins said she’s heard just about every possible complaint, and a lot of it comes back to what tenants don’t know to do – like keeping copies of correspondence, keeping copies of rent receipts, having proof that landlords received correspondence, taking pictures, as well as having witnesses – especially if tenants are in a dispute with their landlord.
Another must-do: getting everything in writing and having it signed. Rollins said tenants often send emails, texts, leave voicemails or talk face-to-face, but nothing is promised until it’s in writing – an actual letter on actual paper.
Rollins expects to help renters write a lot of letters this summer. This time of year, she sees an influx of complaints about broken air conditioning, pests and mold.
Barbara Lynch was one of those renters at the workshop. She discovered mold in her Irving apartment.
“I alerted my landlord, and she told me she would send someone over to paint it,” Lynch said. “That’s just not acceptable because I have health issues. I’m on dialysis.”
During the one-on-one portion of the workshop, Lynch debriefed Sandy Rollins on her situation at home. The mold has been giving Lynch headaches and body aches for a few months — so painting over it won’t be enough. In fact, Texas law says landlords have to maintain their properties in a way that ensures the basic physical health and safety of their tenants.
“There are no commercials to tell us we have rights for this type of thing,” Lynch said. “Most people don’t know about their rights.”
The Texas Apartment Association sets standards for apartments across the state as well as writes and issues the lease that the majority of renters have to sign. David Mintz is Vice President of Government Affairs for the group. He said responsibility falls on the tenants; they need to do their research.
“Perhaps they’ve talked to other residents, they’ve read the lease and all the accompanying documents, they know exactly what rights and obligations they’ve got under that lease,” Mintz said. “If they do their research up front, many problems that someone might encounter are going to be avoided.”
Mintz said tenants who run into problems should communicate with their landlords.
“They need to be putting things in writing and making sure they have documentation of the problem. It’s amazing how often that does not happen,” he said.
Mintz said if problems don’t get resolved, tenants can file complaints with local housing and health departments, and he said there are laws to protect tenants against retaliation.
But Sandy Rollins with the Texas Tenants’ Union said the playing field isn’t level – especially for low-income renters, who she said often get hit with predatory late fees, who aren't given proper notice of rent hikes and who live in substandard conditions.
"I’m sure there [are] apartment owners and landlords out there that treat their tenants perfectly well. We don’t hear about them,” she said. “Our office is busy all the time with people who are treated disrespectfully, whose rights are being violated.”
The tenant’s union has tried to rectify that from the top down. The group helped file bills in the state Legislature this year: one that requires 120 days’ notice if a property is closing and another that requires longer notice for rent increases, among others. They didn’t make it far, but Rollins said she won’t stop trying to change policy.
Until then, she’ll settle for the little wins – like Barbara Lynch.
Rollins typed up a letter for Lynch to send to her landlord about the mold in her apartment. Lynch sent in that letter, and she said her landlord took care of the mold the right way – not with a paint brush.