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Renting After a Disaster

Know Your Rights!

When disaster strikes, it’s often sudden and overwhelming.  This is especially true in Texas, where weather patterns may change drastically in a matter of hours.  Moreover, the devastation is magnified if your client is renting his or her home and becomes displaced.  For our most vulnerable populations, even a temporary loss of housing can have more permanent consequences, such as loss of employment or separation from loved ones.    

As advocates, it’s important that we are able to offer the best guidance to our clients during times of great uncertainty.    

What rights does the tenant have after a natural disaster?

While most lease agreements will address the tenant’s rights to repairs in general, there is rarely a provision that addresses repairs incidents to natural disasters.  Consequently, it’s important that advocates are familiar with Subsection B, Chapter 92 of the Texas Property Code, which requires a landlord to remedy conditions which “materially affect the physical health or safety of an ordinary tenant  In the case of disaster, the advocate would need to assess the tenant’s options by considering the following:   

  1. Is the tenant still obligated under the lease agreement?

When determining your client’s obligations and liability after a disaster, you must first determine whether the dwelling is “totally unusable” or “partially unusable  These are factual determinations and not defined within the applicable sections of the Texas Property Code.  Consequently, you should advise your client to take photos and capture video footage of the condition of the dwelling, should the landlord disagree with your determination and file suit. 

If the dwelling is “totally unusable Sections 92.054(b) allows either the tenant or the landlord to terminate the lease without mutual consent, so long as written notice is forwarded to the other party before repairs are completed.  When this happens, the tenant is entitled to a pro rata refund of any rent paid and a return of any security deposit paid (after lawful deductions).  You should also advise your client that, if he or she lives in a complex, the landlord may offer a comparable unit as an alternative.   

Unless otherwise stated in the lease agreement, neither party may unilaterally terminate the lease agreement when the dwelling is “partially unusable”.  In this scenario, the tenant may seek an abatement or reduction of rent by written request to the landlord or by seeking a judgment from the applicable court.   

  1. Is the damage covered under an insurance policy? 

You should also determine whether your client has renter’s insurance and whether the damages are covered by the policy.  In this scenario, it’s important that you and the tenant notify the insurance company as soon as possible to avoid any issues related to failure to make a timely report.  Also, you and the tenant should work with the landlord to avoid any unnecessary delay.