Council to Commit to Supporting Renters’ Rights

Tenant assistance, right to organize on the Oct. 13 agenda

Over the next few meetings, City Council will vote on a series of resolutions, contract approvals, and ordinance changes encompassing what Council Member Vanessa Fuen­tes is calling the "renters' rights agenda." The first two items on that agenda – a contract approval that would set up a Tenants Rights Assistance Program and amendments to a city ordinance that would protect renters' right to organize – will be taken up at Council's meeting today, Oct. 13.

"With our housing and displacement crisis worsening each day," Fuentes wrote of the suite of policy changes on Twitter, "it's time to take action and do right by renters in Austin. Constant $200-$300 rent increases are completely unreasonable for Austinites."

Item 24 on the Oct. 13 agenda would authorize Housing and Planning staff to negotiate and execute a one-year contract with the Austin Tenants Council to set up and manage the Tenants' Rights Assistance Program. If Council approves, ATC will be awarded up to $298,938 to administer the program, which will offer a variety of services to low- to moderate-income tenants throughout the city. Those services include: facilitated mediation between tenants and landlords to complete health and safety repairs needed to maintain "reasonable habitability standards"; counseling and technical assistance regarding tenant and landlord issues; and help identifying fair housing complaints worth investigating, with the goal of "resolving, reducing, or minimizing discriminatory housing practices." City staff estimates that ATC will be able to help about 360 clients if the one-year contract is approved.

Council will also contemplate at the same meeting a change to the city code that will protect the right for tenants in Austin to organize – a tool that has proven powerful in recent years when used by groups such as Building and Strengthening Tenant Action (BASTA) to help provide safe and healthy communities for lower-income renters. This protection is one of several requests Council made of staff earlier this year in a unanimously approved resolution authored by former CM Greg Casar.

If approved, this ordinance would ensure that renters can form and participate in tenant organizations, or work with outside tenant groups like BASTA, that advocate for improvements to the buildings they live in or the amenities provided. Landlords would be prohibited from retaliating against tenants involved in organizing, such as by increasing their rent, decreasing service provided to tenants, or denying tenants access to on-site facilities. If rents are increased for all tenants in a "pattern of rent increases" or due to an escalation clause in a tenant's lease, the landlord would not be in violation; otherwise, breaking this law would be a misdemeanor offense.

Later, Council will consider other aspects of the broader renters' rights agenda, such as establishing a set time window for renters to "cure" lease violations before landlords are allowed to begin eviction proceedings and updates to the city's tenant relocation ordinance.

Elsewhere on the Oct. 13 agenda: a public hearing on Austin Energy's annual rate adjustment (which is separate from its controversial base-rate adjustment, which will be the subject of a different upcoming hearing); more discussion on the high­-profile Statesman PUD zoning case; and two housing-related resolutions. One from CM Kathie Tovo, seeming to stem from the long and frustrating negotiations over the HealthSouth redevelopment, would have asked staff to make a variety of updates to its processes for managing city-owned land that's available for housing – but Tovo postponed it to the Oct. 27 meeting as the Chronicle went to press. The other, from Mayor Steve Adler, directs staff to find ways to balance the costs imposed on builders by city development rules with Austin's need for more housing.

Speaking of housing: Council will also vote to set public hearings on what could be the most substantive revisions of the Land Development Code in years. Staff is looking at dates in November or December to lay out code changes to the vertical mixed-use 2 bonus program and to allow residential development in most commercial zones.

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Austin Tenants Council, Vanessa Fuentes, Greg Casar

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