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Texas freeze still causing pain for many Austin apartment dwellers

Lori Hawkins Shonda Novak
Austin American-Statesman

After losing power in his apartment unit in South Austin last Monday morning, Lucas Askew awoke to the sound of pounding on this door.

"They said there was a fire in the apartment building. I threw my keys and my wallet in my pocket and grabbed my dogs," said Askew, a mechanical engineering major at Austin Community College. "By the time we came back the whole roof was on fire, so we couldn't get any of our stuff."

Askew, who is currently staying at a hotel, spent this week surveying the damage to his unit at the Park on Brodie Lane apartment complex, where the ceiling in the living room and dining room caved in.

"The ceiling actually burned off, and now everything is wet," he said. "All our furniture is gone and all electronics are gone."

Lucas Askew looks around his damaged apartment at the Park at Brodie Lane complex on Feb.24. Askew's apartment was among a number damaged by a fire during the recent winter storm.

Last week's winter storm wreaked havoc on many Central Texas apartment complexes and their tenants. The record cold led to lengthy power outages, frozen pipes, flooded units, water system contamination, food shortages and — for some residents — displacement.

Powerless:How Texans struggled to survive winter storm power outages

The effects are still lingering. Even for residents who were not displaced, some are still waiting to have pipes repaired, water service restored or to regain access to hot water. Greg Meszaros, the director of Austin Water, said during a Thursday briefing to the Austin City Council that 200 to 400 apartment and condo complexes were still without water service.

Management companies say they are working to make repairs.

"The cost of repairs to the rental stock will be huge, stressing budgets that were already stretched by increasing expenses at a time when revenue growth has been relatively weak in most cases," RealPage, a data analytics firm for the real estate industry, said in a new report.

Lucas Askew and his brother Patrick Barrow, right, try to salvage some belongings from Askew's unit at the Park at Brodie Lane apartment complex on Feb.24. Askew's apartment was damaged by a fire during the recent winter storm.

RealPage said the Insurance Council of Texas – a trade group for the state's home, auto, renters and business insurance agents – has estimated that the cost for repairs will make this freeze the costliest weather event in Texas history, likely surpassing the $19 billion in claims filed after Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

'We are in limbo'

There is certainly much repair work to be done at the Park on Brodie Lane apartment complex, where Askew was among nearly 40 residents displaced by the fire that boke out last Monday. 

The fire is believed to have been started by a resident using a fireplace to stay warm, said Katie Harris, vice president at Lincoln Property Company-Austin.

Tenants are figuring out their next steps. Although Askew has renter's insurance, he said his $2,700 policy won't go far. His sister set up a GoFundMe account to help with basic expenses. And he was able to secure an apartment at the same complex, so he has a place to go as he rebuilds.

More:Austin could hit 81 degrees Wednesday before weak cold front ushers in a few rainy days

The apartment management "helped us out and worked with us on the price and everything. It's a big relief to have somewhere to go."

Harris said Lincoln Property Company-Austin provided $500 per resident for temporary housing and "offered information on available accommodations at other properties."

"We know this is a trying time for these residents and all who were impacted by this winter storm. We continue to work in full cooperation with the Austin Fire Department Fire Marshal and will provide updates as they are made available," she said.

Sarah Habel and her family lived at the Park on Brodie Lane for three years. A fire during the recent winter storm made their apartment uninhabitable. Habel and her family are currently staying in a hotel.

Sarah Habel, whose family lived at the Park on Brodie Lane for three years, is still looking for a place to live after receiving word from management that their unit is uninhabitable.

Habel, a film writer, is currently staying at a hotel with her husband and 10-year-old son, and searching for another rental. Friends have donated to a GoFundMe account, and the family is using hotel points donated from a friend to stay at the Hampton Inn and Suites on Lavaca Street.

"It looks like we are going to be able to rescue some things — the furniture was soaked but we still have some original movie posters on the wall," Habel said. She said she will be able to enter for a four-hour period next week to fully assess the damage and determine how much her $15,000 renter's insurance policy will cover.

Sarah Habel speaks with a neighbor Lucas Askew at the Park on Brodie Lane apartment complex. Both Habel and Askew were forced out of their apartments by a fire during the recent winter storm.

"We have to start totally over," Habel said. "That means we need to have first and last months rent and the deposit. Right now we are in limbo, but we are lucky there are some things left. People on the other side of the building have nothing."

Swamped with calls

The Austin Tenants Council, a local nonprofit, is "absolutely swamped" with calls from renters who have been displaced or are dealing with damage, said Molly Jensen, executive director.

"The biggest problems are people wondering if they can break their lease. If it looks like their unit isn't going to be habitable for a while, we're talking about the steps in terminating a lease," Jensen said. 

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Jensen said her organization is trying to get the word out to renters that they need to follow a process if they want to break a lease.

"You don't want to just walk away — you need to give them notice," Jensen said. "We are encouraging folks to talk directly with their landlord. If they want to vacate, a lease can get their safety deposit and security deposit returned, and they could possibly get a portion of rent back that they have already paid."

While the tenants council is working one-on-one with renters, getting through by phone or email right now is a challenge due to the volume of people seeking assistance. Jensen suggests visiting the organization's website page that offers information on disaster relief:

Assessing the damage

The full extent of the damage at Austin-area apartment complexes is difficult to measure.

Emily Blair, executive vice president of the Austin Apartment Association, said the group does not yet have hard data on how much damage the winter storm did to the Austin-area apartment complexes that its members own and operate.

The group represents 1,786 properties with just over 270,000 apartment units, along with more than 620 management companies and more than 345 suppliers. 

The association's immediate priorities, she said, are making sure residents are safe, protecting their belongings and preventing additional damage. 

"Many properties are still experiencing disruptions to water supply and other storm effects and are taking necessary steps to first evaluate and remediate the damage before being able to make the necessary repairs," Blair said. "Property owners are carefully bringing the water back in phases in order to identify and repair leaks. Remediation crews want to avoid creating a potentially greater hazard to residents and their belongings that could be caused by major leaks and flooding as water service is returned throughout a property."

The Austin Apartment Association says it is working with city and county officials to identify locations in need of water delivery and to develop centralized resources for assistance.

The group also is working with Austin Fire Department, other emergency responders and public assistance providers to help affected residents, Blair said.

'Coming up for air'

Generally speaking, most landlords and apartment management companies "are just now coming up for air," said Natalie Young, manager of A+ Apartment Locators in Austin,.

"For the most part, we are seeing them being very responsive with residents," Young said. As of Tuesday, "three of my locators live in apartments that still are unable to turn water back on," she said. "Many of the apartment communities are not open for leasing to anyone new, because they are working to remedy the living situations of the current residents.  They have filled their vacant units with current residents for the time being."

Lucas Askew salvages belongings from his apartment at the Park at Brodie Lane complex on Feb.24. Askew's apartment was among a number damaged by a fire during the recent winter storm.

Leni Louazna is a regional manager with Atlantic Pacific Real Estate Group, which manages nearly 800 apartment units in three communities in the Austin area. Two are in South Austin – the Atlantic Grand Oaks and Logan's Mill – and one is in San Marcos.

Louazna said the company was fortunate to not have any residents displaced. That's despite some properties having "some pretty large leaks," broken pipes that affected leasing offices and occupied apartment homes, leaks from fire sprinklers that froze and other issues.

"We consider ourselves very blessed," she said. She credits fast action by vendors and others to contain leaks, extract water and the like.

"We had an extraordinarily quick response...and were able to help our residents sooner than we thought, so they were not terribly affected," Louazna said. 

Lucas Askew tries to salvage anything he can from his unit at the Park on Brodie Lane, where a fire broke out last week during the winter storm.