Over 32,000 eviction cases were filed in Harris County courts in 2020, according to analytics firm January Advisors. Housing advocates cite the number of filings as evidence that some pandemic-related interventions designed by local officials so far have fallen short or come too late for many renters.

Harris County and the city of Houston partnered on a new federally funded $159 million rental relief program in mid-February that allows residents to apply for funds to help pay overdue rent from as far back as April.

The effort was welcomed by local advocates, particularly because it represents the largest sum of money offered up by area officials since the pandemic began.

“When we first started looking into this over the summer, our ask was $100 million, so combined with state funding, this is going to be significant,” said Jay Malone, political director for the Gulf Coast AFL-CIO. Many of the union's members are in industries hit hard by the pandemic, ranging from airport workers to theatrical stage employees.

Applications facilitated through nonprofit Baker Ripley and Catholic Charities Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston opened for landlords Feb. 18 and for tenants Feb. 25. They are evaluated based on need rather than a first-come, first-serve basis.

In addition to allowing renters to get help for rent from as far back as April, the new program allows applicants to seek legal aid, pay past-due utilities and request aid for rent for up to two months into the future.

Aligning the two programs along with $1 billion in statewide rent relief slowed the process, Mayor Sylvester Turner said. In response, he presented Houston City Council with a grace period ordinance Feb. 17, which gave renters until the end of March to resolve payment issues before landlords can pursue an eviction.

“We are all seeking to align ourselves to be as effective as possible, and that does take a little time because you can rush out the door, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re using the dollars in the most effective way,” Turner said at a Feb. 10 Council meeting.

However, the city ordinance, which expires March 31, states that renters will still have to present a copy of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declaration banning evictions for renters to their landlords. The document verifies that a tenant's inability to pay rent stems from pandemic-related job loss. Since the CDC order was already in place, the city ordinance does little to change renter’s circumstances, Malone said.

“It does not stop evictions that are already in process, and it doesn’t strengthen the CDC order in a meaningful way,” he said.

Since taking effect in September, the CDC order has prevented 16% of evictions in Harris County, January Advisors found. Harris County is divided into eight precincts, each with two justice of the peace courts, which oversee eviction cases. Data shows a range in how many cases were accompanied by the CDC paperwork depending on which judge was overseeing the eviction.

“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.”

With information about tenant protections changing and difficult to access for some, Richard Tomlinson, a Lone Star Legal Aid attorney, said many eligible renters are likely not taking advantage of the CDC order. Adding to the confusion, a judge with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas ruled the CDC order unconstitutional but did not issue an injunction. As a result, it remains in effect but under closer legal scrutiny in Texas.

“We are still giving our clients the same advice,” Tomlinson said. “Fill out the CDC declaration.”