Renting to Those Displaced by Austin Fires

Steiner Ranch Fire
Steiner Ranch Fire

I’ve received a couple of calls already from agents trying to help folks displaced by the recent fires in and around Austin, including the Steiner Ranch fire and the fires in Bastrop. I currently have one vacant home ready for move-in, and would be more than happy to place new tenants in it immediately. But thus far, in both cases, the agents representing the tenants wanted me to cut corners and make accomodations that would violate my fiduciary responsibility to my client. This presents a tough quandry.

Should fire victims be granted a more lenient and expedited approval process than non-victims?
Yes and no. Property Managers who decide to waive requirements such as credit check and criminal background search and who otherwise might think it “good hearted” to skip certain parts of the application and verification process could be exposing themselves and their owners to greater liability in the event the tenant doesn’t pan out. More on that below.

On the other hand, I see no reason why we, as professionaly property managers, can’t expedite the processing and make reasonable, defensible accomodations should we receive an application from a displaced fire victim. But one agent I just spoke with basically wanted me to say whether or not I’d approve the application before it’s even brought in. I can’t do that. All I can say is that I’ll try to make it work, but it’s still going to have to be brought in and processed like any other application.

But here are some examples of what I think would be reasonable accomodation.

No Picture ID
We require a copy of a picture ID with every application. What if the applicant’s purse, wallet and all identification documentation got burned up in the house?

I think I could figure out a way to work around that, and I would think it appropriate to try to do so. I can pull records from, cross reference with social media photos and google searches. There are ways around this to help establish identity.

Move-in Date/Time
If a family is staying in a shelter or other temporary location and needs to move in ASAP, that should be easy to accomodate. Once an application is approved, we could even meet at the house to sign the lease and hand over keys. That’s not normal operating proceedure, but in this case I think most property managers would be willing to be as accomodating on the move-in logistics as possible.

Working with Insurance Company
I actually did rent to a fire victim a few years ago. She needed the place quickly, though was staying in a hotel paid by the insurance company so it wasn’t as urgent of a “get out of the shelter” situation. We worked it out, but getting the funds involved some extra non-standard steps, dealing with the insurance company and some red tape. Property Managers should be willing to suffer through that to whatever degree is needed to help make it work out.

Lease Terms and Duration
Many of these fire victims will be renting a house without knowing in advance how long it will be needed. Writing a flexible lease term such as 6 months rebuild time with the option to extend month-to-month for up to 6 additional months seems reasonable to me. That’s what I did with my former fire tenant. In that case, however, the lease payments were guanteed by the insurance company for at least 6 months. Turns out the house was fixed in 4 months and the tenant moved out of my place early. The extra two months rent was basically a wash and covered the additional turnover expenses and vacancy loss for the turnover.

What NOT to cut corners on
We still need a fully completed rental application and it’s going to be run fully, complete with credit report, criminal background, previous address verifications, identity verifications (as outlined above), income requirements (unless insurance is paying up front), etc.

Remember, disasters like this bring criminals out of the woodwork also. There will be those posing as fire victims trying to collect compensation, get free giveaways, handouts, secure housing, etc. when they didn’t even live in an affected area. The US government gave massive amounts of money away after Katrina to posers who didn’t even live in New Orleans when the hurricane hit. This is in fact a scam that some criminal “disaster chasers” engage in, posing as a victim who has “lost everything” when in fact they are not.

As property managers, we should be accomodative and as helpful as possible, but being too trusting or good hearted makes you a target for scammers. That’s why it would be a lapse in professional judgment to allow compassion and a desire to help to become a substitute for a solid, if expidited, application verification process.

2 thoughts on “Renting to Those Displaced by Austin Fires”

  1. Just wondering, do you use to screen normal tenants? I’m a landlord and am always looking to improve my screening process.

  2. CG,

    I use NTN (National Tenant Network) for most of our background screening (credit reports, eviction search, criminal background, terrorist database search, etc). is used for cross referencing driver license info to see if the online data matches the copy provided. It also allows you to click on the address link and see who else in Texas has a driver’s license with that address. This helps us red-flag omitted applicants (roommates/boyfriends/girlfriends) that might be trying to sneak into the property without applying and being listed on the lease. I’ve caught a number of those scenarios over the years because of the address link in



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