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Austin Commons Residents Worry About Health Impact
As Austin Commons residents wait to get the heat and hot water back on, to some it’s more than an inconvenience, it’s a health issue.
"My kids’ health is my main priority," said Vanessa Sneed, a mother of two living at Austin Commons. Her apartment has been without gas since Dec. 1.
Her two kids, a 9-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son, both have chronic respiratory illnesses. Sneed says she always keeps a close eye on the temperature.
"When the weather changes from hot to cold, her asthma flares up," said Sneed, of her daughter.
And she depends on the steam from hot water to help her daughter feel better by relieving symptoms.
"Sometimes I can save myself a hospital visit," said Sneed, who adds that her kids have gotten sicker after losing the heat and the temperatures dropping, including three hospital visits for her son.
“When he slept he was coughing,” said Sneed, “It was like he was choking."
An employee at the hospital wrote a letter to the complex on her behalf, saying, in part, "It is essential that these children have access to central heat and hot water" and later, "Please allow Ms. Sneed to be released from her lease."
Though she wants to leave, Sneed says right now the money isn’t there.
Katherine Stark, Executive Director of the Austin Tenants Council, says her agency often sees similar situations.
"That's the truly hard thing that we see in complexes," said Stark. "Even if a tenant can typically get out of their lease, they don't have first month's rent, last month's rent. The law doesn't go onto say that they (complex management) have to give them deposit money."
Instead, Stark says federal law requires complexes to make “reasonable accommodations” based on disability or medical need, tailored to that need.
"If there's a vacant building that's on the first floor, they might be able to give them a key to that unit," said Stark. Using the case of Austin Commons as an example, Stark said wheelchair-bound residents could be given access to use the showers in first-floor vacant units because the portable showers are accessible only by stairs.
For now, Sneed says she’s keeping it all in perspective.
"We could be on the street living homeless,” said Sneed. “You thank God for the things you have and don't complain about the things you don't."
Stark says Travis County and Caritas offer help with rent and deposits.
By Adam Bennett