On July 1, Mario Queroz came home to find a notice on the door of the one-bedroom apartment he shares with his wife in north Dallas. They’d lived at Three Fountains Apartments since 2017, enjoying the amenities offered by the former senior living complex before it became a multifamily apartment community in June. Now, the notice said, residents of the 198-unit complex would get high-speed internet, Wi-Fi, and cable in their homes, including more than 200 channels.
The only catch—they’d have to pay a mandatory $70-per-month fee added to rent starting on August 1.
Queroz, 52, contacted the property manager. He already paid $20 a month for internet from Spectrum and didn’t watch much TV. “Why would I pay $70 a month for internet and 200 channels I don’t even watch?” he said. “I’m on a fixed income. I can’t afford $70 a month. They said, ‘I don’t care, it’s mandatory.’”
Although his rent had already increased to $1,100 when he signed a new lease this year—it was $850 when they moved in two years earlier—his lease didn’t specify any charge for cable. So he decided not to pay the fee, hoping to “ride it out” until February, when his lease ended and he and his wife would look for a more affordable place to live.
Queroz is one of many Texas tenants who have recently been seeing mandatory fees—monthly charges like $10 for pest control, $25 for doorstep trash collection, or up to $90 for cable—tacked onto their rent payments. During the 2017 legislative session, lawmakers amended the Water Code to limit the amount that tenants could sue for remedies if they were overcharged for water (an attempt, according to tenant advocates, to thwart class action lawsuits against excessive water bills). But the new statute also included a provision that allowed owners and operators of apartment complexes to charge without limit a fee “related to the upkeep or management of chilled water, boiler, heating, ventilation, air conditioning, or other building system, or”—importantly—“any other amount that is unrelated to utility costs.”
Landlords weren’t prohibited from charging extra fees before 2017, said Sandy Rollins, director of the Texas Tenants’ Union. “But it was almost like explicit permission to have at it.” Since then, she said, “We’ve seen an explosion of extra costs. Things that, ordinarily, 10 years ago, would just have been covered—this is the rent that you pay. Now it’s, ‘This is the rent you pay, and here’s the list of extra charges that are required.’”
She called the extra fees “totally out of control.” They’re also, for the most part, legal. “It seems like every week we hear of a new one. [Landlords] just get more creative on what else to charge for,” Rollins said.
Those extra charges are exacerbating the affordability crisis in Texas cities, where a person earning minimum wage has to work 91 hours a week to afford a one-bedroom apartment, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Half of Texas renters already spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing, which a recent study from Zillow found can lead to an increased risk of homelessness.
When Chelsea Ledbetter moved into a one-bedroom apartment at Bexley Round Rock in 2017, her lease obligated her to pay $27 for doorstep trash collection in addition to her $1,500 monthly rent. Her complex had contracted with a Florida-based company called Valet Living, which would pick up bagged trash only from specific containers that residents could leave outside their doors on weekday evenings. She said the service was unreliable at best, with frequent missed pickups. And because she worked nights as a network engineer, she was often sleeping during the designated two-hour window she was allowed to set her trash out for collection. Missing the window meant she’d face a fine on top of the fee. Fed up, she finally started carrying her trash to the dumpster herself, opting out of the service—but not the fee.
“I feel like it should be optional,” Ledbetter said. “That could go for gas, for groceries.” Born and raised in Austin, she said she’s watched rents skyrocket over the past decade and has struggled to keep up with the cost of living. “Stuff like that just tacks onto your bills. It’s an unnecessary cost for people, when it’s already hard enough.”
Nikita Bhappu, Valet Living’s director of public relations and social media, said the company doesn’t allow residents to opt out of doorstep trash collection because “it’s very difficult to track from one door to the next which one opts in and which one opts out.” Every night, Valet Living picks up trash from 1.3 million apartments in 40 states, said Bhappu, who declined to say how many renters in Texas pay for the service. The fees generate revenue for some apartment complexes—one industry blog promises property managers they can “monetize their resident’s trash”—while other property managers regard trash pickup as a cost-saver.
Valet trash means “apartments are cleaner,” said Jeff Moody of Moody National Management, a commercial real estate company that owns five apartment communities in Texas. “We don’t have people with insects coming in because someone’s not taking their trash out on a regular basis.” He oversees two apartment communities in Houston: the Village at Bellaire, where tenants pay a fee to Valet Living, and the Village at Bunker Hill, where property staff provide in-house doorstep trash collection, a service included in monthly rent.
“As we progress with our properties, we will get rid of fees. Everything will be rent,” he said. “I think you can fee people to death. If you really wanted to, you could have zero rent and everything else is a fee.”
Rollins agrees. “Rent should be defined as the mandatory costs that it takes on a monthly basis to reside someplace,” she said. Tenants often find out about new fees when they go to renew their lease; by then, it’s much harder to walk away from an apartment. “People are contacting us because they can’t afford cable TV, but they might not be able to afford to move either,” Rollins said.
The Texas Apartment Association’s lease—which most Texas tenants, including Queroz, have signed—prohibits a landlord from raising the rent or charging new fees before the lease contract ends. “If the landlord [says], ‘I’m going to charge you $70 for a cable service that I didn’t tell you about before,’ and there’s nothing in the lease that says that I can do this, the tenant has no obligation whatsoever to agree to that,” said Nelson Mock, an attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid.
Myra Rivera, Mario Queroz’s property manager, said that Three Fountains retained the right to “modify the apartment utilities,” which she said included cable TV. She said the property began requiring the service as a “convenience for residents … so they don’t have to worry about connections.” Those who didn’t want to pay for cable were given “the option to break their lease contract and relocate to other facilities that better suits them,” she said.
But because landlords in Texas can apply payments to any outstanding balance before rent, tenants who pay their rent but are unable to pay additional mandatory fees can be threatened with eviction for nonpayment of rent, regardless of the source of the amount due.
That’s what happened to Queroz. On September 3, Queroz again paid his rent in full but without the mandatory cable fee. “Nobody said anything when I went to pay my rent,” he said. But early on September 5, he woke up to find a notice to vacate on his door, giving him and his wife two days to move out unless they paid their outstanding balance of $190. “I’ve never been evicted before,” Queroz said. Although they couldn’t afford to pay the $190, they’re still living in their apartment, “trying to ride it out,” he said.
In the meantime, they’re looking for a new place to live.
Read more from the Observer:
They Persisted: These candidates are back in the ring to prove that 2018 wasn’t a singular “year of the woman.”
American Health Care is Broken, Especially in Texas. What Can We Do About It?: Physician Marty Makary’s new book shows how sky-high medical bills can ruin patients’ lives—but puts the burden on individuals to demand change.
The Casualties of Texas’ War on Voter Fraud: Crystal Mason’s vote didn’t count. Will her prosecution scare away others whose votes would?