The expiration of eviction protections and enhanced unemployment benefits at the end of July has housing advocates warning of a coming evictions crisis in Harris County. In response, county commissioners unanimously voted to pump another $10 million into a rental relief program at a July 28 meeting, and commissioners also discussed ways to invest in legal defense for those facing evictions.

The new rental relief is enough to help roughly 6,000 additional renters, Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said. The cap on the program was also raised from $1,000 per recipient to $1,200 per recipient, putting it closer to the average rental cost in the county, he said.

“I’ve heard from far too many of our neighbors who are hurting right now. I’ve also reached out and connected with the Houston Apartment Association, and all sides agree: these changes are the right way to go,” Garcia said in a statement. “This move will keep tens of thousands of families in their homes and help flatten the eviction curve.”

The county is looking into investing into a legal defense pilot program to provide legal aid to renters facing eviction, and a task force on housing stability is also calling on the city of Houston to enact a grace period for renters as. However, the county's hands are tied when it comes to halting evictions entirely, and housing rights advocates said more needs to be done, and that it needs to be done quickly.

"This is imminent. We have to do this now," said state Rep. Armando Walle, D-Houston, who also serves as the county's COVID-19 Recovery Czar. "Rent is due in a couple of days."

Protections expire

A federal moratorium on evictions expired July 25, allowing landlords to resume evictions on federally backed rental properties, of which there are an estimated 501 in Harris County, according to the Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation.

Meanwhile, enhanced unemployment benefits are set to expire Aug. 1, meaning anyone collecting unemployment will begin receiving $600 less with each weekly payment. The boost was provided as part of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Stability Act, and the U.S. Congress is currently working on a second stimulus package that could include a similar boost, but the details and timeline of when that could come to fruition are unknown.

In Harris County, more than 6,000 evictions have been filed in courts since the moratorium went into effect March 27, according to court data being collected by January Advisors.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, who has led the charge on the court to protect renters, said being evicted can have wide-ranging consequences, including job loss and difficulties in finding housing in the future, and is even tied to health problems such as high blood pressure and psychological problems.

"People may be able to find ways to pay other bills, but if they lose their homes, it leads to a spiral and a cycle that is impossible to escape," Ellis said at the July 28 meeting.

In Travis County in Austin, all justices of the peace have agreed to not hold eviction hearings through September. However, in Harris County only four of the 16 justices of the peace have made such agreements, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said—Judge Jo Ann Delgado in Precinct 1, Judge Richard Vara in Precinct 6, and judges Jeremy Brown and Sharon Burney in Precinct 7.

Jeff Reichman with January Advisors told commissioners the effort to get all justices of the peace to halt evictions was a red herring and was unlikely to happen. He pushed the court to "take some risks" by enacting immediate solutions and dealing with them in the courts if necessary.

Need to act fast

With renters set to face evictions as soon as Aug. 3, Ellis said officials need to act fast to put an assistance program in motion.

A Housing Stability Task Force launched at the end of June has recommended the city of Houston enact a grace period that would give renters facing eviction more time to pay past-due rent. The ordinance, which was endorsed by the Houston Apartment Association, would have to be enacted at the city level because counties in Texas do not have that authority.

Jay Malone, political director with the Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation, said the grace period, if approved, would give renters 21 days to demonstrate that COVID-19 impaired their ability to make a rent payment and 60 days to enter into a payment plan with the landlord.

Of the 1.3 million renters in Houston, about 43% do not think they will be able to pay August's rent, Malone said.

"I don’t think we can understate how significant of a crisis we are in right now," he told commissioners at the July 28 meeting. "In a public health crisis where hospitals are still full, this could make things dramatically worse than they are."

However, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner pushed back on calls for a grace period ordinance during City Council public comment on July 27. Instead he urged council members and members of the public to push federal lawmakers to include rent relief funding in Congress’s stimulus package, which is currently being negotiated.

“The grace period doesn’t remove the liability. The liability is still owed, and for many people the hole gets even deeper,” Turner said.

Turner also called on the Houston Apartment Association to voluntarily commit to preventing evictions. Council Member Tiffany Thomas, who is the chair of the Houston Housing and Community Affairs Committee, said the committee is planning to discuss the proposal Aug. 18.

Another prong of the approach will involve investing money in efforts to boost legal defense for those facing evictions. About 4% of defendants in eviction cases filed since March 27 have legal assistance, according to January Advisors.

The city of Houston agreed to match the county on an investment into a pilot legal defense program run through Lone Star Legal Aid of $750,000. Ellis said he wanted to vote on the county's commitment of at least $750,000 as soon as possible. The funding would be reimbursed from the CARES Act package, he said.

Lone Star Legal Aid, the largest provider of eviction defense services in the county, has recently launched a pilot program on its own in two justice of the peace courts, said Donna Carney, an attorney with Lone Star Legal Aid.

"We’re not needing to reinvent the wheel," she said. "We’ve been doing this for a very long time. It’s a scalability issue. As soon as we can get funding in place, if that is the county’s priority, we will be ready to go. We are ready to go."

About 24% of evictions filed in Harris County should not have been filed under the federal stimulus package's guidelines, said Eric Kwartler, a clinical teaching fellow at the South Texas College of Law who has been working with Lone Star Legal Aid on the pilot program. His said his team has been comparing data from housing authorities showing the address of every tenant who has a CARES Act voucher and comparing that list with every eviction filing in Harris County to see what evictions were improperly filed.

He said the only way to ensure landlords are following the guidelines is to have more lawyers in the courts.

"If you’re already ignoring the CARES Act, you are not going to give 30 days' notice to vacate," he told commissioners. "No one has been watching but us because no one else has been comparing the data in the way we have [been]."

Details on how to apply for rental assistance will be released soon, according to a statement from Garcia's office. Commissioners also voted 4-1 to earmark another $25 million in federal coronavirus relief funding to be allocated for direct assistance, which could also be used for rent. The details of that investment are still being finalized, and commissioners are expected to give final approval within the next several weeks.

Emma Whalen contributed to this report.