Many of Katy’s most vulnerable communities are still struggling to pay rent during the COVID-19 pandemic, and though a national eviction moratorium ordered by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention was created to protect families, there are still hundreds of people who are being forced out of their homes.
This is largely due to the CDC moratorium putting the responsibility on families to know their legal rights when there has been little effort from the federal government to disperse information, said Jay Malone, the political director of the Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation.
Additionally, the moratorium was written in a way that creates difficult roadblocks for people under a lot of stress to get through should they have the resources to complete the process, Malone said.
“Most people who receive a notice to vacate never even make it to court and end up living with family, friends, or in their car,” Malone said. “It’s critical that people in Katy at risk of losing their home know that they have real protections under the CDC eviction moratorium that can keep them housed during this crisis.”
Futures in the hands of judges
There have been 7,483 eviction cases led in Harris County’s justice of the peace for Precinct 5 between January and October, which largely covers the Katy area. Precinct 5 has the highest number of evictions in all of Harris County. Evictions filed in the Fort Bend County portion of the Katy area did decrease from 343 in 2019 to 90 as of September, according to January Advisors data. In total, there were 201 evictions in September 2019 in the Katy area, and 59 this September, according to the January Advisors data.
Although evictions are significantly down compared to last year across the country, Texas and particularly Harris County have had some of the highest numbers in the country, experts said.
However, analysis by Texas Housers, an advocacy group, found the number of evictions over the summer did not increase as dramatically as expected due to people charging their rent onto credit cards or borrowing money from family members.
John Ross, an attorney with Lone Star Legal Aid, said the most important thing tenants should know is they need to give the declaration to their landlord and file it in court.
“Since a lot of the responsibility falls on the tenant, they have to know exactly what to do because the landlord or the judge may not necessarily keep up with it,” Ross said. “They need to know what their rights are.”
To qualify for the CDC moratorium, renters need to make under $99,000 per year and must have lost income as a result of the pandemic. They must then send a letter to their landlords stating their eligibility for the program, but if tenants are not aware of the process, the eviction process will continue.
Less than 3% of renters in Harris County eviction courts have legal representation, according to data from January Advisors, and the outcome of those cases can depend on which judge the renter steps in front of.
If individuals manage to get through the process and make it to court, it is still not guaranteed they will not be evicted.
“You think about this from a perspective of somebody who is about to lose their home during this pandemic and their family is going to have to move into their car,” Malone said. “It’s insane to put it all onto them to have to figure out all of this complicated stuff. Elected officials should be taking on that responsibility.”
Homelessness in the Katy area
Local nonprofits have stepped in to help those who are experiencing difficult financial situations or homelessness in the Katy area, but a lack of funds has decreased their resources to extend to the community.
Hope Impacts, for example, canceled or postponed three fundraisers the nonprofit relies on to bring in $50,000 in total, and 74 newly homeless people have sought help between March and August. The nonprofit does not expect the need to let up anytime soon.
Tina Hatcher, the founder and executive director of Hope Impacts, said she worries about the future as the pandemic continues to contribute to layoffs and, in turn, homelessness in the Katy area. “We have seen the community affected due to loss of jobs, pay cuts and evictions,” Hatcher said. “Every nonprofit is struggling to keep up with the demand for more needs. There are families that now depend on food distribution sites to feed their families. People that used to donate are now on the receiving end. The needs will continue to grow. Even in the nonprofit sector, we have seen a sharp decrease in giving and as the pandemic continues.”
Hope Impacts does not receive any government funds but is partnering and referring people to organizations which are getting COVID-19 relief funds to help families through the financial crisis, especially as related to layoffs.
The nongovernmental organization does not provide shelter or housing assistance as an organization, but does refer individuals to organizations like Houston Coalition for the Homeless and Harris County to help those who are experiencing homelessness attain housing faster and to get the requisite documents in order.
It is challenging for individuals to acquire those documents given the Social Security office is not open, birth certificates cannot be picked up and Texas Department of Motor Vehicles offices are operating by appointment only, Hatcher said. Additionally, most housing does not accept homeless IDs, she added.
Many Katy-area nonprofits have pivoted to virtual services or have continued to offer services in a drive-thru-only capacity, but much of the area homeless population does not have access to cars, phones or computers to use those services, Hatcher said.
While those who manage to be protected by the CDC moratorium will avoid homelessness until the end of 2020, the CDC moratorium does not cancel any rent, so payments and late fees will accrue while the order is in effect.
Experts concluded each tenant should receive a form in the mail describing their rights and that there should be more concerted efforts from elected offcials in the region to inform the general public.
“It is going to create this huge debt bubble that is going to pop in January,” Malone said. “If we don’t pass another stimulus package these people will not have the money to pay back this rent. A lot of the people who are accruing that debt are not going back to work for another year, and it’s not like people can just hop on Indeed.com to find a new job. The jobs aren’t there.”
Malone made a distinction between the COVID-19 recession and past ones, highlighting individuals from middle- to upper-income levels have basically recovered, but unemployment rates among the working class are still massive.
“The middle- to upper-income people’s jobs have come back, or they didn’t lose their jobs in the first place, and the stock market is staying pretty consistent. Their wealth overall has just gone for a small dip,” Malone added. “The hospitality and entertainment industries are struggling and aren’t going back to work until next year. A lot of these people live in places like Katy.”