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A Houston couple was evicted and subsequently separated from their 18-month-old daughter after their landlord refused to accept rent relief money from the city of Houston and Harris County.
Phillip Tilley and his partner Christine Outhouse applied to the Houston-Harris County rent relief program, hoping it would keep them and their 18-month-old daughter Parker from losing their apartment at the Arbors on Westheimer Road, a sprawling 360-unit complex.
Their application was approved. Their landlord received a check for nearly $7,000. But the landlord decided to return the money and evict the family anyway, according to court transcripts.
Tilley and his daughter were watching a movie when around a dozen constables and movers came through the door on a hot morning at the end of July.
"I had no idea what was going on,” Tilley said. “I've got her just like, clenched to me as hard as she possibly could. She was scared out of her mind. I was scared."
The couple had filed a form to be protected under a national eviction moratorium issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the landlord's attorneys argued it didn't apply to them, according to court transcripts. Harris County Judge Jeff Williams ruled to evict them.
Tilley said on the day of the eviction, movers threw everything the couple owned outside in garbage bags. People walked by and helped themselves. Their dog was tied to a post outside in the heat, he said.
"Everybody just comes and does whatever they want to it, and take it and steal from you and you don't even get a chance to do anything with it, and then it rains all over everything," Tilley said. "And all we can fit in our car is me, Christine, our daughter and our dog. There's not much room left for anything else."
Outhouse said one of her friends called Child Protective Services and reported that the couple was lying about getting evicted.
The friend’s reasoning, Outhouse said: How could they possibly have been evicted if it was illegal to evict people under the national moratorium?
Tilley and Outhouse scrambled to find an inexpensive hotel. CPS workers visited the hotel, Outhouse said, and told her it wasn't a safe place for a baby. Her family drove from New York to Houston overnight without stopping to get Parker, afraid that she would be placed in foster care.
They brought her back to New York.
"I think we really just felt pretty beaten down and lost," Outhouse said. "Like how did we get here?"
Houston Public Media reached out to the property owners at the Arbors on Westheimer and their attorneys at the law firm Hoover Slovacek, but neither commented for this story.
Landlords have filed more than 38,000 eviction cases in Harris County since the start of the pandemic, compared to just over 1,500 cases in Travis County during the same time period. That's around 25 times more eviction cases in Harris County than in Travis County, though the population is only roughly four times larger.
Unlike many cities around the country, including Austin, Houston does not have a local eviction moratorium in place to slow evictions during the pandemic.
Tilley and Outhouse filed CDC paperwork, applied for jobs, received rent relief money — Outhouse said she didn't know what else they could have done to keep their home and their belongings.
"Baby toys. Her crib. Everything. Literally every picture," Outhouse said. "Everything's just gone."
The couple is working to get stable housing so they can bring their daughter home.
Their attorney, David Sadegh with Lone Star Legal Aid, said they're fighting the landlord in appeals court and filing a motion for contempt against the landlord and their attorney.
"The issue is the fact that (the landlord) didn't comply with (the judge's) order when she ordered them to put the tenants back in their unit if possible," Sadegh said.
A judge ordered the property owners to let the couple move back in to their apartment, but squatters had moved in and lived in the unit for weeks, leaving it uninhabitable, Tilley and Outhouse said.
Lone Star Legal Aid later reached out to the landlord, and they have found other accommodations for the family in the building.
On Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 6-3 decision to end the national eviction moratorium that was set to expire on Oct. 3. The moratorium initially began last September under President Donald Trump. It’s had mixed success in the Houston area, stopping only a fraction of the eviction cases filed in Harris County courts.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner implemented a brief six-week eviction grace period ordinance in February, though analysis from the Houston firm January Advisors found that if the ordinance had any impact it wasn’t apparent in the data.
The Supreme Court’s decision puts even more pressure on local officials around the country to distribute billions of dollars in federal rent relief funding. Houston and Harris County's program has distributed more than $180 million in rent relief to more than 48,000 families so far this year, reaching many people right on the brink of eviction.
Despite that funding, it's common to see strollers and car seats in the pile of belongings outside when constables evict people from their homes, because many Houston families and kids are experiencing housing instability during the pandemic, said Julia Orduña, Southeast Texas co-director of the housing advocacy group Texas Housers.
"Eviction causes significant psychological trauma at any stage," Orduña said. "This is a significant thing that's going to affect those children that are going through this and being ripped from their house."
One thing Tilley is grateful for is the extra time he got to spend with his daughter during the pandemic, before their eviction.
"Honestly, the pandemic was probably one of the best things that ever happened to me because I got to spend every moment with her," Tilley said. "I know a lot of people don't get to do that with their kids, and I was lucky enough to be able to get to spend that much time with her."
Tilley said his daughter had been making progress with talking, and now he's worried she's sliding backward.
He said it's incredibly painful to Facetime with Parker in New York.
"Now she's not even really talking at all whenever I see her," Tilley said. "I'm worried she's going to forget me or something."
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