With a 5-6 vote Thursday, San Antonio City Council rejected a measure that would have provided a 30-day grace period for renters to pay back rent before a landlord could start the eviction process.

The vote followed hours of passionate testimony from landlords, the San Antonio Apartment Association, and San Antonio Board of Realtors, and other groups who argued the so-called “Right to Cure” rule would be illegal and put an undue burden on landlords to go without rent payments they need to cover their own mortgages, maintenance costs, and living expenses.

Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) proposed the original ordinance placed on the agenda by Mayor Ron Nirenberg. It was modified by an amendment from Councilman John Courage (D9) that would have made it apply only to tenants who apply to participate in the City’s housing assistance program and last only as long as there is funding for that program. Another amendment from Councilwoman Melissa Cabello Havrda (D6) reduced the grace period to 30 days from 60.

Council members Clayton Perry (D10), Manny Pelaez (D8), Shirley Gonzales (D5), Rebecca Viagran (D3), Adriana Rocha-Garcia (D4), and Jada Andrews-Sullivan (D2) voted against the measure, citing a lack of authority to interfere in state law regarding evictions and private contracts between landlords and tenants.

The fact that two amendments were made to the ordinance on Thursday, Viagran said, “demonstrates that this ordinance was not prepared” to be voted on.

City governments in Austin, Dallas, and San Marcos have passed similar rules and have not encountered legal challenges. That is likely because there’s a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures until May 18 and local judges have agreed not to hear any eviction cases until June 1.

“There are a number of potential [legal] challenges,” said City Attorney Andy Segovia. State law preempts local laws, and the City could be found to be interfering with private contracts, he said.

Both tenants and landlords are “looking down the barrel of a gun” as the coronavirus pandemic continues, Pelaez said. “More unpaid rents will pile up and that’s a ticking time bomb on track to ruin both renters and property owners. … [This ordinance] may serve to keep residential tenants in their homes for a little while. It won’t help property owners.”

Just as corporate management firms own rental properties, so do individual investors with just a single-family home for rent, he noted. “I have yet to hear an answer on why a landlord is in a better position to bear a burden than others.”

Treviño noted that some landlords have been working hard to provide reduced rent or alterative payment plans for tenants, but banks offer landlords more options to delay or modify payments than are available to renters.

“This policy is not meant to illustrate this picture of landlords against renters, but to offer a lifeline of support to renters like those offered to property owners,” he said. “There should be inclusive means of support if the goal is to rise from this stronger and more fruitful.”

Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) said the amendments seemed to address landlords’ concerns that they would be left picking up the tabs of tenants who simply didn’t feel like paying rent.

“I voted for what I felt would have helped renters without leaving landlords with an unfunded mandate,” Sandoval said in a statement after the vote.

But the delay the ordinance would allow only lets tenants get deeper in debt to landlords over time, Gonzales said. Rather than burden landlords, the City should increase its housing assistance spending and encourage the State and Bexar County to lengthen the eviction moratorium, she said.

“If people need help with rent, then they’re going to need help with a lot of other things, too,” such as food or medical assistance, and the City’s COVID-19 Rental Assistance Program provides that, Gonzales said.

The City has received 7,000 applications for that assistance since the $25 million program was established three weeks ago, said Assistant City Manager Lori Houston. Most of those applications are expected to be approved, leaving roughly $13 million left in the fund.

Last week, most Council members agreed that some of the $270 million in federal aid should be used to expand the housing assistance program, which also provides cash for families to use on groceries, gas, and other expenses.

The Right to Cure proposal replaced a separate measure that would have required landlords to provide notice of tenants’ rights in the eviction process – and educate them about resources such as the housing assistance program – before issuing a notice to vacate. Failure to provide the informational packet would result in a fine of up to $500.

But that measure was drafted with input from stakeholders – including the San Antonio Apartment Association, COPS/Metro Alliance, and City staff – in lieu of the Right to Cure proposed by Treviño, Houston said. She expects a tenants rights ordinance will come before City Council again for a vote, but those stakeholder groups need to be consulted again to finalize the language, she said.

Nearly half of the approximately 260,000 rental units in San Antonio are protected under an eviction moratorium initiated by the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The other half is subject to the eviction process, which could take up to two months if the tenant appeals, once the moratorium lifts. Rental properties that received federally backed mortgages can’t start the eviction process until July 24, which essentially gives tenants in these properties protections until Aug. 23.

Despite the proposed ordinance’s failure, Nirenberg said the City is committed to helping its residents through the pandemic.

“When the health crisis is over, the economic crisis is only beginning,” he said. “What this Council – although divided on some measures – has been clear about is: We are united on purpose. … We will not turn our backs on folks that are struggling.”

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Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. Contact her at iris@sareport.org