Tenant Bill of Rights in San Antonio
By John Henneberger
March 3, 2022
0:00 / 23:14
John Henneberger00:00

I'm John Henneberger. And I'm here today with David Wheaton advocacy director at Texas Housers and Geoffrey Okolo who is an activist on tenant rights in San Antonio.

David Wheaton00:11

Thanks, John. Like John said, my name is David Wheaton I've been the advocacy director at Texas Housers for almost a year now. where I help grassroots coalitions and, and I help, advocacy efforts for affordable housing here in the state of Texas

Geoffrey Okola00:25

... Hello. My name is Geoffrey Okola I've been, member of TOP for like a year and a half. And primarily I organize with the TOP with their housing justice organizers, and we have been pushing to make housing prioritized by the city of San Antonio.

John Henneberger00:48

Geoffrey you want to tell us, our listeners a little bit about who TOP is?

Geoffrey Okola00:51

Texas Organizing Project or as we're known TOP. we are a community oriented, organization that's trying to build, political power for a marginalized communities throughout Texas. Using, I guess a two pronged approach, one for political power, one for people, power political power, i.e. Getting people we elect into office to be very, very responsive to the needs of the people on the ground and people, power empowering everyday people.

Allowing them to use the most of their agency. So rather than relying solely on electoralism, you can be a better neighbor and there's power with that.

John Henneberger01:40

Got it. So you and David have been cooking up, a tenant bill of rights for San Antonio. How did you get interested?

David Wheaton01:49

This, started as, an idea that we had, after the 2021 legislative session, there was some effort to put tenant rights at the forefront, but we didn't have. like Geoffery just said the political and the people power to do that.

What we had is some good advocacy and some good policy, but we just didn't have the people to push that policy to the finish line. And so what we wanted to do in the interim before the 2023 session, was to enact locally, some reform. for tenants and we thought, what is going on in San Antonio is a progressive push.

and we kind of saw TOP as that perfect partner, to kind of help Texas Housers do some really great things locally in San Antonio when it comes to tenants rights. and that's where I met Geoffrey and Marco and some of the other organizers at TOP

John Henneberger02:37

Why tenant rights? What, what personally in your life? What resonates with wanting to work on this issue?

Geoffrey Okola02:46

Well, tenant rights has been very, very important to me. abstractly speaking housing is central in a lot of people's lives. It determines a lot, not only the job prospects in the area your access to transportation, the school your kids would go to, but on a more personal level, when it was to me and my, well, my mother and my brother and I, we lived in an apartment and there was a lot of, there's a lot of issues surrounding it. since we immigrated, well, my mother and my brother and I immigrated to America in 2006. so we had kind of have visitors mentality and we feel like the apartment complex we were in takes advantage of that. If we don't know our rights, we can't push back when they are, not giving you your deposit in a timely manner or they're entering your apartments for fixes or their... and by entering your apartment for fixes I mean, they're entering without like your consent or they're constantly raising prices without any type of justification.

So seeing this over and over and over again, and being in the situation where like, we didn't know our rights and we also felt that we can't cause too much of a ruckus or our situation might get worse. That kind of motivated me. so, push to enshrine some sort of tenant protection, within the law, as well as just educate people generally so they know their rights and they are competent in confident enough to stand for their rights and advocate for themselves.

John Henneberger04:25

What I hear you saying is it's a double problem if you're an immigrant because, coming in new to the whole legal system and all of that, it's a little bewildering all of the landlord tenant law. We know, from our experience that tenants in general whether they're immigrants or whether they've been in this country a long time, are very much at a disadvantage when it comes to the way they're treated.

Geoffrey Okola04:50

Yeah.

John Henneberger04:53

David, sketch out what a tenant bill of rights might look.

David Wheaton05:00

Right now, the tenant bill of rights in San Antonio does more than these seven things, but these are the big seven things at the tenant bill of rights does. One, it ensures that every unit rented in San Antonio meets minimum health and safety standards of basic utilities and facilities. It ensures that all repairs done by landlords are done in good faith and made by a good faith effort. That means that if you have mold in your apartment and your apartment complex just spray paints over it and doesn't really attempt to get rid of that mold that is not a good faith effort. Third, it makes it so that military veterans can't be denied housing based on, the veterans lawful source of income, to pay rent, which also includes funding, from, federal housing assistance.

it gives tenants like Geoffrey was saying it gets tenants, proper notice of a pending eviction, including an opportunity to care for non-payment of rent before filing an eviction and what we like to call, as an opportunity to cure, it also gives the tenant, the right to privacy. It sets up guidelines for when management or landlords can enter which is a big one. And we hear a lot about, in San Antonio, it also gives tenants the rights to all tenants, the right to organize without ever having to worry about the threat of eviction or decrease in services. And then seven and a big one. It creates a rinse or oversight commission that's when a whole landlords accountable for their actions.

This is going to be a place where people can go to give complaints, and have their complaints taken seriously, by a commission of mainly renters.

John Henneberger06:25

So Geoffrey, how, if, if this were enacted and this is a San Antonio initiative, right? This is not statewide yet. You're, you're focused on trying to get this in San Antonio, but if this were to be enacted, how would this change the life of tenants in San Antonio?

Geoffrey Okola06:46

Well, I feel like if this is enacted it would give tenants a reason for a huge sigh of relief. it kind of builds on current protections, which if we're being honest arn't enough and it's trying to expand it so, tenants don't have to kind of fight the uphill battle, with landlords, whether that's in court or just generally speaking. San Antonio is a growing population. Prices of housing it's -constantly rising. It's safe to assume that the amount of renters is going to grow.

So that's a large swath of the population who would be protected or get new protections under this tenant bill of rights. Secondly, rather than looking towards federal protection, state protections to try to, for some sort of piecemeal defense at any thing, the landlord does that you know violates a tenant's rights this can act as kind of like a place where rights could be not only aggregated, but also creates a foundation for rights to be further expanded upon and third, and finally, and this why I think tenants can breathe a huge sigh of relief, is the power differential that's inherent between the landlord and tenant relationship.

There of course, there's the economic aspect. If a landlord wants to evict somebody, they have access to the money, the lawyers they're going to be showing up at eviction court. And a lot of times in eviction court, most tenants don't show up and they, the landlord wins by like default judgment. So. having rights in place gives tenants kind of a better shots to engage with the landlord in the legal space. And finally, it's the differentials that pertains to their reliance on housing and for lack of better words their reliance on housing. The landlord might just see, oh, I have 250 units, but to a tenant that is their home, that is central to their life.

And the amount of anguish that can be created due to the ambiguity around tenants rights, can be just very, very damaging for the tenants can affect them in their workplace. So simply put if we can push for these tenant rights and establish them we should. Because there's a lot at stake.

John Henneberger09:19

David, you are Texas Housers advocate before the Texas legislature and I know that a lot of existing landlord tenant law is defined in state law, and the power relationship between tenants and landlords... We talk about that being a, a real mismatch. Can you talk a little bit about that power Inequality that exists between people in the business as professional landlords and tenants who view the apartment from the standpoint of home and essential shelter?

David Wheaton09:51

Yeah. Tenants are at a huge disadvantage power-wise. Landlords have, traditionally huge powers, over tenants and you're right, it happens at the state level. but it also can happen at the local level and that's why something like this, it's very, very important that we get it done, to give local San Antonio tenants that same bargaining power.

but landlords have. Tons of power when it comes to especially here in Texas, where it comes to when they can come into your property how they can raise rents what considers a repair or not a repair, they have just tremendous, tremendous power. And then they also have tremendous political power.

, I've seen, and Geoffrey has seen even at the local level, but at the state level, the landlords have just tremendous lobbying power. and with this, we want, you know, to embolden tenants to say that these are your rights. And then also when we get to the 2023 legislature, we want tenants to show up to say, "Hey, we've enacted these at our local levels."

Let's now enact this at a state level so everybody in this state has the same level of protections that we have in these, in these major cities, especially starting in San Antonio. I think there's a huge power dynamic, but I also think it's shifting and this coronavirus and the pandemic kind of shift and made a lot of people really look and think about tenants and think about eviction protection and rental assistance and evictions in a different.

I'm hoping that that's going to carry over until after the pandemic and we really keep this tenant power movement going, in, in, in like Geoffrey kept saying that tenants have both political power and our politicians stand up and fight for what's right for tenants. But also that tenants and ordinary tenants also know that they have the power to organize and to, make a change, so that it levels the playing field as far as the power dynamic.

John Henneberger11:37

There's a much smaller number of landlords than there are tenants by an overwhelming majority in the state. But I guess between the Texas Apartment Association, which is the main landlord monopoly or lobby, and the Texas Association of Realtors, they give a lot of money in political campaigns, specifically over the issue of improving the power of landlords to have more say over tenants' lives.

We see that playing out at the state level a lot, Geoffrey, have you all at TOP... have you looked at what goes on in terms of the San Antonio city council, I guess you'll be going to the city council to ask them to enact this law. Are landlords really big players in political campaign contributions and in power politics in San Antonio?

Geoffrey Okola12:37

Yeah. They play a large role based on looking at the campaign contributions, who their campaign who they are contributing to, and, I guess I'd be lying if I say I didn't believe it affected council people's voting records. There's also a kind of irony there. They are landlords collecting payments from tenants and then using that money they gained from that, it's a kind of push against the rights for tenants. It's, very, very, distressing.

They definitely do play a big role. Not just like you were talking about the Texas Board of Realtors or the Texas Apartment Association, they also have like their San Antonio branches and they are constant contributors to our local and municipal races in San Antonio. It's not just The political action committees for the apartment associations or the realtors.

It's also the developers, developers who are building more of these properties, the property managements the investment firms that back a lot of these projects, it's kind of a multi, well, it's a multifaceted like machination that there's just pumping money into our political system to get the best outcome.

And I believe even David said this earlier, because they'd see it as a business, they move as such, and unfortunately it comes at the price of the tenants that are renting there.

John Henneberger14:18

I think you made a really good point about the fact that landlords have this steady income stream that they can use to make political campaign contributions and that steady income comes from the pockets of the renters, whose rights they're seeking to erode.

Another question I wanted to ask you was, I think I recall that San Antonio tried to establish a renter's commission unsuccessfully at first, and maybe they have one now, can you help us understand anything about the politics of San Antonio city council talking about, renter's commission?.

David Wheaton14:51

I can give a little bit of insight on that. There, has been something that has been worked on.

That renter commission is broken up between, landlords and tenants, in a way where I think there's six tenants and five landlords, or that type of split, and something that we would like to create with our tenant bill of rights as a commission that is more focused on tenants and having tenants in that place of power, to give tenants the ability and the ease of mind knowing that when they go to this commission, that they're gonna be taken seriously, that when they make these complaints about these big landlords, that they're gonna actually have somebody on their side, that they know is gonna, is going to help them and, and so that's what we're trying to create with the tenant bill of rights. Is that a commission that's going to be friendly, to tenants, and it's going to be, able to help tenants hold landlords accountable.

John Henneberger15:44

I'm really interested in one of the initiatives. Geoffrey was mentioning, that was going to happen, which has to do with, prohibiting landlords from discriminating against families in the military who rely on rent vouchers to pay their rent.

one of y'all want to talk a little bit about that and what's what that's all about.

David Wheaton16:08

Yeah. Yeah. So San Antonio, has a huge, military veteran population. it, it's known as one of the friendlier cities to, to veterans. and in the state of Texas, there's actually a carve out. So, again, like you said, John, a lot of landlord and tenant law is held at the state level. A while ago, in response to what Austin did when Austin had a source of income ordinance, that said that it was illegal to discriminate on somebody for their source of income, no matter where, they lived in, no matter if the apartment complex was private or public, the state then kind of preempted that and, and said that cities can't do that.

But they made a carve out for military veterans saying that except for military veterans. What we're trying to say here with, with San Antonio, was to kind of, to put forward that one, something like source of income can work in a city and it's not going to tear landlords apart that no matter if a military veteran has a voucher, they are able to use that voucher, know wherever they want to go. You can't discriminate on that veteran for that. But then also to kind of let people know that this is a humane process, right? And by discriminating on source of income, we are telling people a lot of people in this state who are black and brown, that they it's okay to discriminate against me because I don't make this amount of money. and so having this in here, one make sure that military veterans aren't discriminated , but also just creates this sense of humanity that this is something that we need to do for everybody, not just military veterans, but hopefully soon we can get the state of Texas to have it so that nobody can be discriminated against because of their source of income.

John Henneberger17:47

The legislature, preempted local government's power to protect its citizens from discrimination, if they receive rent assistance. But they left this one exception open and you're saying, well, at the least let's treat veterans fair.

And in the meantime, think about maybe we ought to make it so everybody gets treated fair. so Geoffrey this is a big deal. It strikes me, how are you going to get this passed?

Geoffrey Okola18:15

Well, what we're trying to do is galvanize the people, it comes back backs of people, power. Like we said, there's a growing amount of tenants in San Antonio.

So mobilizing them and making them feel that not only is their voices being heard, but embolden them so they have confidence in the power of their voice. So canvasing, hitting the streets, talking with your neighbors, many people know people live in apartments. You have a friend who lives in apartment, family member, who has an apartment, get the word out, ask them to show up to a city council and vocalize that you would like tenant protections.

More importantly, tell your stories. Because a lot of times when dealing with landlord tenant disputes, it is atomized or individualized, but if you tell your stories, I, I promise there are people out there in which your stories were resonates. And through that resonation, it will give them confidence to share their stories and let their voice be heard.

And it will kind of be a domino effect until we are now a large group and we get the cities act for what is in the best interest of its citizens, it's tenants. Rather than, you know, prioritizing the bottom dollar of landlords.

John Henneberger19:51

Yeah. Well said, if this strikes, people who are listening to this podcast as something that they want to be part of what, how would they, how would they go about doing.

David Wheaton20:05

We're going to have a petition that's going to go live. we will probably have a link hopefully on the Texas Housers' website. TOP as well, there's going to be, some information there and forthcoming. and so I, I would say stay tuned. We're also creating coalitions around this as well.

So not just the people on the ground, but also organizations and other stakeholders, who know that they have stakeholders who rent and this would be something very successful for them. From Disability Rights Texas, because we have something in the, Bill the Rights, that deals with, disabled tenants and making sure that they have fair and adequate housing and that they have fair and adequate accommodations, which we know is something that sometimes, doesn't go on in San Antonio with landlords.

we're also calling on other groups that have also wanted to help out the Texas Homeless Network and this is something that will hopefully curb homelessness, because more tenants, we have the opportunity to care and opportunity pay rent. and so, we're creating a whole coalition around this. Soon, we're going to have a petition for people who are in San Antonio to sign up, to let your representative and your city council member know that you will like something like this in San Antonio. and then if you're outside of San Antonio, listen to this, we were definitely trying to start coalitions. and so that this won't just be a San Antonio thing, hopefully, and this can spread throughout some other cities throughout Texas.

John Henneberger21:28

Well, that's exciting to hear. So w this may be, happening in Houston and Dallas and others cities soon as well.

David Wheaton21:36

Yeah.

John Henneberger21:38

I guess the, getting involved might involve calling the San Antonio, Texas Organizing Project office and expressing an interest in getting involved on tenant rights. And then maybe emailing David here at Texas Housers, david@texashousing.org, and David can connect you with, Goefery or TOP or some of the local organizers

Geoffrey Okola22:04

for the concept for the contact information for TOP, if they're trying to get organized through TOP and be, you know, an active participant in pushing for the tenant bill of rights, as well as this change, as it pertains to housing in general, they can find out more information at organizetexas.org.

We have a bunch of different, committees, but it will point your direction of housing organizer as it pertains to the tenant bill of rights, who is, Marco Arcuna and you'll give you a lot more information as it pertains to petition, you know opportunities to speak in front of city council, or just hear your story in general.

John Henneberger22:40

This is breaking news and big news. Stay tuned, watch TOP's website, watch our website. we'll be following up with additional podcasts and information as this heats up. And I'm sure there'll be opportunities for people to come out and rally and speak out and testify and try to deal with this power imbalance that really plagues almost half of the people in our state. Thanks Jeffrey. Thanks David.

Geoffrey Okola23:09

Thank you.

David Wheaton23:10

Thanks John.