City of Houston

Despite Broad Support, Mayor Turner Won’t Budge On Houston Eviction Grace Period

The Housing Stability Task Force — a group convened by Houston and Harris County’s recovery czars — has unanimously recommended a grace period ordinance. Mayor Sylvester Turner won’t do it.

Mayor Sylvester Turner at a press conference Monday, April 6, 2020.

Kamran Malik lost his job at an accounting firm in June during a round of COVID-19 layoffs. He supports his parents, who live with him. He was still waiting for his first unemployment check, so he explained the situation to his landlord.

Initially, she worked with him — lowering his rent for two months — but when Malik said he was out of savings and needed to use his security deposit to pay rent, his landlord promptly posted a notice to vacate on his door on Aug. 2.

"She's like, ‘I don't care, it's your responsibility. I don't care, your financial crisis that you have,’" Malik said. "And she's been threatening me that she is an attorney and this is all very easy for her."

Malik's eviction hearing is set for two weeks from now. But if Malik lived in Austin or Dallas, Los Angeles or Chicago, his landlord wouldn't be able to evict him — those cities have enacted emergency grace periods. And New York City renters are still protected under a state moratorium.

But in Houston, Mayor Sylvester Turner won't put forward a grace period to give renters more time to pay their rent, even as members of the city council, and the city and county’s own joint task force have pushed to put one in place.

And that means Houston — where renters make up half the population — is the largest city in America where renters don't have additional legal protections currently in place during the pandemic. (Harris County currently has more than 36,000 active coronavirus cases.)

Since the state Supreme Court has not renewed the moratorium that ended in May, and Congress has not renewed federal CARES Act protections that expired on July 25, Houston housing advocates say they're expecting an eviction "doomsday" in the coming weeks and months without local protections. While President Donald Trump signed executive orders Saturday that he said would protect renters from eviction, he did not extend or create legal protections like a moratorium.

When asked in July why Houston hasn't passed a grace period ordinance, Mayor Sylvester Turner pointed to a COVID-19 housing task force made up of landlords, renter advocates, and local officials.

"We have started a task force between the county and the city," Turner said on Houston Matters Special Edition, "and we'll see what comes from that."

So task force members rushed to draft an ordinance before federal protections expired, then unanimously recommended that the mayor support it, hoping it would go into effect by Aug. 1, according to Ric Campo, the CEO of Camden Property Trust and co-chair of the task force.

"It has all of the constituents who oftentimes don't agree — they agreed. Which is interesting. And good," Campo said. "We had big debates between advocacy groups and owners, and at the end of the day, they shook hands and made a deal and said ‘this looks good to us.'"

Campo said the board of the Houston Apartment Association unanimously recommended the city pass the ordinance, as well.

An eviction notice on the door of Kamran Malik, Aug. 2, 2020.

But despite that recommendation, Turner rejected the idea.

University of Houston political science professor Brandon Rottinghaus said, given Turner’s history, it's unclear why Turner is opposing the unanimous recommendation of the task force.

"He's historically been favorable to the development community and the business community in the city," Rottinghaus said. "In this case, seems like they tend to agree that there should be some kind of rent moratorium. So I guess that's the real question – who is he specifically listening to?"

Given Houston's “strong mayor” system — the mayor has almost total control over what the council can vote on, because of the unique way Houston's city government is set up — whether or not Houston renters have a grace period ordinance during the pandemic is mostly in Turner's hands.

"So his political M.O. is that he's very cautious but the ability to operate as a strong mayor in a place like Houston gives him tremendous authority to be able to act. There are no other structures of a strong mayor system like Houston has in the rest of the state," Rottinghaus said. "So the mayor is really the primary driver for what happens or doesn't happen in the city of Houston."

At a recent press conference, asked to explain which groups are advocating against a grace period ordinance, Turner's response was ambiguous.

"Well, I have a number of stakeholders around my board, too, and there are 16 council members," Turner said. “I don't think there was a council member that was sitting on that task force.”

But city council members do support a grace period, according to District F City Council member and housing committee chair Tiffany Thomas.

"He knows the majority of us are in support, absolutely," Thomas said. "We don't inform the agenda. Council does not do that. The mayor informs the agenda."

At-Large City Council member Letitia Plummer is among the members of council who have been asking the mayor for a grace period ordinance for months, as have District D City Council member Carolyn Evans-Shabazz and District C City Council member Abbie Kamin.

"I know that at least half of us are incredibly supportive in different ways," Plummer said.

Unlike in other cities, Plummer said, it's almost impossible to put anything on the agenda in Houston without the mayor’s support.

"It's like we're not being bold in our decisions. We're not being leaders in any way and Houston is going to suffer," Plummer said. "Maybe a part of it could be we have a really strong mayoral form of government here in Houston whereas Austin and Dallas are a little bit different. Council has a lot more of a voice in different cities."

Austin council members rushed to pass renter protections in March, once they saw the coronavirus was spreading in their city.

"Government needs to move fast during the pandemic," Austin City Council member Greg Casar said, "and that's why at Austin City Council we called an emergency meeting, passed the ordinance as an emergency that would go into effect immediately."

Meanwhile, Dallas City Council member Adam Bazaldua said they made sure their ordinance was limited in scope — it only applies to renters affected by COVID-19 and it expires when the emergency is over.

"There's specific language in the state of Texas that when an emergency declaration has been proclaimed there are certain extra powers that are given specific to making sure people stay in the home during any type of disaster or emergency," Bazaldua said.

Complicating the matter further is an opinion released Friday by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who argued that local governments don't have the authority to interfere with the eviction process.

"While local officials do possess certain emergency powers," Paxton said, "efforts to amend the statutorily prescribed, statewide eviction procedures far exceed the requirement that those powers be exercised "on an appropriate local scale."

Paxton's opinion is non-binding, meaning it's not legally enforceable, and the members of Houston's Housing Stability Task Force — which include Harris County Justice of the Peace Jeremy Brown and Houston Apartment Association general counsel Howard Bookstaff — unanimously supported a grace period.

Regardless of legal interpretations, Turner has made it clear Houstonians are unlikely to see a grace period ordinance on the agenda.

He has argued a grace period makes matters worse for renters, because the owed rent accumulates and people end up owing more money at the end than they could possibly pay.

Zoe Middleton, Southeast Texas co-director of the housing advocacy group Texas Housers and a member of the task force, supports a grace period ordinance. But she also said she's not surprised Turner opposes it.

"It's just inconsistent with the mayor's world view. He believes very strongly, markets will regulate themselves and that landlords will voluntarily enter into agreements with their tenants," Middleton said.

While Turner has kept a grace period off the agenda, he has put in place a rent relief program, distributing $15 million in federal CARES Act funding back in May and recently authorizing another $20 million for the program.

But Middleton said deciding between a grace period and rent relief funding is a false choice, arguing that Houston renters need both.

"A rental assistance program and a grace period ordinance are not mutually exclusive," she said.

For Kamran Malik, the Houston renter being evicted this month, neither option will come in time to help him. Malik is moving out of his house, while taking care of his parents and trying to find a new job.

Malik said the stress was so bad he even went to the ER last week with a severe headache. With time running out to find a new job in Houston, he's decided he should be closer to family. This weekend, he's moving to Dallas.

"I'm very anxious," Malik said. "I don't know what to do."

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