“We feel abandoned”: How landlord negligence forced Austin renters into squalid living conditions following February’s winter storm.

by | Apr 1, 2021 | Policy, Winter Storm

On Tuesday, February 16, Eduardo Canul lay in bed in his Northeast Austin apartment huddling for warmth. Like millions of Texans, the father of three had been without electricity for nearly 48 hours since Winter Storm Uri first struck, unleashing frigid temperatures and unprecedented levels of snowfall that crippled the state’s vulnerable power grid. After getting to sleep, the Mexico native awoke to a sudden booming sound as water began trickling through the sheetrock above his bed. A few minutes later, the ceiling collapsed entirely.

What came next can only be described as nightmarish, Canul said through a translator. As water gushed into his room, he realized that, without access to a shutoff valve, his ground-floor unit would continue to fill from the pipe burst from above. After rushing to check on his children, he tried calling the manager of his apartment complex, Mueller Flats, to request help. Nobody  answered. Then, upon dialing 3-1-1 and getting a hold of the city, he was transferred to an emergency repairs department where, again, no one answered. Two days passed until the downpour slowed to a trickle. But things only worsened from there, he said.

“By Friday, the manager came in to check out the damages. He told me they weren’t that bad—that it was nothing to worry about,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it. My ceiling’s destroyed, my carpet is soaked, and it’s still freezing outside. When I asked to be moved to a different apartment or a hotel while they fixed it, he told me flat out: ‘No, we don’t need to do that. You’re under a contract and it’s not that big of a deal.’”

As the days passed and the weather warmed, Canul watched in horror as his living situation became increasingly precarious. Massive mold spores began lining the walls of his bedroom, closet, and bathroom. Footlong mushrooms sprung from his carpet, which remained moist from the gallons of water it had absorbed. Pieces of sheetrock sat scattered across the floor. Cockroaches drawn by the unit’s wet, humid air streamed in through the holes in the ceiling.

Eventually, Canul was forced to send his children, two of whom have asthma, to stay elsewhere to protect them from the multiplying mold. Night after night, he returned home late to his empty apartment carrying buckets of water—a necessary step considering his building remained without running water for more than three weeks after the storm. “We eventually got our water back, but it’s not hot. I’ve been taking cold showers,” he said. “I requested a discount on my rent considering everything going on and the fact that my family can’t live here. It’s a disaster zone. But management told me to pay all of it, that I don’t have a choice.”

While disturbing, Canul’s experience is hardly unique in Texas. Across the state, renters—especially those in low-income and immigrant communities—are being left to fend for themselves following February’s cold weather crisis. Much of this stems from a backlog in insurance claims and a callously minimal response from Gov. Greg Abbott and the state government. But landlords’ glaring lack of regard for tenant rights and well-being at complexes like Mueller Flats sits at the center of what some advocates say is a humanitarian crisis. Even more, it’s part of a larger systemic issue rooted in Texas law, said Building and Strengthening Tenant Actor (BASTA) project director Shoshana Krieger.

“These problems aren’t one-off issues and aren’t solely a byproduct of the winter storm. They’re representative of larger, deep-seated problems of neglect, which is a structural issue that exists because of the lack of tenant protections in Texas,” she says. “There’s an incredible imbalance of power between landlords and the people housed on their properties. And people are fed up.”

That’s where Krieger’s organization, which advocates for renters’ rights and helps organize tenant associations at complexes throughout Austin, comes in. By fighting back against predatory management practices together, tenants can leverage their collective power while protecting one another against legal threats and intimidation from landlords. A single person complaining is a nuisance that property managers can ignore or, even worse, punish through delayed repairs, additional fees, and lease violations (the first step towards an eviction); but a group of persistent, organized people presents an entirely different challenge, she said.

In that vein, Canul joined more than 100 of his neighbors in creating the Mueller Flats Tenant Association (MFTA). With the help of BASTA staffers like tenant organizer Gabby Garcia, the group has compiled a list of demands for their complex’s management, including: Immediate, timely repairs to all structural issues, compensation for the damages they’ve endured, and an opportunity to reside elsewhere—a hotel, for example—until their units are safe to live in. Up to this point, the tenants have heard almost nothing from their landlords (who did not reply to an interview request for this story).

Still, Garcia said, their efforts to document management’s unwillingness to aid them (including several cases where employees have run away from tenants or refused to unlock the leasing office’s doors) will serve as vital tools for justice later in the legal process. The association also gives people the opportunity to raise concerns at a time when speaking out would normally mean putting a target on your back.

“A lot of people couldn’t work during the winter storm, so they may be behind on rent. That adds a whole layer of fear; that if you complain about your living situation, then you’ll be out,” Garcia said. “That’s why it’s so admirable and important that these tenants are acting now: Because the longer this draws on, and the more their anger turns into acceptance, the more likely it is that people just start accepting the bare minimum. The tenants here aren’t letting that happen.”

Eduardo Canul in his bedroom. Insurance adjusters have advised him to avoid cleaning the debris until his claim has been finalized.

Another MFTA member, Norma Salazar, described a similar experience to Eduard Canul’s. After her apartment endured severe water damage, Mueller Flats had her carpet removed and broke several holes in her wall—presumably to check for areas needing further fixing. But instead of returning to complete their repairs, the complex’s employees never came back, leaving Salazar with exposed concrete floors and an unchecked mold problem. After she followed up with management to express her frustration, they gave her what was effectively an ultimatum: Sign a new lease for an upstairs apartment, or stop complaining. 

“I recently had a hysterectomy, so I can’t go up stairs. Plus, the unit they were offering us cost more than our current place,” she said through a translator. “We’ve lived here for more than five years. We’ve been good tenants and we pay on time. It feels humiliating to be treated like this. We feel abandoned.”

In many ways, Salazar’s sentiment strikes at the heart of this rapidly intensifying issue. Regardless of how loyal or law-abiding renters are, Texas law ensures that landlords hold almost all the cards in these types of circumstances. For instance, according to the Austin Tenants Council, a tenant cannot withhold rent or break their lease if their landlord fails to make repairs or meet key obligations outlined in their contract. Rather, such actions could be perceived as “retaliation” and result in an eviction—a consequence that Canul, Salazar, and their peers are understandably fearful of. Nonetheless, both said they intend to continue advocating for the rights, respect, and recognition of their humanity they’ve been deprived of throughout this experience.

And yet, barring a substantial shift from the complex or its parent company, Firmus Property Management, it appears that Mueller Flats plans to drag this process out as long as possible. That means it could be months, if not longer, before 100-plus of its tenants have access to safe, quality shelter. Considering this is happening in dozens of complexes around Austin alone, Krieger said it’s safe to say that countless other Texans are facing a daunting recovery more than 5 weeks since the last snow melted.

While tragic, so much of this could have been avoided. Similar to the statewide power grid failure, these problems are the byproduct of irresponsible, elitist policy from the Texas state government that prioritizes the powerful instead of the people. Indeed, by awarding landlords all but free rein in property disputes, Texas leaders have left its most vulnerable populations exposed and abandoned at their greatest times of need. But if there’s any silver lining in this ongoing saga, it’s that people are finally waking up to the inhumanity and utter greed fueling our housing system, Krieger said. 

“We’ve seen more interest in organizing. There’s a real moment in time right now where people are activated and agitated. We’re hoping this’ll be a key inflection point for this movement looking forward,” she said. “Because at the end of the day, a group response is going to be the way in which you can be the most protected. They can’t evict 30 people in the same way they can evict that one person who’s making waves. We’re going to shift the power dynamic between landlords and tenants in Austin.”

Photo: Mueller Flats Tenants Association 

Contributing Writer/Podcaster | + posts
Based in his hometown of Austin, David is a political reporter and feature writer whose work has appeared in the likes of The Washington Post, the Texas Observer, and Public Health Watch. He’s also a graduate of the University of Texas, where he studied government and wrote for the school’s newspaper, The Daily Texan. In addition to providing a blend of reported pieces and opinion columns for the Texas Signal, David is a frequent guest on the outlet’s signature podcasts. You can find him playing basketball or hanging out poolside in his free time.

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