Within days of moving into her Wedgwood apartment in November, Kristina Ashton and her elementary-aged daughter woke up to a carbon monoxide leak in the HVAC system. Not only did the heater not work, Ashton said one of the sinks was not draining and a toilet was not hooked up.

Getting maintenance out to fix everything was just the start of her struggle with her landlord, she said.

“I’m not just gonna settle for what I can live with. I’m not gonna settle until it’s up to code,” said Ashton, a single mom. 

Getting landlords to address repairs and other issues can be tricky – if not difficult – but renters are entitled to rights under Texas law, which mandates they should have a healthy and safe place to live. 

James Ince, an attorney with Legal Aid of Northwest Texas, shared tips and ways to address your landlord to get those repairs done. 

Check your lease, health and safety obligations

Ince said the first step frustrated tenants should take is to look at their lease. Often, a lease will provide remedies that are better than what’s in the law, he said. 

Ninety percent of tenants have never looked at their lease, Ince said.  

“Very often the landlords will tell tenants things that just aren’t true. Don’t assume that the landlord is correct,” he said. 

Ince also tells clients that they need to pay their rent on time, which prevents the landlord from having a reason to withhold services. 

The tricky part, Ince said, is that some things that need fixing may not be the responsibility of the landlord, such as a window that is broken by a renter.

That is not the case when safety and health hazards are involved. 

“A landlord absolutely has a duty to repair any condition that materially affects the physical health or safety of an ordinary tenant,” Ince said. 

For example, if a landlord fails to maintain hot water to 120 degrees, that is considered a safety issue, Ince said.

There is no set list available of repairs that are considered health and safety hazards. However, tenants can get a city’s code and compliance department to come out to the site to determine if there is a hazard, and if necessary, issue a citation to the landlord.

Filing a repair and remedy suit

If a tenant is having trouble getting a landlord to address repairs, they can go to a Justice of the Peace court and file what is called a “repair and remedy suit,” Ince said. 

This is one of the easiest and most effective ways to get a landlord’s attention. Legal Aid often recommends this approach to its clients, Ince said. 

“We have seen time and time again where the tenant does that and the landlord suddenly realized, ‘OK, this tenant means business. We need to get busy and get these things repaired,’” he said. “So sometimes that’s enough. But if not, then the judge during the hearing can order the repair to be done.”

During the hearing, the judge can not only order repairs to be done but can also order that rent be reduced until repairs are done. 

In some extreme cases, the tenant can even be awarded civil penalties, though it’s not common.

“If the court believes that the landlord is just being egregious, and it’s not an innocent mistake, the court can say, ‘OK, your tenant’s rent is $1,000 so the landlord has to pay you $1,000 and then they can add $500 to that,” Ince said. 

Need some legal advice?

Legal Aid of Northwest Texas’ Fort Worth office services Tarrant, Johnson, Somervell, Erath, Palo Pinto, and Hood counties. 

To apply for services, you can contact them at (817) 336-3943, Monday through Wednesday from 8:30 – 11 a.m. and from 1:30 – 4 p.m.

Applications are made by appointment only. Office hours are Monday – Friday from 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.

Sending certified mail and withholding rent

The Texas Attorney General’s office lists steps for renters to withhold rent in cases where landlords are not providing adequate living standards. This option can only apply if repairs concerning health and safety hazards are not addressed.

But this approach can easily backfire if not done properly. 

For example, if a tenant withholds rent incorrectly, then the landlord has almost no obligation to help the tenant, Ince said. Then, the tenant is not only behind on rent – and at risk of eviction – but still without repairs. 

“There are times you can quit paying rent but you’d have to follow certain procedures and most people aren’t sophisticated enough to follow them correctly and I think the law’s written kind of intentionally not to make it easy for them to follow,” Ince said. 

Ashton, the Wedgwood resident, successfully navigated this option, sending a certified letter to her landlord with a list of repairs, and notifying them that she will be withholding rent until those repairs are done. 

Within days of sending the certified letter, Ashton was contacted by contractors to come and repair her rental home. She has also started a Facebook group for renters to share their tips and stories. 

The moment the rental home is up to code, she said she will pay every cent owed. 

“I’m feeling like this company is completely OK with just renting a house to somebody and not caring what condition it’s in. And so I’m gonna make sure that by the time I leave this house, it’s completely up to code. And so the next person who rents this house walked into a house, it’s all done,” Ashton said. 

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Sandra Sadek is the growth reporter for the Fort Worth Report and a Report for America corps member. She writes about Fort Worth's affordable housing crisis, infrastructure and development. Originally...