Texas State Capitol Building in Austin. It is the tallest state capitol in the USA, and is built of "sunset red" Texas granite from Marble Falls.
Texas State Capitol Building in Austin. (Credit: dszc / Getty Images)

Two bills before the Texas Legislature aim to address resident safety in independent living communities, but senior living industry advocates warn that the “unprecedented” proposed regulation could “alter the nature” of independent living and “negatively impact resident autonomy.”

Passage of the legislation also could provide additional fodder for lawsuits against operators, advocates say.

HB 1100 / SB 611 was prompted by convicted senior living serial killer Billy Chemirmir’s access to independent living communities during a two-year period in which he is thought to be linked to at least 24 deaths, mostly of female residents of senior living communities. 

Authorities said he posed as a maintenance worker to gain access to residences and then smothered the older adults before stealing their valuables. Many of the deaths were attributed to natural causes until one woman survived and helped police with their investigation.

The bills would require that employee background checks be conducted by independent living communities and by contractors providing services to the communities. The legislation also would require the communities to share with residents information about criminal activity taking place there, provide law enforcement access to residents when criminal investigations are conducted, and remove forced arbitration clauses for personal injury cases from leases.

A measure requiring visitors to sign in and wear name tags was removed from the original draft.

‘Unintended consequences’

LeadingAge Texas Vice President of Advocacy Alyse Meyer testified during a Texas House hearing that although the association supports the rights of residents asserted in the bills, regulation of independent living in this way is “unprecedented, and could have unintended consequences.”

“Residents of independent living want freedom, accessibility and the ability to have visitors as they please,” Meyer said. “Opening the door to a regulatory framework like licensed facilities may alter the nature of independent senior housing and negatively impact resident autonomy.”

Although the legislation is well-intended, Meyer said, it is important to balance resident safety measures and their independence. 

“Alternative approaches can be taken to improve consumer education and strengthen existing tenant rights to ensure residents, their families and communities are well-equipped to detect and prevent potential threats,” Meyer said.

The bills “fundamentally reshape” the landlord-tenant relationships for senior living communities, according to Carmen Tilton, vice president of public policy for the Texas Assisted Living Association.

“House Bill 1100 creates a new cause of action against independent living and senior living communities, which is in addition to existing legal remedies available to plaintiffs under the Deceptive Trade Practices Act,” Tilton told McKnight’s Senior Living. “While TALA has a history of supporting initiatives to improve safety at senior living communities, and several major pieces in this bill — such as requiring background checks for community employees — fits in line with TALA’s other work, TALA does not support creating a new cause of action.”

State Rep. Julie Johnson (D-Dallas), who is sponsoring HB 1100, testified that the bill would ensure that senior living communities are held liable for endangering residents when operators fail to meet the bill’s requirements, violating a standard of care. 

Cheryl Pangburn, whose mother, Marilyn Bixler, was among Chemirmir’s alleged victims, testified for Secure Our Seniors’ Safety (SOSS), founded in 2019 by the adult children of some of Chemirmir’s alleged victims. Pangburn testified that independent living communities are not required to provide the level of security that they market themselves as providing. 

“The security issue is, quite literally, a fatal flaw that needs to be fixed,” she said. “Management should be required to ensure the integrity of the people they employ.”

Chemirmir was charged for Bixler’s death, but hers was not one of the two cases that went to trial. He was convicted of capital murder at each of them, with the Dallas County district attorney saying he would dismiss the other cases.

Arrested in 2018

Chemirmir was arrested in 2018 following an attack on an independent living resident, leading police to the jewelry and other valuables belonging to other alleged victims. 

Along with lawsuits maintaining that operators did not do enough to protect residents, a bipartisan group of Texas lawmakers previously introduced several bills in response to the series of suspected murders thought to be tied to Chemirmir.  

So far, only one has been signed into law — SB 1132, filed by state Sen. Nathan Johnson (D-Dallas), regulating precious metal dealers, including cash-for-gold and pawn shops, where Chemirmir sold the jewelry he allegedly stole.