Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

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October 4, 2022

Renters’ rights: How to navigate unfinished building contracts

Emma Berke

When psychology junior Adrienne Wood signed a lease for the Union on San Antonio in mid-October, she was primarily motivated by her need to secure SMART Housing, which are apartment units with adjusted, affordable pricing.

“I was looking for a place that offered SMART Housing, and SMART Housing was running out really fast,” Wood said. “This was one of the last (apartments) that had SMART Housing available for the floor plan that I needed.”

Wood successfully secured a SMART Housing unit at the building, but she hasn’t toured the complex or even seen pictures of her unit because her apartment building is currently unfinished. 

Signing a lease for a not-yet-constructed apartment building isn’t unheard of in West Campus. In the past year, West Campus apartment complexes like Noble 2500, Rambler and Rise had students sign leases during their construction phases but did not open to students for their expected move-in dates, supplying students with alternative accommodations in the meantime.

The fall move-in date for Union on San Antonio is Aug. 23, 2024, according to their website

Plan II senior Isabel Webb Carey founded UT Housing Transparency, a student-run initiative aimed at making housing information more accessible to students, after her apartment building delayed opening in summer 2022. 

“I am an international student, so I don’t have a safety net,” Webb Carey said. “The idea of not having somewhere to live was just really scary, honestly. It wasn’t until I had been in the position of housing insecurity that I realized just how detrimental it can be to students.”

Webb Carey said as Austin’s population continues to grow, she believes her situation will become more common. She said she feels there needs to be more support for students from the University.

“This is the future we face,” Webb Carey said. “The people reaching out to (students) about where they’re going to live next year are leasing agents, who obviously have an incentive to get them to live in these buildings.”

At a town hall hosted by UT Housing Transparency, students voiced their frustrations and concerns for the future of housing in West Campus, including the lack of some renter protections in Austin.

Webb Carey said the city of Austin should require a maximum amount of time that apartments are allowed to push back their opening date, something she said is common in other cities. 

Robbie Searcy, public information specialist for the City of Austin Development Services Department, said completed apartment buildings receive a Certificate of Occupancy that allows residents to move in and live in the building, which can take the form of a temporary certificate if the apartment’s remaining issues are minor. 

“If a project does not pass inspections for life safety and other code requirements, the Certificate of Occupancy can be delayed until those issues are resolved,” Searcy wrote in an email. “As long as plans are approved, relevant permits are active and code requirements are followed, there are no timeline consequences for developers from the city’s perspective. Agreements about opening dates are a private contractual matter.”

Nelson Mock, a housing law professor, said the lease tenants sign will largely outline their rights as a renter.

Mock said tenants who have signed a lease at an unfinished building are in a different situation than typical cases of tenants who have already moved into their building and have obligations to complete the term of their lease.

“If there’s actually a move-in date and they are not complying with what they have promised … that would be considered in Texas law to be a breach of contract,” Mock said. “You would need to look at the lease itself just to make sure that there are no provisions that take that into consideration, but if there is a breach of the lease … then there would be remedies under Texas law.”

An apartment lease contract from the Texas Apartment Association, commonly used by West Campus complexes, states that they “are not responsible for any delay of your occupancy caused by construction, repairs, cleaning or a previous resident’s holding over.”  

The TAA lease has limited options for termination if written notice of a delay is not provided when or after the lease begins. According to the contract, if notice is not given until the time the lease contractually begins, the tenant has up to three days to terminate the lease after receiving notice. If a tenant receives written notice of an expected delay before the lease’s start date, they have up to seven days to terminate the lease.

“A landlord is unlikely to explain the tenant’s rights under the lease, so it becomes very important for the tenant to know what they are,” Mock wrote in a later email.  

Martin Serra, attorney for the University’s Legal Services for Students, said students who are signing a lease agreement should review their contracts carefully and consult legal services if they have any questions.

“There are some provisions of the Texas property code that can’t be waived,” Serra said. “It’s up to the parties to review those contracts, know what’s in it and determine whether or not those are terms they’re willing to agree to.”

Wood said she would have felt better when signing her lease if a standardized plan in the case of delay was put in place, including a requirement of a minimum time to give notice.

“It is a risk signing on an apartment that’s not finished yet,” Wood said. “If there was a set action plan that was stated outwardly, that would be very reassuring.” 

Mock said implementing protections such as notice of a delay from the landlord would help protect tenants in a process that can be difficult to navigate.

“The reality is that there’s no standard lease that a landlord has to have in the state of Texas,” Mock said. “There are parts of the Texas property code that will dictate obligations that a landlord has … but beyond that, everything else can be determined by contract.”

Despite some previous concerns, Wood said she is not currently too worried about moving into an unfinished building.

“When (my roommates and I) went and talked to the staff at the Union on San Antonio, they reassured us that they are a few months ahead on construction,” Wood said. “I did feel very reassured after talking to them.” 

The Union on San Antonio did not provide comment in time for publication.

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About the Contributor
Rylie Lillibridge, Senior News Reporter
Rylie is a neuroscience and journalism double major from New Braunfels, Texas. Currently, she covers the research beat as a senior reporter. She was previously a general reporter during Summer 2022. In her free time, she likes going to hear live music.