Amid the continued coronavirus-related economic downturn, City Council is preparing to vote on a grace period ordinance Feb. 17 that would extend the amount of time renters have to resolve payment issues before a landlord can pursue an eviction. The ordinance, however, would only apply through March 31, Mayor Sylvester Turner told council members Feb. 10.
“Mayor Turner’s call for a grace period on evictions today will allow working families who are being hardest hit by this pandemic to breathe a momentary sigh of relief,” said Elsa Caballero, president of the Service Employees International Union Texas, in a news release. “Many of the families and individuals facing evictions are Black, brown and Asian-American and Pacific Islander essential workers who are facing hardship at no fault of their own and are waiting for our federal government to provide financial relief to weather this storm.”
In Texas, tenants have three days to resolve a missed payment before landlords can file an eviction. This begins the process of scheduling a court date and if granted by a justice of the peace, county constables forcing a renter to vacate.
Turner said the city is pursuing the grace period ordinance to allow local officials time to coordinate the recently approved $159 million rent relief program distributed by Harris County and the city of Houston. Officials are also working through the details of a $1 billion rent statewide relief program announced by Gov. Greg Abbott on Feb. 9.
“I do not think people ought to be evicted while these dollars are coming in this time period because the dollars are there,” he said.
Applications for the Houston and Harris County rent-relief fund will begin for landlords Feb. 18 and for tenants Feb. 25.
A shifting view
The proposed ordinance comes months after it was first pushed for by housing advocates and formally proposed by the Houston-Harris County housing stability task force. The task force, which was a volunteer board of local housing experts, advocates and real estate industry leaders, proposed an indefinite 30-day grace period ordinance in July. At that time, a statewide moratorium on evictions was days away from expiring.
Instead, Turner pulled the city of Houston’s participation from the task force and stated his opposition to the proposed ordinance. He said repeatedly that it would only put renters in deeper debt and that he preferred to focus the city’s efforts on securing and distributing rent relief funding.
"If you simply impose any sort of grace period, it does not remove the financial liability," Turner told council members Aug. 5. "I've taken a look at other places like New York. ... They acknowledge, when their grace period comes to an end, they are facing a tsunami of a situation where the financial obligation has not been eliminated."
In September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a nationwide eviction moratorium; however, data shows that thousands of evictions have continued to proceed in Harris County since it took effect Sept 4. The order expires March 31.
The CDC order, often referred to as a moratorium, does not provide blanket protection for all residents facing eviction. Instead, it gives tenants the option to file a piece of paperwork stating that they are facing eviction because of coronavirus-related financial strain and have exhausted all other possible efforts to pay rent. When presented to a justice of the peace, the paperwork is intended to prevent, or at least delay, an eviction from being enforced.
Since Sept. 4 however, 16% of evictions cases heard in Harris County have been delayed or dismissed through use of the CDC order, data analytics firm January Advisors found. Some justices of the peace delayed or dismissed up to 25% of evictions, while others delayed or dismissed just 5% of cases.
“It seems like there’s something that the judge is doing that can affect the outcome of a CDC declaration. ... It could be as simple as asking the tenant if they have heard of it,” January Advisors analyst Jeff Reichman said. “But 16% overall is probably low ... when some judges are at 25% and others are at 5%, that’s a pretty big variation.”