Editor's Note: The $2 million funding amount was added to the article.

Tentatively by the end of October, two Harris County courts will have filled two full-time positions that are solely focused on finding new ways, under Texas law, to strengthen eviction diversion efforts and improve housing stability in Houston and Harris County.

Funding for the new positions were awarded in September by the National Center for State Courts’ Eviction Diversion Initiative to Justice Precinct 1-2, represented by Judge Steve Duble, and Justice Precinct 2-2, represented by Judge Dolores Lozano. The joint application by the two judges was one of 10 national recipients to receive the $2 million grant funding from the national organization.

“We hope that we can use this grant money to have an effective facilitator and work with the National Center [for State Courts] to rethink how we approach evictions from the ground up, working within the framework of Texas law,” Duble said.

The approach

Before Duble was elected last fall in Precinct 1, he ran his campaign platform focused on community-wide efforts to reduce evictions and work alongside housing advocates. With this grant, he said he also wants to turn these two courts as a point of connection with social services and legal services for “a lot of people who are going through crisis." Both courts’ jurisdictions that won the award cover areas in northwest to far southeast Houston.

He said part of the grant application included research from a variety of institutions that focused on housing instability, including Princeton’s Eviction Lab as well as Rice University’s Kinder Institute.

“We’re just trying to come up with creative ways to do things better and not just do things the same old way just because that’s the way it’s been done,” Duble said.

The impact

Additional eviction diversion efforts could impact a county that has been facing an eviction surge after the pandemic and as funding for national rental assistance programs were obsolete by the start of 2022, according to a March report from consulting firm January Advisors.

Jeff Reichman is principal at consulting firm January Advisors. He said the new court initiative is good news for Houston.

“We have more evictions here than almost anywhere else, and there are a lot of people who need help. This effort is going to measure things in our eviction court that we’ve never measured before,” Reichman said.

Why it matters

More than 57,800 eviction cases were filed in Harris County this year, totaling more than $131 million in claims, according to January Advisors. Less than 2% of those defendants facing trial will be assisted by attorneys.

With three months left in 2023, the county could be on track to prepandemic historical averages, close to 80,000 cases.

In 2022, more than 79,150 cases were filed in the county, totaling more than $198 million in claims.

Quote of note

Judges Duble and Lozano said in a news release they’re thankful for Commissioners Court in playing a critical role in prioritizing access to justice in this effort. Duble told Community Impact, while eviction diversion is a broad term, it’s not so simple.

“It’s not just, Did we stop an eviction;’ it’s sometimes just slowing things down a bit within the law or by agreement of the parties, working with nonprofits and with housing advocates to help people stay housed,” Duble said. “That’s the dream.”