After evictions in Travis County dropped to historic lows due to increased governmental protections during COVID-19, a gradual return to normalcy has also brought a renewed spike in cases as the Austin area remains in what some are calling a housing crisis.

For much of the past two years, Travis County, Austin, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shifted their response to evictions, nearly halting renter removals. In March, the last Travis County eviction protections ended as the number of filings in the majority-renter city was jumping to pre-pandemic levels.

The county saw about 800 eviction cases filed each month prior to the pandemic, many of which were tied to increasing local housing costs, according to representatives of the health and human services department. While the local and federal eviction moratoriums suppressed the number, the underlying housing issues were further exacerbated by fiscal hardships for many residents who lost income or faced other economic and medical events during the pandemic.

Some local officials and advocates are working to ensure the scaling down of protections do not result in longer-lasting fallout for renters.

“It sounds like evictions are going to skyrocket and continue to increase, and that’s only going to compromise our local economy and our community even further,” said Pilar Sanchez, Travis County health and human services executive.

Filings trend upward

Between March and April 2020, eviction filings in Travis County plunged 96% as local orders aimed at delaying evictions went into effect, according to data from Princeton University’s Eviction Lab.

The county of nearly 1.3 million people historically saw well over 100 eviction cases filed each week, figures that dropped to around several dozen. In late 2021, those numbers began gradually rising as the CDC’s national eviction ban expired, according to Eviction Lab data.

At least 2,300 eviction filings were logged in total from April 2020 through December 2021, an average of just over 110 per month. However, 2,517 filings have been tracked so far in 2022—more than 50% of Travis County’s pandemic-era total in just three months.

The number of filings grew from 464 in January to 1,060 in March.

“We are almost at where we were before the pandemic, but instead we are reeling from skyrocketing rent prices and people who are barely able to get recovered [from the pandemic],” said Mincho Jacob, communications coordinator for the tenant support organization Building and Strengthening Tenant Action, or BASTA.

At the same time, local assistance programs that saw high demand in recent months are drying up. Travis County closed its rental assistance program in March, just a week after reopening it, due to demand.

“What we’re seeing is an affordability crisis that’s only been compounded by the pandemic,” Sanchez said. “... Rental prices here in Austin have increased tremendously, and people can just not afford to pay their rent.”U.S. Housing and Urban Development fair market rent estimates for the Austin metropolitan area rose more than 10% between fiscal years 2019 and 2022. According to data from real estate brokerage Redfin, average monthly rent in Austin has jumped more than 40% in the past year alone.

While much of the spotlight on the evictions front is on tenants, landlords, especially those of smaller properties, have also been burdened by recent trends.

Emily Blair, executive vice president with the Austin Apartment Association, said direct assistance proved to be the “best solution” across the industry by keeping money flowing through renters to property owners. But holds on eviction proceedings also left some without their customary source of income.

“Rental housing providers have to recover some of those losses at some point, and a good portion of the rental housing rates are definitely affected by the rental housing losses that we incurred in the last two years,” Metric Property Management President Lyndsay Hanes said.

Days in court

In Texas, eviction policy has historically been viewed as tilted toward property owners—although recent changes could leave some lasting effects on that balance.

After receiving a notice to vacate, prompted by anything from failure to pay rent to lease violations, Texas tenants have three days to move out, or an eviction lawsuit can be filed. Legal proceedings could then take several weeks to resolve and, before 2020, usually resulted in an eviction.

Nick Chu, justice of the peace for central Travis County’s Precinct 5, said around 95% of eviction cases he hears involve late payment of rent.

While it is a legal lease breach, Jacob said, the violation of a one- or two-month payment delay does not align with the long-term consequences from evictions. Such proceedings can appear on credit screeners, hurting tenants’ future housing prospects.

Chu said policies such as eviction moratoriums resulted in more focus on housing cases that previously drew little attention while staying within the bounds of the law.

“The judiciary did not want to be the reason why the pandemic was worse, whether economically or because of spreading the virus,” he said.Despite political differences, Chu, a Democrat, also noted a will for more eviction assistance in court is shared as high up as the conservative Texas Supreme Court. In response to the ending renter protections, Chief Justice Nathan Hecht in January called for a more proactive judicial approach to evictions that considers tenant support and diversion programs rather than simply clearing a daily docket.

Chu said that attitude is one he believes will remain in place at least in Travis County, regardless of how much caseloads increase.

“In the past, I think the judiciary just heard these cases, and we treated them like any other case. ... Now it’s pretty clear that the role of judiciary is trying to prevent unnecessary evictions,” he said.

Keeping pace with cases

Chu and Jacob also highlighted the importance of legal aid in eviction cases, regardless of ability to pay.

Travis County launched a pilot program connecting volunteer attorneys with eviction defendants, and organizations such as Texas RioGrande Legal Aid are available to help tenants secure representation in court.

Chu also said Travis County has been a top example of that attitude in Texas. The area has seen fewer than 5,000 filings since the start of the pandemic—well below Dallas County’s 46,068 or the Houston area’s 79,631 filings over the same time, according the Eviction Lab and county data.For those seeking financial assistance, options are now more limited. But despite Travis County’s latest $9.2 million rental program closing within one week of an expected six-month run, Sanchez said around $1 million more could go to the county this year.

She said the pandemic has fostered a better relationship between some landlords and local government. However, she said some for property management, local housing pressures will keep adding to tenant removals.

“Some landlords that just have a very good heart and are helping their tenants catch up, and then we see some that are taking advantage of the demand in the market and looking for tenants who can pay more rent,” Sanchez said.Blair also cited “proactive” communication between tenants and landlords of all sizes as one of the positives to emerge from a difficult two years.

However, some negative effects on the multifamily industry’s smallest members continue to linger despite the “unprecedented” demand for rentals in Central Texas.

“We have a lot of what we call independent rental owners who may have a single-family home or small residential properties ... that are frankly exiting the market and exiting the industry,” Blair said.

Regardless of legal or financial options, eviction cases are once again being filed at a pace of hundreds per week, and rent prices around Austin are not expected to fall anytime soon. Data also shows evictions continue to affect areas with more minority residents at a higher rate, accelerating the displacement in many areas—especially to the east—that have already felt those effects for years.

“We are overwhelmingly evicting Black and brown people,” Jacob said. “It’s just a fact; that’s just a reality that a lot of people don’t want to talk about. And who’s moving in, and what is that going to mean in the city for 20 years from now?”