City of Houston

Review Of Houston Eviction Cases Finds Most Moving Forward Despite Federal Moratorium

Local housing advocates say the moratorium isn’t making a significant difference so far.

The entrance to Harris County Judge Russ Ridgway’s court, where there were 113 eviction cases on the dockets last week.

A national eviction moratorium ordered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention went into effect over a week ago, protecting some renters from eviction through the end of 2020.

But after a week of implementation, it remains unclear whether the order will be effective at preventing homelessness or the spread of the coronavirus during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A Houston Public Media review of about 100 cases heard in Harris County during the first week of the CDC moratorium found the order isn't doing much for people in the Houston area — at least not yet. Only one of those 100 cases was halted by the moratorium.

To qualify for the moratorium, renters must make less than $99,000, or have received a stimulus check, and they must have lost income as a result of the pandemic. They must also send a letter to their landlords declaring they’re eligible for the moratorium, or else the eviction can proceed.

With 677 eviction cases on Harris County dockets during the moratorium’s first week, the outcomes have been a mixed bag so far, Lone Star Legal Aid attorney Dana Karni said.

"The results that we're seeing are situations where tenants had provided the document with the declaration to their landlord, but because the document wasn't notarized — signed before a notary — it was rejected by the court," Karni said. "Or because there was some concern whether the tenant had actually made ‘best efforts' the court felt like only a one-week continuance was sufficient."

Karni said the declaration doesn't need to be notarized in order to be valid, according to the CDC order.

Houston was part of a first wave of cities in the United States where eviction proceedings could resume, after the Texas Supreme Court order temporarily preventing courts from processing evictions was lifted in May. Mayor Sylvester Turner has refused to put an eviction grace period on the Houston City Council agenda despite broad support from landlord groups, renter advocates, and council members, and has instead pushed for state and federal help. Over the summer, Harris County justices of the peace declined a request from Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Mayor Turner to postpone eviction hearings through the end of August.

In one eviction hearing Houston Public Media observed last week, a single mother who lost her retail job in March was able to pay rent through July before her savings ran out. When she told the judge that the CDC moratorium applied to her — she had notified her landlord, had applied for rent relief funding and been rejected, and her income is below the threshold — the judge told her the moratorium didn't apply in her case, though he didn't explain why.

In another case, a judge rejected a renter's attempt to use the moratorium, saying it didn't apply to her because she has two jobs so she couldn't possibly be "destitute."

Protesters march Aug. 21 outside a courthouse in Houston, where evictions are continuing despite a moratorium ordered recently by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Bob Fleming with the Metropolitan Organization, a group of Houston religious leaders, said he's concerned renters will still be evicted if they don’t understand the law.

"The benefits of this eviction moratorium are not automatic," Fleming said. "They must make a declaration, in fact, that these requirements have been met."

Harris County Judge David Patronella, a justice of the peace who presides over eviction cases, said calling the CDC order a moratorium is misleading.

"Referring to the order as a moratorium on evictions may not really be accurate," Patronella said. "It is not particularly well drafted, but my reading of the order is that it would require the tenant to give notice to the landlord of their current financial predicament as a result of the coronavirus pandemic."

The CDC moratorium could still halt some cases even after the judgment to evict, said Zoe Middleton, the Southeast Texas co-director of Texas Housers.

"A lot of judges seem to be telling people to get their declaration in to their landlord in the days they have after they've technically been ruled evicted," Middleton said. "So we're not quite sure how powerful it will be."

In one case, Middleton said, a woman who was nine months pregnant was behind on her rent and had not given a CDC declaration to her landlord. The judge told the renter she still had time to stop the eviction.

"The declarative statement is a tool that can be used by a renter up until the moment that they are removed from the rental unit," Karni with Lone Star Legal Aid said.

Despite the outcomes in Harris County courts so far, Karni said President Donald Trump and the CDC’s intentions behind the order were clear: "The initial goal that the president spelled out in his executive order and the CDC outlined pretty broadly — not vaguely but broadly — is that the goal is to halt evictions as much as possible."

 

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