Harvey renters still paying rent on damaged homes

Real estate, Money, News

Hurricane Harvey damaged over 100,000 homes and 30,000 apartments when it swept through Texas, leaving many of them uninhabitable or nearly so. The good news for impacted renters: they are not responsible for the cleanup and repairs. The bad news: they may still be responsible for paying rent on top of dealing with the loss of their belongings.

Habitability is the key

According to Texas Property Code Title 8, Chapter 92, if a rental home or apartment is uninhabitable (“unusable” is the statutory language) due to storm damage, either the tenant or the landlord can terminate the lease with written notice. Once the lease is ended, tenants’ obligation to pay rent ceases and they’re entitled to a prorated refund of any rent paid during the time the home was not usable. Additionally, their security deposit must be refunded.

If, however, the home is only partially unusable due to storm damage, the tenant must still pay rent, but can seek a reduction in court, based on the portion of the home that is livable. So, for example, if one bedroom of a two-bedroom apartment has been rendered unusable, the tenant could ask to have the rent reduced to the rate for a one-bedroom unit.

Determining what’s habitable

Given the above, an awful lot of renters on the Texan Gulf Coast are right now asking the following question: exactly what comprises an “unusable home”? Drywall or carpet damage from flood waters may not be enough. In general, a home is considered habitable if it has heat, water, and generally safe conditions. If it does not meet that standard, it’s probably not usable according to law.

Of course, if the home is legally habitable but doesn’t meet the tenant’s standards, the renter can vacate but is still obligated to pay rent until the end of the lease term. Only renters with month-to-month tenancy can leave without further rent obligations.

What you need to know before breaking your lease

Help for displaced renters

Meanwhile, the situation on the ground for many victims of the hurricane remains dire. Many are struggling to cover rent on damaged homes that do not meet the “unusable” standard, their problems exacerbated by the short-term effects of the storm’s impact.

For some, temporary job shutdowns and having to cover expenses for basic survival necessities have made already tight financial situations that much worse, and being locked into a lease on a storm-damaged, but still usable, apartment doesn’t help.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) does provide rent subsidies for temporary housing for up to a month for renters whose homes are unlivable, which can help bridge the gap for tenants who can’t stay in their rental.

Moreover, this rent assistance can be extended based on a review of the applicant’s situation. FEMA also offers crisis counseling for people traumatized by the disaster, income tax assistance for filing casualty losses, and advisory assistance for legal, veterans’ benefits, and social security matters.

Given the scope of the disaster, however, FEMA resources are stretched, and thus many people will have to find other ways to bridge the gap while waiting for repairs to be made and life to return to some semblance of normal.

(image courtesy of Wikimedia)