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Woman's plight at center of tenant laws

By Jessica Priest
Oct. 8, 2012 at 5:08 a.m.

Electrical wiring issues, wet carpet and a sagging ceiling are issues Donna Carr has with her trailer home.

The law

Some Texas statutes say tenants deserve "quiet enjoyment" of the space and units must be equipped with security devices, such as window latches and keyed dead bolts on exterior doors.

To enter into a rental agreement:

• Read a written lease carefully before signing it.

• If a change to a part of the written lease agreement is necessary, the two parties should decide how to word the change, write it in and each initial it.

If a tenant has problems, they should:

• End the lease.

• Make the landlord fix the problem or deduct the cost from the rent.

• File suit to force the landlord to make repairs.

HAVE A QUESTION FOR WATCHDOG?

To submit questions, email watchdog @vicad.com or call Jessica Priest at 361-580-6521. No topic is off-limits.

Donna Carr often uses a nail to lock her bathroom door.

"This is a standing family joke," she said last week, using her finger to pull it sideways.

Her granddaughter, Eden, meanwhile, gleefully bounced on a bed in another room, where Carr said she can't go more than five minutes unsupervised because it's so run down.

"Be careful of the window," Carr warned the 3-year-old, who skidded dangerously close to the glass covered in foil as a fan hummed nearby.

Carr is arguing with Cal Huffmaster, the longtime owner of the Coleto Creek Mobile Homes.

She entered into a verbal agreement with him in July 2011 to rent the estimated 40-year-old, two-bedroom mobile home for $450 a month after she could no longer afford one of his double-wide properties on Kemper City Road because of costly family health problems.

Huffmaster plans to raise the rate next month by $50 after being asked repeatedly to fix a leaky faucet, a hole in the roof and exposed electrical outlets.

It's a list Carr said grew longer and longer during the seven months he neglected it. She has said he's retaliating against her and favors other renters.

"My turn should've come up by now. I don't care if it looks pretty ... I'm asking for my health and my granddaughter's health and safety," she said, adding they've developed a cough after water began seeping into the carpet. "I don't have the luxury to say, 'I want to be treated like a person. I want to be treated like a human being.'"

Huffmaster said he's informed the tenants in the estimated 40 units he owns through word-of-mouth that he simply can't afford to spend neither the time nor the money making repairs he often tackled year-round.

He hopes the new, higher rate will get her out of his hair, so he can scrap the mobile home.

He said he previously spent $3,000 vacuuming carpets at the last property she rented from him because animals urinated on them.

He believes he follows the letter of the law and has offered to return her money.

"I feel sorry for her," he said about Carr, who is living with breast cancer on a monthly income of $739, "but ma'am, she can call God himself. This is my place, and I'll do what I want."

Some housing experts on the issue said Huffmaster is mostly right.

Without a written contract, Carr's and Huffmaster's responsibilities aren't clearly defined, but even that isn't as detrimental as Carr's residence outside the city limits, said John Henneberger, co-director of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service.

He routinely testifies for the legislature regarding how that law, as it is written now, makes counties a sort of renter's no-man's-land, where people often shun regulation, and he's watched bills that would give counties the power to set up and enforce minimum housing standards fail six years in a row.

The city of Victoria has four patrolling code enforcement officers who work with property owners who violate ordinances regarding safe dwellings. Some cases, such as those in which 50 percent of the structure is dilapidated, can go before an appointed Building and Standards Commission, which can order the structure demolished.

"It used to be that people chose to live outside the city limits in an unincorporated area as sort of a lifestyle choice," Henneberger said, but with Victoria's recent oil boom the decision to relocate is now more of an economic one.

Judge Donald Pozzi said Victoria County would not get involved in a dispute such as Carr's because it's a civil matter.

Dr. Bain Cate, director of the county's Health Department, agreed.

Forty-nine percent of renters in Victoria's metropolitan statistical area aren't able to afford what the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development considers a modest, two-bedroom apartment, according to a 2012 National Low Income Housing Coalition study. HUD defines affordability as not paying more than a third of one's income on rent and utilities.

Robert Doggett, general counsel for the Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, said the reason the bills failed may be because lawmakers can't identify with struggles such as Carr's.

"Texas being what it is we favor people owning homes. We don't consider renters to be voters, we don't consider them to be people who give money to campaigns and there's no tenant group that has a PAC to deliver money to a legislature," Doggett said. "When a legislator personally experiences something sometimes that can get them individually motivated, but that's often not enough to get the law changed."

Still, he said, the Texas Property Code Chapter 92, provides tenants, even those living in a county, with some protection, such as the right to demand a landlord repair any hazardous condition arising from normal wear and tear.

He recommended someone such as Carr mail their landlord a certified letter requesting repairs. If, after seven days, nothing has been done, they can file suit in a justice of the peace court, which can require conditions be remedied so long as the work does not exceed $10,000.

"The one thing she doesn't want to do is withhold rent. That's suicide," Alan Bligh, regional director of the Better Business Bureau, said, explaining that such a move would be cause for an eviction notice.

People can complain about a company they feel wronged them at www.bbb.org. The bureau can't compel them to shape up, but negative feedback could affect a business' score, Bligh said.

A search of the bureau's website revealed that no one had filed a grievance against Coleto Creek Mobile Homes.

Carr is moving out on Nov. 1 after the Fire Marshal's Office inspected the home and found several safety violations.

Victoria County Fire Marshal Ron Pray said they'll send a detailed letter about the violations to Huffmaster this week, and he'll have 10 days to hire a licensed electrician to fix the problem or face misdemeanor criminal charges. The report was not available Monday.

Carr found a 4-year-old, two-bedroom mobile home in Victoria city limits. She will make repairs and pay $500 rent a month to own it in several years.

It, too, is a verbal agreement, but she says she's learned her lesson.

"I'm just so excited there's no gaps in the wall," she said.

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