Law School Clinic Finds Major Flaws in City of Austin Policies for Addressing Dangerous Apartment Conditions

A recent report has found major flaws with the City of Austin’s policies for addressing dangerous apartment conditions to protect the health and safety of tenants. The report, “Addressing Problem Properties: Legal and Policy Tools for a Safer Rundberg and Safer Austin,” was released by The University of Texas School of Law’s Entrepreneurship and Community Development Clinic and Green Doors, a local nonprofit.

The report comes on the heels of the high-profile Wood Ridge Apartments case, where a second-story walkway at the Austin complex collapsed in May 2012, displacing dozens of tenants.

A deteriorating stairway at an Austin apartment complex.
A deteriorating stairway at an Austin apartment complex.

The report claims the city has inadequate systems in place for identifying dangerous building code violations, has weak enforcement policies and lacks programs to fix dangerous building conditions. The two groups have compiled a list of sweeping recommendations to improve Austin’s policies.

“This is an issue where the City of Austin has had its head in the sand for many years now,” said Stephanie Trinh, a University of Texas law student who worked on the report. “There are hundreds, and possibly even thousands, of low-income tenants living in dangerous building conditions, but no one is doing much, if anything, about it.”

The report examines best practices used by cities across the country for addressing dangerous buildings and making neighborhoods safer. Students in the Law School clinic interviewed City of Austin staffers, local stakeholders and officials in other cities to develop an understanding of Austin’s current policies and to benchmark national best practices. They also conducted extensive independent research and consultations with national experts.

“Our research showed that Austin is drastically behind other Texas and U.S. cities in addressing dangerous building conditions and neighborhood safety issues,” Trinh said. “If Austin does not start focusing on these dangerous apartment buildings now, the problem is only going to get worse in the coming years, given Austin’s large stock of older and deteriorating apartment buildings.”

According to the report, nearly 43 percent of Austin’s apartment complexes were built between 1950 and 1974.

“Bad things happen at problem properties — whether it is crime, someone getting hurt because of structural issues, or unhealthy living conditions,” said Frank Fernandez, executive director of Green Doors, which partnered with the clinic on this project. “If we, as a community, are serious about revitalizing our neighborhoods that struggle with crime and poverty, then we must address problem properties head-on. The report provides us with a clear policy blueprint for doing so.”

For more information, contact: Heather K. Way, clinic director, UT Law School, 512-632-1695, or Frank Fernandez, executive director, Green Doors, 512-469-9130.

The Entrepreneurship and Community Development Clinic is part of the clinical program at The University of Texas School of Law. Students learn transactional lawyering and problem-solving skills related to assisting low-income communities and small businesses, working under the supervision of clinic faculty members. During the past seven years, clinic students have been involved in a series of policy projects related to improving the quality of life in low-income communities — addressing issues such as tenant displacement, vacant properties, gentrification, affordable housing and land titles.

Green Doors is a local nonprofit committed to securing affordable, safe and quality housing for Central Texans, including a focus on researching the connection between housing and socioeconomic opportunity such as neighborhood stability and economic mobility.