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Broken air conditioner? Busted sewage line? Texas renters can demand repairs, but it's complicated

Alan Schwandt, an air conditioning repairman, discovers a malfunctioning capacitor in an outdoor unit in Scottsdale, Ariz., Monday, June 19, 2017. Repairmen are constantly on call in the summer, as temperatures in the Phoenix metro area rise to nearly 120 degrees. (AP Photo/Angie Wang)
Angie Wang
Landlords are required to make repairs to preserve safety and habitability in a reasonable time period. In a heatwave, a "reasonable" time period to fix a busted air conditioner may be shorter than a "reasonable" time frame for fixing a leaky faucet.

Renters facing a broken air conditioner in the middle of a heatwave or facing the slow drip frustration of unfixed plumbing problems have the right to demand their landlords make repairs.

The process is wonky, though, and not following the law to force repairs could leave a tenant worse off — even evicted — according to housing experts.

“There are tenant protections in place in the property code, and remediation steps the tenants can take,” said Jason Simon from the Apartment Association of Greater Dallas, which represents landlords.

But, he added, “tenants aren’t always aware of their rights.”

Texas law requires landlords to provide and maintain and safe and habitable environment, and tenants have the right to request repairs or other action to maintain their rental home. And the property code bars landlords from retaliating against tenantsfor demanding repairs.

If a tenant or their guest cause damage, the landlord’s generally not responsible for fixing it, said Mark Melton from the Dallas Eviction Advocacy Center. But generally, landlords must act to keep the rental unit habitable, and in roughly the condition it was leased.

“Ultimately the landlord is required to repair anything that happens in the unit unless it happens to a window or a door or a result of you leaving a window or a door open. Or if you flush something down your own toilet that clogs it — that's on you,” Melton said. “But otherwise, the landlord's supposed to fix everything.”

That means fixing appliances that break and maintaining the basic infrastructure like plumbing. It includes maintaining the structure like stairs and walkways outside the rental unit and controlling pest infestations.

If the roof leaks and damages the carpet, they must fix the carpet and the roof.

A formal process

But tenants can only force a landlord to make repairs by following the process laid out in Texas law.

Dewey Marshall from the Texas Tenants Unionsaid that starts by putting that request in writing and sending it as certified mail.

Here’s why: For a tenant to sue to force a landlord to make a necessary repair, they have to prove the landlord or manager knows about the problem in the first place. Certified mail is a trackable form of communication — proof the landlord received the request. Tenants can also take a picture of the letter next to the envelope before sending.

The Texas Tenants Union has templates for repair request letters to send to landlords, Marshall said.

“As soon as the landlord gets a repair or remedy request in the mail by a trackable form, they have what's presumed to be seven days to respond,” Marshall said.

The timing is a little fuzzy: State lawrequires problems to be fixed in a “reasonable” time period. Seven days is typically considered reasonable — for things like for a leaky faucet or a dishwasher that stops functioning. But emergencies like sewage backing up or air conditioner dying in a heatwave often require a quicker response.

Without sending a "trackable" communication that proves the landlord received the request, the tenant must send a second letter requesting the remedy, and wait another "reasonable" period of time for the landlord to respond.


If a tenant sends a certified letter requesting a required repair and a reasonable time period has passed with no fix, tenants basically have three options.

They can stay in the unit and sue. Melton said tenants can ask a court to order their landlord to fix the problem. If it comes to that, the judge may order the landlord to pay for their tenant’s attorney fees, financial damages or costs incurred because the landlord didn’t fix the problem. That could happen if a tenant had to move into a hotel because the apartment wasn’t habitable.

Another option is to move out. A tenant can break their lease and move out early without penalty, assuming they’ve followed the process properly.

A third option is “repair and deduct,” as Marshall puts it. A tenant can hire a legitimate repair person to fix the issue, get a receipt, and then deduct the cost of the repair from their next month’s rent.

Now, this is different from just withholding rent to try to force a landlord to make repairs. Mark Melton said not paying rent puts tenants at risk of eviction.

“That is one area where we see a lot of problems, where the tenant says, I'm not getting what I bargained for in this contract and so therefore I'm not going to pay you,” Melton said. “And unfortunately, the way that the law is written is, well, then they'll just evict you and they'll win.”

A lease agreement is a contract. Tenants have the right to enforce that contract, but so does their landlord. And if tenants stop paying rent, they breach that contract.

More options

Tenants can call their city’s Code Compliance department to report ongoing problems that jeopardize health and safety.

Both Marshall and Melton point out: It’s illegal for landlords to retaliate against a tenant for calling code compliance, or for requesting repairs, whether the retaliation is by filing a flimsy eviction case or through other means.

Evictions, it’s worth noting, are a formal legal processthat have clear rules and timelines that landlords must follow.

Tenants can also contact a lawyer or advocacy group to make sure they know their rights. After all, while the law gives tenants options, it can be tricky to thread the legal needle to make sure repairs get made.

Got a tip? Christopher Connelly is KERA's One Crisis Away Reporter, exploring life on the financial edge. Email Christopher can follow Christopher on Twitter @hithisischris.

KERA News is made possible through the generosity of our members. If you find this reporting valuable, considermaking a tax-deductible gifttoday. Thank you.

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.