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As business for tenant lawyers ramps up, Austin residents are worried about paying rent

Renters have had questions about their rights during the coronavirus pandemic. KVUE went to a lawyer to get some answers.

AUSTIN, Texas — Renters who lost their jobs are worried about making ends meet and an Austin tenant lawyer said she's been taking a lot of calls about rent issues since April 1. 

"There are people who are trying to figure out what they're supposed to do. Normal people, just like me and you, who've never been late with their rent. They're just not able to work," said Jennifer MacGeorge, an attorney with MacGeorge Law Firm. 

MacGeorge said she's only one of a few tenant lawyers in Austin and she doesn't want renters to panic.

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"If you've been affected by not being able to work because of [COVID-19], you do have a 60-day grace period and you don't have to sign away any of your other rights or agree to any other sort of payment plan in order to obtain those," said MacGeorge. 

MacGeorge said if a landlord offers to create a payment plan, it may benefit you because they could agree to waive late fees.

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"You do not get out of late fees in the Austin city ordinance, but if you can't make a payment plan, don't sign anything with your landlord. You don't have to. You just need to be able to come up with the money at the end of the 60 days," said MacGeorge. 

KVUE talked to an Austin landlord, Bret Vance, who said it's been stressful for landlords, too, who have to pay their mortgages. Vance said communication is what's helped him and his tenants. 

"Just cooperate as best you can with anybody who's willing to talk to you," said Vance. "This is a unique situation with everybody and I think every landlord should understand as best as they can."

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MacGeorge said if you have the money, pay your rent, and if you have questions, ask for help. 

"Just know that you don't have to sign anything and agree to anything to get a deferment on your rent," said MacGeorge. "So, if all you're being offered is a deferment on your rent, but they're still going to charge you late fees and they want to raise your rent ... or make a lot of changes to your lease ... you don't have to agree to any of those things to get the deferment alone."

MacGeorge said she's also getting a lot of failure-to-repair calls from tenants. She said if there's something wrong in your apartment that could impact your health and safety, call 311. They'll put you in touch with code enforcement and they're still inspecting properties for code violations. 

If you want to read more about tenant rights, MacGeorge suggests to read the Texas Property Code Chapter 92 for "Residential Tenancies," Chapter 24 for "Forcible Entry and Detainer" or evictions, and Chapter 93 for "Commercial Tenancies." 

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