Public voices opinions on rental housing

Published 5:01 pm Saturday, March 8, 2014

Austin residents, landlords, volunteers and officials had plenty to talk about when they came together for Vision 2020’s rental housing forum Saturday morning.

About 50 people gathered at the Austin Public Library to share their thoughts on the city’s rental housing and what to do to solve existing issues. Many property owners and residents advocated for personal responsibility and more education on housing, but several people shared stories on how bad landlords or bad tenants have affected them.

“There are plenty of landlords that are not doing their part,” Vickie Spyhalski said. There were only two houses available when she and her family moved to Austin several years ago, and only one of them was in livable condition — for about six months, until the property turned into commercial space.

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Santino Deng, success coach for Austin Public Schools shared his ownlandlord issues from when his family moved to Austin in 2000. According to Deng, the landlord at the first place he rented refused to fix a hole in the wall of his infant son’s room after a repairman made the hole worse. The Dengs moved to another place in the winter because of the hassle.

Deng said he has heard similar stories throughout the community and among Austin’s Sudanese population.

“People take advantage of us sometimes,” he said.

Property owner Peter Grover condemned the bad landlords like the one Deng dealt with and called Deng’s situation “exceptional.” He said none of the property owners he knew would have done such a poor job and urged area residents to educate themselves on rental issues. He also called on the Austin City Council to further research rental issues before pursuing a rental ordinance.

“We need to work and get a little broader view on what’s going on,” he said.

Mike Carsten agreed. He advocated for residents’ rights to live however they wanted and urged the council to not make a law regulating cleanliness at properties. He and several other residents also urged the city to enforce the ordinances they and the state have in place to deal with dilapidated housing and bad landlords.

Council Member Judy Enright said the issue lies more with bad landlords and tenants whose properties affect their neighbors. She also showed residents a large list containing hundreds of properties, rental or otherwise that the city inspected in 2013.

“We’ve got numerous landlords that don’t monitor their properties,” she said.

City inspector Chris Baier said many of the properties he inspects don’t follow proper safety guidelines. Property owners don’t have the proper amount of smoke and carbon monoxide detectors in their homes, which violates several health codes.

Ultimately, residents agreed there needs to be more education on landlord-tenant rights as well as property issues in general. Yet prospective and current residents also need more and better quality places to stay, according to Jon Erichson, executive director of Austin’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority. Erichson said a recent housing study showed Austin will need about 280 more rental units by the year 2020.

The forum proved fruitful for Vision 2020 organizers and council members Janet Anderson, Enright, Jeff Austin and Steve King, all of whom attended the meeting. Director of Vision Creation Laura Helle said the forum showed more need for renter education, as well as more neighborhood participation to help rental property issues.

Enright, Austin, and Anderson agreed more talk and research needed to be done before the council could decide on a potential rental ordinance. Enright said the talks showed the council needs to do something, but she and other council members still haven’t decided the best course of action. She said a potential rental owner registration similar to the one the council advocated and ultimately dismissed in 2011 could be a step in the right direction.

Austin wished more tenants had spoken on the issue and said he was pleased overall with the forum. He said more discussion was needed before the council rushed into anything, as whatever the council decides could take years to go into effect.

“Even if something new is introduced, it’s going to take many years to accomplish great things or visible influence, and I think we’re starting to hit that point with our current ordinances and enforcement,” he said.