Houston-area legal aid organizations provide assistance to those struggling to pay rent during COVID-19

Legal aid organizations in the Harris County area are offering legal assistance to renters amid the coronavirus pandmeic. (Courtesy Pexels)
Legal aid organizations in the Harris County area are offering legal assistance to renters amid the coronavirus pandmeic. (Courtesy Pexels)

Legal aid organizations in the Harris County area are offering legal assistance to renters amid the coronavirus pandmeic. (Courtesy Pexels)

With many residents are struggling to pay rent as a result of record-breaking unemployment claim filings during the coronavirus pandemic, a number of Greater Houston-area legal assistance organizations are providing their services to help tenants navigate the law.

According to Leesa Everitt, a staff lawyer at Houston Volunteer Lawyers, eviction-related court cases are often a tenant’s first encounter with the legal system.

“Even though evictions are 'simple' in Texas, I don't think they are for the tenant because it's an unfamiliar system, terminology, and process than what the ordinary tenant understands,” Everitt said. "Even if the landlord is not represented—and [many] are—the landlord or the leasing agent has still normally been to court multiple times, and they just understand the system.”

As previously reported by Community Impact Newspaper, the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act was signed into effect on March 27 to allow a temporary moratorium on evictions for federally backed housing through July 25. The 120-day moratorium temporarily prevents tenants from being evicted due to nonpayment of rent and applies to rental housing covered under the Violence Against Women Act, Section 8 housing, and low-income or public housing.

“One thing I want to make clear is that everyone still needs to pay rent or still needs to try to work out arrangements with your landlord,” Everitt said. “If you're working on something with your landlord, it's [really] important that it be in writing. Oral agreements just generally are not going to hold up in court because your lease agreement says that it can only be modified in writing, and the Texas Property Code also says it should be modified ... in writing.”



While eviction cases in Texas were able to resume May 19 following a Texas Supreme Court emergency order issued May 14, the order authorized judges to do so at their own discretion. As previously reported by Community Impact Newspaper, locally Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner called for justice of the peace courts to extend the moratorium through Aug. 24.

According to Everitt, while demand for legal aid was low during the moratorium due to courts not taking eviction cases, Houston Volunteer Lawyers have seen an uptick in case filings—most of which were filed prior to the moratorium.

“During the moratorium, the filings were [much] lower than they had been previously, even though they still continued,” Everitt said. “Since the moratorium has been lifted, there have been a lot more filings, ... there's people who have probably had an eviction filed against them, and they just don't know yet.”

According to Everitt, many judges are spacing out scheduling cases as a result of social distancing, resulting in many not being heard immediately.

“It means that [tenants] have more time to find legal assistance if they need it,” Everitt said. “Right now is actually a huge opportunity for us ... [and] all the other legal aid organizations to actually help people before we go to court, to see if a settlement agreement can't be reached before going to court.”

In the interim, several resources have emerged for renters who may be at risk of eviction as a result of inability to pay due to job loss or other reason during the coronavirus pandemic.

In a June 9 Harris County Commissioners Court meeting, the court unanimously voted to consider a pilot program in support of the right to legal counsel for renters and others at risk of losing their homes.

Two days later, Harris County recovery leaders announced the creation of a Housing Stability Task Force aimed to prevent evictions, serve as mitigation between renters and landlords, and stabilize households during the ongoing pandemic.

“Evictions were a serious issue before the COVID-19 pandemic, and they will continue to be of great concern throughout the course of the economic downtown," said Recovery Czar and Texas state Rep. Armando Walle, D-Houston. "We unfortunately anticipate a substantial increase in the volume in the weeks and months ahead, and we are determined to make our best attempt at proactive planning to reduce as many as we can."

The task force will also include fellow Recovery Czar Marvin Odum and Precinct 7 Justice of the Peace Judge Jeremy Brown.

According to John Pollock, the coordinator of the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, cases of eviction have a larger effect on communities of color, who are also disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

“The lack of [legal] counsel has a disproportionate impact on communities of color because they are overrepresented in eviction proceedings, and that was true before COVID-19,” Pollock said at the June 9 Commissioners Court meeting. “Now with COVID-19 having a disproportionate impact also on communities of color, we're expecting the problem in housing court to be even worse for black communities.”

Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said a lack of rent payment also negatively affects landlords.

“Many of our landlords are poor landlords that are living in smaller residences or smaller apartments and leasing out their larger homes; that's their source of income,” Cagle said during the June 9 Commissioners Court meeting. "If they're not able to get their rental dollars, then they’re losing their source of revenue, and you have that escalating problem because then they lose their mortgage because they've not gotten their rent in."

Maricarmen Dollar, a staff lawyer with Houston Volunteer lawyers, said in the future, additional resources could include expanding accessibility to alternative ways of conducting court meetings, such as kiosks to allow the option for Zoom videoconference calls.

“Generally, we have some [clients] that just don't have the ability to use technology,” Dollar said. “Having a place for them to go to do a Zoom hearing and having a place for an attorney to meet them to do a Zoom hearing would be extremely beneficial."

Local legal aid organizations providing services for those facing eviction include:

Earl Carl Institute (Texas Southern University Thurgood Marshall School of Law)

713-313-1158

www.tsulaw.edu/centers/ECI/apply_for_legal_services.html

Houston Volunteer Lawyers

713-228-0735

www.makejusticehappen.org

Lone Star Legal Aid

713-652-0077

www.lonestarlegal.org

South Texas College of Law Clinic

832-554-6544

www.stcl.edu/academics/legal-clinics/contact-us

University of Houston Clinical Programs

713-743-2094

www.law.uh.edu/clinic

For additional legal information related to COVID-19 and evictions, click here.

By


MOST RECENT

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommended health providers pause distribution of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine April 13. (Olivia Aldridge/Community Impact Newspaper)
State, federal health authorities recommend pause of Johnson & Johnson vaccine after 6 rare, severe blood clots

Hub providers in Dallas, Harris and Travis counties have all announced they will follow the recommendations and pause distribution of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Located at 26303 Preston Ave., Ste. C, Spring, Wet My Plant will offer a wide selection of tropical plants, cacti, succulents and more. (Courtesy Wet My Plant)
Indoor plant nursery Wet My Plant coming soon to Old Town Spring

Wet My Plant owners Jessica Cohen and Colin Gardipee are planning to open the second location of their Houston-based indoor plant nursery May 1 in Old Town Spring.

Priscilla Lashley, a KISD parent, hold a photo of Superintendent Jenny McGown maskless at a recent North Houston Association event. (Andy Li/Community Impact Newspaper)
Parents criticize Klein ISD's mask policy

“Everyone should have the right to make their own choices, and I support being able to make your own choices, but I don't support any hypocrisy,” Priscilla Lashley, a KISD parent, said during the meeting.

Nearly 3,700 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in Cy-Fair ISD during the 2020-21 school year. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
86 COVID-19 cases confirmed in Cy-Fair ISD schools April 5-11

As of April 12, the district is reporting 91 active cases and 3,601 recoveries.

Armored Sports camps feature basketball, flag football and more. (Courtesy Pexels)
Armored Sports camps to launch in venues across Greater Houston

A new Christian sports camp for youth is launching this summer in churches across the Greater Houston area.

More than 150,000 vaccines have been administered in the Spring and Klein areas. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
Spring, Klein vaccine rollout: 2 ZIP codes have vaccinated 50% of their population

According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, 159,066 doses have been administered, and 57,456 residents have been fully vaccinated.

"Breaking Strongholds" is a faith-based, eight-episode series that explores topics such as suicide and depression. (Courtesy Terry Weaver)
Series shot in Montgomery County aiming for Hulu, Netflix deal and more Houston-area news

Read the latest business and community news from the Houston area.

The Spring ISD board of trustees will consider extending the 2021-22 school year calendar and school day for six select campuses, at its April 13 regular board meeting. (Screenshot via Zoom)
Spring ISD to consider extending 2021-22 instructional calendar, school day for select campuses at April 13 board meeting

Affected campuses include Clark Primary, Clark Intermediate, Bammel Elementary, Bammel Middle, Eickenroht Elementary and Major Elementary schools.

Active COVID-19 cases continue to level out in Spring and Klein ISDs. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
Spring, Klein ISDs continue to see steady COVID-19 cases

Both districts have seen a relatively steady plateau effect since returning from spring break.

The temporary waiver covering initial vehicle registration, vehicle registration renewal, vehicle titling, renewal of permanent disabled parking placards and 30-day temporary permits will end April 14. (Hannah Zedaker/Community Impact Newspaper)
DMV officials say no grace period following waiver of car title, registration; new housing set for Magnolia, Cypress

Read the top business and community news from the past week from the Houston area.

While there are not many Spring- and Klein-area races in the upcoming May 1 election, there are a few local utility districts that will have items on the ballot for voters to consider. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
Spring-Klein-area park bonds, municipal utility district directors on May 1 ballot

While there are not many Spring- and Klein-area races in the upcoming May 1 election, there are a few local utility districts that will have items on the ballot for voters to consider.

Construction is underway on the office condo project. (Rendering courtesy Read King Commercial Real Estate)
Office condo project coming soon to Vintage Marketplace

The new offices are within walking distance of restaurants such as Ambriza Social Mexican Kitchen and Bellagreen.