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April rent is due, but many Austin residents may not be able to pay

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — It’s April 1 and time to pay rent, but thousands of local tenants who have lost their jobs and income because of COVID-19 may not be able to afford it.

Austin City Council passed an ordinance March 26 protecting tenants from eviction through May.

While renters won’t be kicked out of their homes for two months, they are still required to pay rent. The situation has some Austin tenants considering forgoing necessities to pay rent and, in some cases, organizing “rent strikes.” Meanwhile, property owners and landlords brace for a wave of potential rent defaults.

More than half of Austin residents rent their home or apartment, according to U.S. census data. Unemployment claims have surged across the country.

In a Facebook Live town hall event on March 25, Texas Workforce Commission Executive Director Ed Serna said his agency received 100,000 calls in a single day that week. Pressure on the Workforce Commission has been so high the agency’s website has crashed in recent days, leaving many struggling to apply for unemployment.

Tenant law and housing experts told KXAN tenants should pay rent if they can. If they can’t, they should contact their landlords and try to reach an agreement or payment plan.

Sam Law, with Rent Strike ATX, said his organization formed quickly in the wake of mass layoffs in March. Law said Rent Strike helps tenants organize into “tenant councils” to collectively negotiate with landlords. Law said Rent Strike is part of a larger national and international movement.

“Most renters in Austin are just 1-2 missed paychecks away from not being able to pay their rent,” Rent Strike ATX said in a statement Wednesday. “Although the City has given renters a 60-day grace period to come up with rent, unemployed renters will continue to fall behind, accrue late fees, and face eviction — setting the stage for an intensified housing crisis once the public health crisis has ended.”

Renee Zahn, a representative of the Austin Apartment Association, a trade association representing the rental housing industry, said she is hearing from landlords that they want “to keep folks in their homes.”

She said tenants that can’t pay rent should contact their property owners quickly to try to find a resolution, and her organization has provided documents that support lease contracts and allow property owners to make agreements with people affected by the virus to waive late fees.

When asked about the creation of tenant councils, Zahn said, “These are such unchartered territories for all of us. As opposed to being divisive, we ask that we work together.”

COVID-19 is the disease caused by coronavirus. The virus has spread to nearly every country in the world and continues to spread rapidly in the U.S., which has had over 206,000 cases. As of Wednesday afternoon, there have been 305 confirmed cases in Travis County with three deaths. Texas has had over 4,000 cases. You can read up to date COVID-19 information from the city here.

Information on the Austin Tenants Council is available here, or at (512) 474-7006.

Travis County Justice of the Peace information on eviction hearings:

Information regarding rental assistance resources:

Austin Tenant Council’s information on the eviction process:

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