Update September 18, 2020:

The Texas Supreme Court issued an order strengthening renters' protections under the Centers for Disease Control eviction moratorium Sept. 17.

Original post September 8, 2020:

A U.S. Centers for Disease Control eviction moratorium that took effect Sept. 4 is the latest effort to help mitigate the effects of the coronavirus pandemic as it continues to disrupt the nation’s economy. However, the moratorium does require renters to take steps to take advantage of the order.

The order came after a series of government-led renters protections and a boost to unemployment checks expired over the summer. It also comes as local efforts have focused on providing financial aid rather than adopting an official rent grace period, which housing advocates have said has put renters in Houston at a greater risk of eviction than elsewhere in Texas and the U.S.

Community Impact Newspaper spoke with Richard Tomlinson, an attorney with Lone Star Legal Aid, about what lawyers know about the new CDC eviction moratorium so far and how it can help renters.

“I don't think landlords are going to gain very much by challenging this because there is always a way for a tenant to comply," Tomlinson said. "Most tenants who fill these out are going to really fit the qualifications, but I don't know how landlords are going to respond or how this rule is going to be applied in [justice of the peace] courts."

How it works

Any renter behind on payments can sign a declaration preventing eviction. Unlike the first nationwide eviction moratorium, which was in effect through July 31, the CDC moratorium applies to all landlords, not just those with support from federal loans or tax exemptions. It does not apply to those facing eviction for any issues unrelated to missed rent payments, such as behavioral violations.

When it took effect

The moratorium took effect Sept. 4 and expires Dec. 31. If a tenant was served a writ of possession—the last step in the eviction process when a constable arrives to enforce the eviction—before Sept. 4, the CDC moratorium did not apply. Without a payment plan in place, any missed rent and late fees are due when the moratorium ends.

Declaration requirements

Renters must meet all five requirements established by the CDC to fill out a declaration. They must state that they:

  1. Earned less than $99,000 per year if unmarried or $198,000 per household;

  2. Experienced substantial loss of income due to a lost job, reduced working hours or substantial medical expenses;

  3. Attempted to make partial rent payments;

  4. Attempted to obtain rental assistance though any government assistance program—this could include applying to Houston and Harris County’s rental assistance program or applying for a Section 8 voucher, Tomlinson said; or

  5. Would, if evicted, become homeless or forced into a living situation that does not promote social distancing, such as with an outside family member or friend.

How to turn in a declaration

Tenants can give the declaration to a landlord or an agent of a landlord, such as a property manager, after the tenant has attempted to make partial payments and attempted to apply for government assistance, if eligible. Tenants do not have to have already had an eviction filed against them to sign a declaration. They can give the declaration to the landlord at any point in the eviction process, including during a hearing.

Eligibility for immigrants

There is no wording in the order related to U.S. citizens or green card holders. The assumption, Tomlinson said, is that it applies to all U.S. residents regardless of immigration status.

“Typically, when it comes to public health measures they apply to everyone,” Tomlinson said. “In an epidemic or pandemic, you can't limit yourself to citizens or people with green cards.”

Landlords’ rights

A landlord has the authority to question the validity of the declaration and still file an eviction. Texas justices of the peace are instructed to ask landlords if the tenant turned in a declaration and to ask for details of the declaration, according to the Texas Justice Court Training Center.

“My sense is there is some concern on both sides,” Tomlinson said. “There are criminal penalties if someone signs something that somebody believes is perjured, and there is some fear on the part of landlords if they get something wrong and they could have to pay a hefty fine.”

Tenants’ rights

According to the Texas Justice Court Training Center, if a tenant does not appear in court, the landlord must prove that the tenant did not hand in a declaration. If the tenant did hand in a declaration, the justice of the peace must not move forward with the case, regardless of whether the tenant is present for the hearing.