Editor's note: An expansion of Houston's rent relief program was proposed after this article's publication for the August print edition. Learn about what is being offered in the new round of funding here.
With a nationwide eviction moratorium that protected some tenants expiring and boosts to unemployment checks phasing out at the end of July, renters’ best hope for relief may rest with local officials.
“What I have said often throughout this horrific pandemic is that we haven’t begun to see quite how devastating it is,” said Kathryn Lott, the executive director of Southern Smoke Foundation, a Montrose-based nonprofit that gives emergency cash assistance to restaurant workers.
In Montrose, one of the neighborhoods in Houston’s Inner Loop with the highest number of evictions in 2020, the rate of eviction notices filed over the course of the moratorium fell by half. Now, renters falling behind are expected to make up missed payments.
Mayor Sylvester Turner has received a proposal for a grace period ordinance from the task force he helped form, but he resisted calls to place it on the July 29 City Council agenda. Turner has said repeatedly that measures need careful legal review and may not be enforceable.
Dallas and Austin have put in place grace periods to keep renters housed while finding ways to catch up on missed payments.
“I think people have gotten involved because things are so precarious right now with coronavirus that they can relate to not knowing what’s going to happen tomorrow,” said Heights resident Sarah Jasmine Montgomery, a member of advocacy group The People’s Liberation Front and leader of a letter-writing and phone call campaign.
A rising tide
Evictions in Harris County have been a threat to low-income Houstonians for decades, said Jeff Reichman, principal for the analytics firm January Advisors. Reichman built an interface of eviction data from the 1980s through right before the pandemic began.
Evictions in Harris County have slowed in recent months but still affect thousands, including the Montrose area. Rising housing prices were already causing strain and the area has been hard-hit by restaurant closures.
“[Montrose’s] older units are generally less expensive, but they’re being replaced with newer, more expensive units. That has been happening really rapidly over the last few years and COVID has exacerbated this even further,” said District C Council Member Abbie Kamin.
Between March 1 and July 15, Harris County justice of the peace courts processed over 8,000 filings totaling $14 million of missed payments. In January and February, the courts received 12,000 filings worth over $17 million.
Advocates worry that there will be more evictions on the way.
“Because of the length of time that this is taking, people are four and five months behind on rent, and there is no promise of employment,” Lott said. “Now we’re seeing the landlords, even the kind ones that were trying to work with tenants, are needing their money.”
Addressing the issue is no simple task, however, said Richard Tomlinson, an attorney from Lone Star Legal Aid. Three policy priorities among advocates and some public officials have emerged: rental payment assistance, increased legal assistance, and mandatory eviction moratoriums or payment grace periods.
“Cities should be using the limit of their power,” said Zoe Middleton, Houston and Southeast Texas co-director for advocacy group Texas Housers. “They can’t print money ... but they can enact a grace period.”
When Houston established a $15 million rental relief fund using funding from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, it was depleted within 90 minutes, serving thousands renters for up to two months but leaving out thousands of applicants the fund did not have the capacity to serve. Similarly, Harris County enacted a $15 million rent relief program July 1 and later added an additional $10 million that aimed to prioritize lower-income individuals, in addition to tens of millions in other relief programs.
“People just need money right now,” Lott said. “It’s that hard and it’s that easy at the same time.”
Turner acknowledged more help was needed but said the federal funding needed to also be saved for coronavirus testing and other priorities.
Both Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo signed a letter asking Harris County’s 16 justice of the peace courts to temporarily suspend eviction proceedings and indicated the state’s disaster declaration gives them the authority to do so.
Judge Jeremy Brown of Precinct 7 Place 1 said the courts can delay holding the hearings only for so long. He said the current issue is an opportunity to highlight injustices in the system that would best be remedied by legislators.
“We do have flexibility not to adhere to that 21 day-eviction period,” Brown said. “Regardless if I place it on the docket, they owe the rent, and the landlord has the power not to accept the back payment rent.”
While other cities’ moratoriums have been praised, Tomlinson said they have not yet been put to the test because until May and July, the state and federal prevention measures had been superseding them.
Jay Malone, political director for the Gulf Coast AFL-CIO, pushed back on some judges’ reluctance to delay hearings, however, saying it is one of many tools needed to stem an impending housing crisis.
“Part of the value of the moratorium is that it ensures folks that there won’t be a legal process and they can stay in their home,” Malone said. “The majority of people who are evicted—they never even show up. They self-evict, or they don’t know the process.”
Reichman’s data found less than 3% of tenants had public legal representation in eviction court, and the majority of cases were dismissed, rather than heard in court, which means tenants likely did not appear before court, settled outside of court or self-evicted.
Along with dozens of advocates and housing policy experts, Malone, Brown and Reichman are all part of the Houston- and Harris County-led Housing Stability Task Force that met for the first time July 16. The group’s charge is to find both short- and long-term solutions; however, it was coming up against the clock as the federal eviction moratorium was set to end July 25.
Meanwhile, U.S. Congress is deliberating a second coronavirus relief bill with more emergency cash assistance for vulnerable renters and a Restaurant Act aimed at keeping local restaurants and their employees afloat.
“The restaurant industry has always been there for any time of major crisis,” Lott said. “That industry has always been the safety net for everyone else. Right now we’re feeling it really hard, and that ripple effect will continue to tear through our society.”