'We Are Clearly Divided': SA City Council Rejects Overdue Rent Protections That Would Slow Evictions | Texas Public Radio

'We Are Clearly Divided': SA City Council Rejects Overdue Rent Protections That Would Slow Evictions

May 14, 2020

An ordinance allowing renters in San Antonio 60 days to cure outstanding rent during the COVID-19 pandemic was voted down by the San Antonio city council Thursday. 

The council voted 5-6 causing the ordinance to fail passage. It would have required landlords to give tenants two months to settle overdue rent or come to a payment agreement before filing eviction. Some council members dissented on the grounds of a potential legal threat.

The ordinance is one of several mechanisms the city has considered or implemented since the pandemic began to help offset the burden on renters. Failure for landlords to enter this discussion with tenants or not provide notice would have resulted in up to a $500 fine on the landlord.

District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño, who represents downtown and the near-northside, was the lead proponent of the ordinance. He said the pandemic had shined a light on inequities. 

“We are successfully flattening the curve but the cost of that has been a peak to other curves: unemployment, homelessness, domestic violence, the need for food supplies, the digital divide, along with many other misfortunes,” he said. 

Nearly three dozen people signed up to speak on the ordinance, however only two were in favor of its passage. The majority of speakers were landlords, property owners and managers or represented property management companies who spoke against its creation. 

Jacelyn Bell oversees 2,500 multi-family rental units. She told council members property managers and landlords are making accommodations to affected residents like deferring rent and directing them in applying for aid. 

“The 60-day notice to cure… will have a domino effect on all parties involved,” Bell said. “The amount of revenue we will potentially lose will keep us from spending dollars on repairs in maintenance, we will have to lay off team members as we will not be able to afford payroll, we will have to put capital improvement plans on hold and this will trickle down to all of our supplier partners.”

Other property managers spoke of some tenants who have not paid rent before the pandemic began taking advantage of the situation by continuing to not pay rent.

| Related: ‘It's Fairly Merciless’ — Texas To Resume Evictions As San Antonio Renter Protection Ordinance Dies |

Lisa Smith is a property owner near the city’s core. She told council members the city has been taking care of its residents but that she opposed the creation of a right-to-cure ordinance.

“This is my kids college tuition, this is my retirement, this is my family’s future as well as many others,” Smith said.

Smith said she manages a “small” 24-unit property 

“We are uncertain times right now but I need you to protect my small business. If this passes everything my family and others have worked for will suffer. Our property functions daily on rental income, that’s how I pay my bills, my maintenance staff, and the day to day operations,” she added. 

The council members who voted against the ordinance are Jada Andrews-Sullivan of District 2, Rebecca Viagran of District 3; Adrianna Rocha-Garcia of District 5; Shirley Gonzales of District 5; Manny Peleaz of District 8; and Clayton Perry of District 10. 

“We are clearly divided on one of the tools that we have at our disposal to potentially protect people but let me remind us all that that’s just one tool,” said San Antonio Mayor Nirenberg after it became apparent the ordinance would not pass. “There is no panacea… We’re going to be looking at every way collaboratively that we can to accomplish our main mission.”

Several council members disagreed with what powers the city has over evictions and rentals. Councilwoman Gonzales said the authority rests with the county.

“We don’t have the authority to push this on landlords,” the westside councilwoman said to applause from landlords in the council chambers,“But the county judge does.”

Eviction moratorium authority is under the jurisdiction of Bexar County and Justice of the Peace (JP) courts. Bexar County and the Texas Supreme Court have paused evictions until May 19.  JP Courts are not hearing eviction proceedings until June 1. 

The federal government is limiting evictions until July 24.  The federal moratorium is possible under the CARES Act recently passed by congress in response to COVID-19. The act only applies the nationwide eviction pause to properties that are receiving federal assistance like section 8 vouchers.

The City of San Antonio estimates that about 50% of rental units fall under the CARES act guidelines. Overall, the city is estimated to have more than 260,000 rental units. The city itself does not have the power to suspend or limit evictions.

San Antonio’s City Attorney Andy Segovia said there would be a number of potential legal challenges. 

“One of them is state preemption, that if the plaintiffs would prevail (it) would declare the ordinance invalid,” Segovia said. “There’s also some actions that would entail — if again the plaintiff prevails — monetary damages against the city.”

The cities of Dallas and Austin passed ordinances similar to what San Antonio was attempting. 

The City of San Antonio is facing a massive revenue loss in light of the pandemic. Hotel and sales tax revenue appear to be on a decline. 

“We’re looking at another lawsuit. We got $200 million that we’re short right in this year’s budget,” said District 10 Councilman Clayton Perry. “And here we’re looking at something else — ‘We’ll let’s take a little bit more money and put toward defending a lawsuit.’”

District 9 Councilman John Courage and District 6 Councilwoman Melissa Cabello Havrda attempted to amend the ordinance before passage. 

Cabello Havrda wanted it lowered to 30 days instead of 60 and Courage proposed only making the ordinance in effect as long as the city had money in its COVID-19 emergency assistance fund. 

Last month, the city council approved a $25 million assistance fund for renters and homeowners who were struggling with the impact of the pandemic. 

Courage’s amendment was accepted by Councilman Trevino but Cabello Havrda’s amendment was voted on after it became clear the ordinance did not have the votes to pass; so her 30 day suggestion failed as well. 

Teri Bilby, executive director of the San Antonio Apartment Association said the council made a difficult but correct decision. She said if it passed, it could have been mistererapted by renters. 

“We believed that this ordinance would send the message that they did not have to meet their obligations,” she said. “It basically lets them think that they don’t need to pay rent right now and we know that for folks that are already struggling and perhaps living paycheck-to-paycheck - having an extra 60 days may put them in a bind financially because they’re not going to be able catch up.”

The Texas Organizing Project, a group that advocates for the rights of disparaged communities, said the council’s decision would have devastating consequences. 

“Our city leaders didn’t just kick the can down the road, they delivered the kick directly at the people who are already down,” said Michael Roberts, a TOP leader. “People need time to recover once this pandemic is over. We can’t even begin to imagine what happens when people who haven’t worked in months and haven’t been able to pay rent start getting evicted. The pain and suffering will be great.”

Councilman Trevino said the proposed policy was not meant to pit landlords against renters but offer a lifeline of support to renters 

“We were one vote shy but we hope that we will help provide some other things that can provide a framework of protections for tenants,” Treviño said.

Councilman Peleaz, who voted against the ordinance, said the proposed ordinance while well intentioned wouldn’t fix the problems of unpaid rents. 

“There’s nothing to celebrate today, and this is not a matter of the blue team and and the red team, the reality being faced in every city in the United States is that tenants are hurting and they’re scared and they're looking down the barrel of a gun.”

Peleaz said landlords were also facing down the barrel of a gun.

“It won’t help property owners who are staring down their banks,” he said.

Joey Palacios can be reached at Joey@TPR.org and on Twitter at @Joeycules. 

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