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)
Houston Volunteer Lawyers
Lone Star Legal Aid
South Texas College of Law Clinic
University of Houston Clinical Programs
For additional legal information related to COVID-19 and evictions, click here.