Saving the World…

…One Resident At a Time

Words by Jessica Hagemann Photos by Aaron Rimbey
Home Photo by Joan Brook

The Austin Tenants’ Council serves 400 people a week between appointments, walk-ins, and those who call or email.

As Juliana Gonzales, Executive Director of the Austin Tenants’ Council, knows, “This is a critical time for housing in Austin.” With a citywide vacancy rate of less than 2% (the majority of those empty spaces being luxury condos, financially out-of-reach for the working class), Austin is “at capacity and … it’s going to break if we don’t do something to fix it.”

At particular risk are low-income residents and families who may have lived in Austin for decades, only to face property value inflations so outrageous that they’re being priced right out of the city. Equally vulnerable are tenants who because of their race, sexual orientation, or disability status find it harder to secure desirable, safe, and stable housing.

The Austin Tenants’ Council (ATC) helps by serving those Travis and Williamson County residents who “aren’t well-protected under Texas Property Code to begin with.” Through a combination of counseling and mediation programs, ATC educates both renters and landlords on each party’s rights and responsibilities.

ATC’s Fair Housing Department

While the Fair Housing Act (1968) technically protects buyers and renters from discrimination based on factors like race and disability, it still happens. That’s why the ATC advocates for victims of discrimination, helping them to document their experiences and file formal complaints.

Disabled individuals requesting reasonable modifications to accommodate a wheelchair, for example, or the waiving of pet fees for a service animal, can meet with a housing counselor for assistance. Immigrants, minorities, and other marginalized groups benefit from ATC’s ‘secret shopper’ program (called the Fair Housing Testing Program) in which undercover volunteers visit properties around the city to witness and report discrimination. Still other tenants receive financial settlements after ATC takes them through the conciliation process with a property manager at fault.

Department of Landlord-Tenant Services

Have questions about a security deposit, eviction notice, or other issue related to renting? Call ATC’s counseling hotline 5 days/week for instant clarification. If your bilingual housing counselor can’t help you in ten minutes or less, you’ll be offered an in-person appointment usually for the very next day. Should you have a document, like a lease, that you need a professional to look at, you can send it via ATC’s brand new online counseling portal.

The Austin Tenants’ Council also responds to tenant emergencies. It is illegal in Texas for landlords to issue a same-day NTV (Notice to Vacate), fail to provide heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer, or continuously block a renter’s entry to his/her property for nonpayment of rent. Landlords may have the locks changed for nonpayment of rent, but this provision in the law is meant to facilitate a mediated landlord-tenant conversation—a service that ATC provides—rather than double as an eviction.

1640-B East 2nd Street, Suite 150

Cruz Garcia, a housing counselor, estimates that ATC serves 400 people a week between appointments, walk-ins, and those who call or email. Most of them go through Christine Castilleja, ATC’s office manager for the past 11 years. Cruz loves that her job is to “educate tenants who don’t know their rights,” and to fight against landlords who “every time the lease ends, can and do increase the rent.” Christine loves “helping people. I put myself in the client’s shoes. If I could, I would save the world.”

Did You Know? By law, Texas tenants whose properties are in need of repair must send a certified letter of request to the landlord. Texts, calls, or emails don’t legally cut it. Busted outlets, collapsing balconies, missing deadbolts, leaking roofs, and pest infestations must all be submitted in writing. ATC will visit a renter’s home, document the issue, and work with the landlord to get it resolved.

1640-B East 2nd Street, Suite 150

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