Harris County commissioners to consider pilot program to assist indigent renters
Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis is calling on the county to look into a pilot program that could provide funding for legal defense for indigent renters facing eviction. Ellis said the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the vulnerabilities that low-income renters face. (Courtesy Fotolia)
The item was put on the agenda by Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis. In a document submitted to County Judge Lina Hidalgo requesting the discussion, Ellis said the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the vulnerabilities that low-income renters face. He cited a 2017 report from the Legal Services Corp. that found 80% of the civil legal needs of Americans living in poverty go unmet.
"Tenants who do not know their legal defenses risk becoming homeless during this public health crisis," Ellis wrote. "Having a lawyer can make the difference between keeping a home or losing it."
Potential facets of the pilot program could focus on funding for legal services, outreach, education and technological access at courts, Ellis wrote.
In his request, Ellis said the program could end up proving cost effective, pointing to similar programs in Philadelphia and Baltimore that resulted in less money being spent on homelessness and safety net programs, respectively.
The pilot program would be developed by the newly established Housing Stability Task Force, which was put in place June 24 to address housing issues through eviction prevention and mitigating the effects of the economic downturn for both tenants and landlords.
The discussion will take place following a plea from Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner for county justices of the peace to postpone all eviction hearings through late August. However, when evictions are heard in Harris County is ultimately at the discretion of individual judges.
Several judges and justices of the peace recently told Texas Tribune reporters that state law provides them with few options when it comes to preventing evictions. Some judges said a lack of representation for tenants has been an ongoing trend.
A statewide moratorium on evictions was allowed to expire in May by the Texas Supreme Court. Under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Resilience and Economic Stability Act, a separate eviction moratorium is in place at the federal level on some low-income housing and some federally backed mortgages through July 25.
Although moratoriums were placed on evictions during the pandemic that halted eviction proceedings in the courtroom, they still allowed for evictions to be filed.
According to data being tracked by January Advisors, eviction filings in Harris County totaled 5,871 in February, prior to any coronavirus-related shutdowns. The total number of filings per month fell to 3,318 in March before hitting a low point of 607 in April. Since then, filings per month have started to increase, with 1,155 filings recorded in May and 2,245 filings so far in June.