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What You Need to Know About Tenant Rights in Texas

You’re late on your rent payment for your apartment in Houston, but before you have the opportunity to hand the check to your landlord, you receive a notice to vacate the property in three days. You offer to pay the rent in full, plus late fees, but the landlord isn’t interested.

The first question you, your roommate, friends and family all ask: Is this legal?

According to Texas law, it is.

In Texas, a landlord must provide three days’ notice to vacate a property before filing for eviction when there’s been a breach of lease or nonpayment of rent, and the landlord isn’t required to keep the tenant on if the breach is corrected. That means it’s time to start looking for new housing on short notice.

While laws protecting tenant rights are in place in the Lone Star state — including guaranteeing habitable conditions — experts say court processes and allowances to landlords may create more of a hindrance than a help to renters. “Texas does have a way to go before they catch up with other states in terms of fairness,” says Sandy Rollins, executive director of the Texas Tenants’ Union.

To best protect yourself as a tenant, be aware of the rights guaranteed to you by state and federal law before you find yourself facing a problem. Even when you do, however, there are ample resources throughout Texas to help you communicate effectively with your landlord to resolve an issue, seek legal guidance and fight eviction or loss of a security deposit.

[Read: What Limits Can Your Landlord Put on Gun Possession?]

Here’s what you need to know about tenant rights in Texas.

Civil Rights and Fair Housing

Federal law protects against housing-related civil rights violations through the Fair Housing Act, passed in 1968 and amended to cover more protected classes. Currently, the Fair Housing Act restricts landlords from refusing housing or showing preferences to renters based on race, color, national origin, sex, familial status, religion or disability.

Like most other states, Texas has its own Fair Housing Act that reinforces the federal protections. Complaints about discrimination or suspected discrimination can be made not only to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, but also to the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs.

Eviction

In Texas, the landlord must provide three days’ written notice to a tenant to vacate the property before filing a forcible detainer suit, also known as eviction. To do so, the tenant must be in breach of the lease, either by neglecting to pay rent or violating the terms in some other way, such as having a cat in a no-pets apartment or creating a disturbance to neighbors in a manner that’s explicitly prohibited in the contract.

For a tenant who has a month-to-month lease, as long as he or she has already lived at the property more than one month, at least one month’s notice for termination of the lease is required.

However, Texas law does allow for the landlord to include in the lease that a shorter or longer notice period is permitted. If the tenant has signed a lease saying only 24 hours’ notice is necessary, that shorter notice can be held up in court.

Any tenants who have received a notice to vacate should know that the notice itself is not an eviction. Eviction can only occur when it goes through the court system. In Texas, a tenant has the right to remain at the property should she choose to fight the eviction filing. The landlord is not permitted to remove the tenant’s belongings from the premises. If the court finds in favor of the landlord, a police officer or sheriff’s deputy may be called to remove the tenant and belongings.

Rollins notes that while a tenant can pursue court action for legal violations a landlord may have committed, “Texas doesn’t have any counterclaim in an eviction case.” A tenant fighting eviction doesn’t have the ability to file a claim that disputes the eviction on grounds that the landlord owes him money, for example.

In 2016, 2.17 percent of renter homes saw a formal eviction through the court system, according to the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, which tracks eviction information throughout the U.S. The evictions make up slightly less than half of eviction filings, which were 4.77 percent of total renter homes in Texas in 2016, although the Eviction Lab believes the filing number is low due to missing data from rural parts of the state.

Regardless, Rollins stresses that in her line of work, she sees more renters displaced through eviction than seems reasonable. “There’s way too many evictions in this state, and not enough protections for the tenant,” she says.

[Read: 8 Red Flags to Help You Spot a Rental Scam]

Habitability

All renters in Texas have the right to live in decent, safe and sanitary conditions, and the landlord must make necessary repairs to ensure that remains the case. That means resolving pest problems, ensuring hot water is available, there are functioning locks on windows and doors, there are working smoke detectors and any other conditions that may pose a health or safety risk — like mold — are addressed.

However, being able to hold your landlord accountable for these issues requires a few steps:

— Make sure all rent is paid.

— Send a written request by certified mail or delivery service that can confirm delivery.

— Give the landlord seven days from the point of receiving the letter to make the repair.

— If seven days have passed, send a second letter as final notice, also by mail or delivery service and receive confirmation of delivery.

Unlike some states, Texas does not legally allow a tenant to withhold rent when faced with uninhabitable conditions under the argument of effective eviction. Withholding rent can lead to an eviction filing, and when fighting eviction the tenant may not expect repairs.

When your health or safety is in question, you may benefit from contacting a local tenant rights organization to help you properly phrase the request to your landlord. Scott Rose, landlord-tenant programs manager for the Austin Tenants’ Council, explains that often the council will reach out to landlords directly to explain what’s required of them. Some landlords are simply ignorant of their legal responsibilities, while others don’t seem to care, he says.

“It’s hard to generalize, but I think more often than not the landlords are quite aware of the conditions of the dwellings, and they turn a blind eye,” Rose says.

In Austin in particular, the rapidly growing population means rental properties are always in high demand. As a result, Rose says, many landlords don’t feel much motivation to retain a tenant. If the renter leaves, finding another tenant to take her place will be relatively easy.

“It’s surprising how willing people are to sort of accept circumstances that are way less than tolerable just because they’re affordable,” Rose says.

Security Deposit

Texas landlords have 30 days from the time the tenant vacates the property to refund a tenant’s security deposit. Should the landlord retain all or part of the security deposit, the tenant should receive an itemized list and description of the deductions and costs.

In Rollins’ experience, tenants often not only lose the entirety of their security deposit to claimed charges from the landlord, but also “people will get demand for extra payment,” she says.

Tenants are expected to leave their rental in good condition, with normal wear and tear considered reasonable. Redecorating or carpet cleaning fees are common, but a charge to replace the entire carpet when it only needed cleaning is egregious. Replacement of older appliances that needed replacing would also be considered an unfair charge to place on the tenant.

To prevent losing your security deposit and have the right proof to fight unfair billing or fees, be sure to photograph each part of the property both when you move into the vacant rental and when you move out. And provide your landlord with a forwarding address to send your deposit within 30 days of your move-out, and send a letter disputing charges line by line should the landlord deduct an amount you disagree with.

[See: 7 Secrets You Can’t Hide From Your Landlord.]

Rent Control

The state of Texas does not permit rent control or stabilization in any municipal or county government. States like California and New York don’t have rent control statewide, although it does exist in certain cities. San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City, for example, establish rent stabilization to keep rental rates from climbing beyond a certain percentage in certain parts of the city, based on the neighborhood or age of the property.

Finding Resources and Fighting Back

Texas is a large state, but there are many organizations dedicated to helping tenants both locally and statewide. As is the case in many other parts of the country, renters in larger metro areas such as Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Austin, San Antonio and El Paso are more likely to find a nearby organization or legal aid group that can provide immediate help.

But renters in rural areas of the state shouldn’t feel discouraged. Texas Tenants’ Union is based in Dallas, but Rollins says the organization works hard to be accessible to all Texas residents through email, phone or even Facebook to provide insight and advice.

Rose says he often points renters toward Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, which is a nonprofit legal aid organization that has programs throughout the state.

Most tenants, Texans or otherwise, don’t feel the need to be concerned about their rights as a renter until they suspect those rights are being violated. When people contact the Austin Tenants’ Council, for example, “typically, they’re in various states of crisis,” Rose says.

But the best way to avoid legal issues with a landlord or possible eviction is to know in advance the steps to require a landlord to repair a safety hazard, return your security deposit or, in the worst-case scenario, successfully fight an unwarranted eviction.

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What You Need to Know About Tenant Rights in Texas originally appeared on usnews.com