Dozens of people signed up to speak out on a new round of rent relief at Tuesday’s Houston City Council public session — with many expressing exasperation and outrage with the city amid the threat of mass evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
After federal emergency eviction protection expired on July 25, housing advocates say they’re anticipating an “eviction doomsday” in the coming days as landlords file eviction cases against tenants unable to pay August rent. Additional protections are still in place preventing evictions in cities around the country like Los Angeles and Chicago — and in other Texas cities including Austin and Dallas.
Since March, many members of the public, community advocacy groups, and some Houston City Council members have asked Mayor Sylvester Turner to consider an eviction ordinance, but he has not agreed to put it on the agenda, despite a unanimous recommendation from Harris County and the City of Houston’s joint housing stability task force, which is made up of renter advocates, local officials, and senior leadership of the landlord organization the Houston Apartment Association.
Turner has argued that the state and federal government should provide assistance to renters, and this week sent a letter to senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz asking them to help secure that relief, according to the Houston Chronicle.
At Tuesday’s meeting, members of the public called on Turner and council members to put the measure to a vote.
"I know you've been a strong voice on stopping the spread of the virus," speaker Ana Tuazon told Turner, "but you rejected the 60-day eviction grace period ordinance that would help people stay housed and stay safe from the virus. It doesn't make sense. And I am asking if you will not institute an eviction moratorium, please put the grace period on the city agenda and let council members vote on it."
At times, the meeting grew confrontational as members of the public sounded increasingly frustrated.
"History will remember how the city suffered because of your willful indifference," speaker Akhil Krishna told council members. "I know you don't need me to tell you what an eviction moratorium is or to enlighten you on how other cities are taking action here so let me tell you what you may not know: the city is waiting and we're watching your every move.”
“This problem is well within your power to resolve and all of your careers depend on it,” Krishna said. “Figure it the f— out."
As more and more callers spoke up during the hearing, Turner and council members were often unresponsive, and at some points left the meeting entirely, while callers addressed empty chairs.
Wait, why were the wood-paneled rooms empty? https://t.co/eh42reDogg
— houston climate houser (@zoyamiddleton) August 4, 2020
Officials did at times respond to speakers who used foul language, as was the case with Krishna, who Turner said was banned from publicly commenting again.
“Make sure that address is noted because it won't happen again,” Turner said.
On Wednesday, council members are expected to approve a second round of emergency rent relief funding, using $15 million allocated in the federal CARES Act. Another $5 million has been pledged by private donors, Turner said.
But that money represents a fraction of the need for assistance in the Houston area. In May, the first round of funding ran out in 90 minutes and the money went directly to landlords. A similar program from Harris County led to about 480,000 rejection letters after the funding ran out.
It’s unclear which Houston landlords received funding in the first round, and the city has denied a public records request for a list of recipients, citing privacy laws.
Speaker Bianco Furtado accused the mayor and City Council of protecting those landlords at the expense of renters, many of whom she said are people of color.
By not passing a measure giving Houstonians more time to pay rent, she said, the mayor was forcing those renters to make “impossible decisions.”
“How can people get a job if they don't have an address? How can they keep a job if they don't have a safe place to sleep? How can they get a job if there's a pandemic?” Furtado asked. “If you believe Black lives matter, prove it.”