Law Center launches consumer assistance program for Harvey victims
The University of Houston Law Center launched its Hurricane Consumer Assistance Program July 12 with a $205,000 grant from the Greater Houston Community Foundation to provide legal information relevant to future disasters and assist with Houston consumer issues ensuing from Hurricane Harvey.
According to the Texas Tribune, Hurricane Harvey cost a total of $125 billion – the second most expensive disaster after Hurricane Katrina. Houston residents have experienced landlord-tenant issues and contractor disputes — among other consumer issues — while trying to rebuild. The University of Houston Law Center launched the Hurricane Consumer Assistance Program to provide legal services and information to people dealing with similar problems and prepare them for future disasters.
“We’re trying to get legal information or legal services to at least 1,000 individuals,” said Ryan Marquez, a professor leading the program at the Law Center. “In Texas, there’s very little protections, so you have to be more vigilant than maybe you would have to be in other states.”
Marquez and a group of students will provide legal services to eligible individuals, such as sending demand letters, and offer community presentations around Houston to explain the rights of Texas residents.
Harris County and Houston residents qualify to receive help from the program as long as they have a case, Marquez said. The Greater Houston Community Foundation also set six preference categories: low income, LGBTQ, elderly, undocumented individuals, households with students or children and residents who didn’t qualify for FEMA.
Although they’re prepared to help Houston residents across the city, Marquez said they’re focusing on Third Ward residents.
The Law Center began the program by helping around 25 people draft demand letters, Marquez said.
“I mean, sometimes demand notices can only get you what the person has,” Marquez said. “You can’t squeeze water out of a rock, but I think the main help is helping people know where they stand with different things.”
Sometimes people have no legal recourse left, so the information helps them decide whether they want to continue pursuing the matter, Marquez said, and they’ll understand what their rights are for future situations.
People will know how to apply for FEMA, spend insurance money, deal with landlord-tenant issues and more with the information the program provides, he said.
A lot of questions immediately after Harvey dealt with FEMA applications, Marquez said, but clients are now primarily dealing with repair and contractor issues.
Marquez said there’s no warranty of habitability in Texas, meaning people’s leases aren’t automatically canceled because of damage.
The repair statute set specific guidelines for repairs. For example, if a residence is completely uninhabitable, then tenants have the right to terminate their lease, but they must first send a written notice to the landlord. Tenants also have to clear the residence on the day of the termination.
Landlords hold the right to refuse a tenant’s written request in a case of complete inhabitability, but tenants can take their case to court, Marquez said.
Though people have a right to terminate in these cases, Marquez said it’s not automatic. Tenants still have to pay rent until the lease is officially terminated, but they’re entitled to a refund from the date of termination since rent is usually paid in advance.
In cases with partial inhabitability, tenants can petition for rent reduction if they file a lawsuit, making it more difficult than cases of complete inhabitability, he said.
Individuals who cease paying rent as a response complicate the process, he said. Under the repair statute, landlords have no obligation to repair a residence if their tenant hasn’t paid rent, and tenants can now face legal consequences for violating their lease.
Landlords who have insurance also have no obligation to begin reparations until they receive funds from their insurer, he said.
“An adjuster would have to come out, approve it, cut the check and then the time line would start for the landlord to make repairs,” Marquez said.
‘Your one shot’
Marquez said people misinterpret their rights when dealing with contractors. In cases where contractors fail to meet set standards, individuals have to send a written notice explaining what’s wrong for them to rectify the problem.
People have to specify the set standards in writing, not verbally, if they want legal protection, Marquez said.
“All that matters is what’s on the contract,” Marquez said. “This is usually your one shot to repair things with the money you’ve got, whether it’s FEMA money or money in your bank.”
While it’s less expensive to pay one contractor for the entire job, Marquez said it’s safer to hire a contractor project by project. If a contractor can’t efficiently complete a smaller project, then they likely won’t do a good job on your entire house, he said.
Marquez said law students learn how to give legal advice to clients — even if it’s difficult to hear.
Students learn how to draft demand letters, formulate strategy and learn how to communicate with their clients, he said.
Janet Heppard, a clinical director at the Law Center, said the program helps law students gain the knowledge they’ll need to help people in the future.
“Being able to do these training classes in the hopes that when these students get out, they’ll feel more comfortable jumping in and volunteering,” Heppard said.