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Councilman pushing for citywide renters’ commission

Group to advocate for tenants, others say landlords need to belong

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A commission being formed by District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño will allow renters — both in apartments and homes — to have more of voice with the city, organizers said. Photo by Collette Orquiz

A proposed city commission to represent apartment and home renters — about half of San Antonio’s population — has been slowed down thanks to COVID-19, but officials hope that’s only temporary.

Meanwhile, landlords and other property owners say they don’t see the value of creating such a group when there are other means of oversight. The commission would advise the city on access to affordable housing, transportation issues, crime control, tenants’ rights and laws, and more.

Despite the stall in putting together the Renters Commission, District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño and his staff vow to get it back on track as soon as possible.

“The Renters Commission is intended to be a platform to meaningfully engage a group that makes up almost half of our population,” Treviño said in February when introducing the launch of the effort. “Statistically, renters earn less, spend a greater proportion of their income on housing, and have more barriers to civic engagement. Renters also have a unique view on issues like transportation, education, public safety, and housing which needs to be heard.”

The formation of the commission, like many city initiatives, was stalled by the spread of COVID-19, a novel strain of coronavirus that originated in China in late 2019. In March, government-mandated orders went into effect that closed schools, shuttered nonessential businesses, prohibited large gatherings, and dictated that people shelter in place.

For months,Treviño tried to garner City Council and community support for the commission to advocate for renters.

Renters’ concerns include maintenance issues, upkeep of common areas and a system that Treviño says favors the landlord at least 88 percent of the time in eviction cases.

Landlords and their representatives object to the committee, saying that its duties could be handled within existing groups or that any new committee would need to have representation from all the stakeholders, including rental property managers and owners.

The commission was first formally proposed to the council in June and a town hall meeting Feb. 29 at San Antonio College was the next big step. A followup meeting to help determine the framework for the committee was scheduled for April 4.

However, in the weeks between the two meetings, tens of thousands of renters were laid off, furloughed or saw their hours drastically reduced as the city and county issued directives to slow the spread of the virus that causes the highly infectious COVID-19.

Some people used federal-government stimulus checks of up to $1,200 per person to help pay rent and keep food on the table, but for those who don’t file electronically with automatic bank account deposits, paper checks are likely to arrive long after the rent is due for those with no income or reduced household income.

For many more, the possibility of eviction is looming. The Texas Supreme Court placed a moratorium on evictions until the end of April. Treviño proposed an additional 60-day protection after that expires. Some models, however, show that Bexar County may not see a peak in COVID-19 cases until mid-May even as Gov. Gregg Abbott has started phasing in a reopening of some businesses with social distancing.

As of press time, a moratorium extension by the Texas Supreme Court or the council had not been decided.

Some apartments have federal funding, and those are subject to the 120-day federal ban on evictions. They include numerous locations in San Antonio.

A searchable database of those properties can be found at the National Low Income Housing Coalition website https://nlihc.org/federal-moratoriums.

Ryan Rettaliata, a renter in a downtown apartment complex on Broadway, is frustrated because he and his wife, a city employee, traded a less expensive and more spacious suburban life for the amenities of living in the urban core, such as the ability to walk to restaurants, bars and coffee shops.

“We traded space for amenities and now they’re all closed,” Rettaliata said.

Long-term, he said, he can see how the formation of a Renters Commission could be useful.

“We need a representative to stand up for us. We don’t have a voice,” Rettaliata said. “We need guidelines for how well things are kept up.”

Even as Rettaliata sees his goal of buying a house by the end of the year disappear, it has made him very aware of the precarious position of the renter with the landlord.

“Before this, I didn’t think about my rights as a renter, until I needed to protect my family,” he said. “We need to have a voice before there’s a disaster that makes it necessary and it’s too late.”

Unfortunately for the cause of Treviño, the late February meeting, while well attended, included few tenants and was heavy on landlords and their real-estate representatives.

Only about 10 renters showed up to the town hall meant for them, according to Lawson Picasso, a spokeswoman for Treviño. She has been “handing out business cards like confetti” to get the feedback from renters needed to make the process work.

While the councilman’s office understands the plight of the landlord, which includes no cap on valuation of properties when it comes to property taxes, the spokeswoman said she hopes any freeze in property values that may occur during the coronavirus crisis trickles down to the distressed renter.

The San Antonio Board of Realtors, whose members represent landlords, packed the February hearing, and believes any committee that only represents renters doesn’t solve any potential problems.

“SABOR is supportive of the establishment of a balanced rental housing advisory committee that is all-inclusive and has representation from both renters and property owners in San Antonio,” said SABOR Chairman Kim Bragman. “Our hope in this effort is an environment where renters and landlords can have respectful dialogue which will lead to meaningful solutions; particularly to those problems caused as a result of COVID-19.”

She added, “SABOR looks forward to engaging with our partners at City Council to ensure that this committee becomes an educational resource for tenants and landlords within our community while maintaining the current affordable housing policy measures explicitly recommended in the Mayor’s Housing Policy Framework.”

While the COVID-19 crisis has postponed meetings to form the committee, Picasso said the issue hasn’t been put on the back burner “because we are looking at vulnerable demographics such as single mothers, seniors and service-industry workers.”

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