A statewide ban on eviction proceedings has not been preventing vulnerable renters from losing housing or facing growing late fees, local union officials said.
On the steps of Houston City Hall, AFL-CIO Gulf Coast President Jay Malone and other area union reps hosted a press conference April 16 calling on city leaders to enact ordinances that fill the gaps in current renter protections amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Between March 1 and April 14, United Way of Greater Houston reported that over 13,000 calls seeking rental assistance were made to its 211 helpline.
Landlords can still legally post eviction notices on residents’ doors despite their lack of authority to enforce them, Mayor Sylvester Turner told council members April 15.
“I’ve seen it in my apartment complex, people don’t know the law and there are language barriers so they get the notice and pack up their stuff and leave because they think the cops are coming,” said Anthony Contreras, airport worker and member of International Association of Machinists, Lodge 811.
He added that undocumented workers fear the legal repercussions of missed rent and have been excluded from federal stimulus checks.
Area labor leaders are calling for more specific protections from city hall, such as a ban on eviction notice postings, limits on late fees and mandatory waiting periods for landlords before fees are enacted. They also warned that when the state’s ban on evictions is lifted, which could be as soon as April 30 if not extended, more protections need to be in place for renters still struggling to make ends meet. The federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economy Security Act does, however, provide extended protections for those living in public housing.
“I know our members want to pay rent and put food on the table, but they’re having to make hard decisions,” said Jennifer Hernandez, member of International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, District 88.
Turner told City Council members March 14 that he is working with the federal government to ensure that the city can legally use some of the aid it is receiving to set up a rental relief program. He also told reporters April 16 that both Houston and Harris County are working to appoint recovery czars to manage such proposals.
“We need more flexibility to provide for example rental assistance,” he said at an April 14 City Council meeting. “We don’t want to affect first responders, but if we don’t have the revenue coming into our cities ... it's going to start to affect things like public safety.”
In the meantime, Turner said he encourages landlords to follow the lead of property management companies that have provided help for tenants, such as Camden Property Trust, which established a $5 million relief fund for tenants.
Although some property management companies and landlords can afford such measures, many others cannot, At-Large Council Member Letitia Plummer said.
“I feel like when we allow individual apartment complexes to make their own decisions—Camden is an incredibly wealthy apartment company—there are other ones that are owned by individuals who may not be able to assist in that same manner,” she said while advocating for more city-led interventions.
At-Large Council Member Sallie Alcorn has also been researching and suggesting ways the city can get involved in rental assistance, although no similar efforts have yet been placed by Turner on the Houston City Council agenda. Among other ordinances, she cited Austin City Council's move to require landlords give renters a 60-day grace period before requiring rent payments.
“I have instructed my staff to look around at different cities and look what we can do,” Alcorn said at an April 8 City Council Meeting. "I hope that we can as a council can be creative. I know we don’t have money, but think of ways we can help on the economic side. I think any assistance we give on the rental side has to be coupled with assistance to small businesses and landlords."
Editor's note this post has been updated for clarity.