Like many Houstonians still experiencing unemployment related to the pandemic, Ben Abell is having a difficult year.
First, he lost his job in oil and gas. Then he and his partner split up, and he had to move out. He's optimistic about finding a new job. And for now, he's couch surfing.
"I got demoted from full-time to part-time, which they explicitly told me was not performance-related, and I understood. It was what it was. The work slowed down,” Abell said. “And then from there, it just dried up.”
His ex just lost her job this week. He has no idea how they're going to pay the $1,500 rent next month for her and their three kids.
Abell recently joined a rally outside Houston City Hall demanding Mayor Sylvester Turner stop evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic — because Houston-area courts are still hearing hundreds of cases every week, despite a federal order from the CDC that’s been in effect since September.
Abell's not alone. In November, just the first renter in New York City was officially evicted since the start of the pandemic. By that time, thousands of Houstonians — many of them impacted by COVID-19 — had already lost their homes in the six months since the Texas Supreme Court allowed evictions to resume back in May.
And while Congress weighs extending the CDC national eviction moratorium, it’s unclear what limited impact that extension could have for people on the edge of eviction in the Houston area.
According to data from January Advisors, the CDC order has stopped only 9.6% of eviction cases in Harris County since the national moratorium went into effect. That means 9,386 evictions were not stopped by the order, out of a total 10,383 eviction cases heard in Harris County since September.
Landlords haven’t been filing fewer eviction cases under the moratorium, either. In fact, the numbers are up. Landlords filed 6,814 eviction cases in the three months before the order went into effect on Sept. 4, compared to 7,230 in the past three months while the CDC moratorium has been in place.
Judge Lincoln Goodwin — one of 16 Justices of the Peace in Harris County — regularly calls 60-70 eviction cases at the same time, making social distancing impossible. He and his staff don’t wear face masks in the courtroom.
In a letter last week, Houston housing advocates Chrishelle Palay with the HOME Coalition and Celesté Arredondo-Peterson with the Texas Organizing Project said the CDC order is “filled with false hope, flaws and gaps that do not truly provide protections for all renters.”
But beyond Houston, not all Texas renters have to rely on the CDC alone for protection.
The city of Austin’s ban on almost all eviction filings has been in effect since March, along with a 60-day grace period that gives renters more time to catch up. Austin has had about 725 eviction cases since the pandemic started, compared to more than 18,000 cases in Houston, where Mayor Turner has not passed any emergency eviction protections, according to data from Princeton University’s Eviction Lab.
When asked last week whether Turner is considering a local moratorium, the mayor's office responded, "Mayor Turner is doing all he can at this time.”
Turner has asked the CDC to extend its eviction moratorium and he's written a letter to the Texas Supreme Court asking for a 90-day suspension of eviction hearings.
"That is the bare minimum, to be clear," said Celesté Arredondo-Peterson, housing director with the Texas Organizing Project. "He's not a hero for writing a letter. We are in the middle of the largest economic downturn of most of our lives. He has real power to do much more. And it's a moral failing on his part that he has refused to do so."
Arredondo-Peterson is a member of Harris County's COVID-19 Housing Stability Task Force. The city of Houston used to be part of the task force as well, but Turner left the group after it recommended he pass an eviction grace period that he refused to consider.
"He has been a lackluster Democratic mayor and the fact that he gets to ride nationally as a progressive is laughable and disturbing," Arredondo-Peterson said.
Many Houston City Council members have said they would support a measure giving renters more time to catch up during the pandemic if the mayor put it on the agenda.
City Council Housing Committee chair Tiffany Thomas recently declined an interview to discuss a local moratorium in Houston.
Arredondo-Peterson said it’s not surprising if members of Houston City Council are reluctant to speak about a controversial issue, given that Houston has a strong mayor form of government, unlike most other Texas cities.
"There's only a few paths you can take on City Council in Houston," Arredondo-Peterson said. "One of them is speaking honestly and candidly with press and then never getting anything you want from the mayor, ever. Or not speaking candidly to the press, knowing that you're really there to deliver for your constituents — and usually the best way to do that is to lower your head, make good with the mayor, and go on your knees begging for him to give you what you need to deliver for your district. And I think it's a real fundamental problem with our government and the way that it works in Houston."
Meanwhile, Turner isn't the only one asking the state Supreme Court to take another look at evictions.
A recent study from researchers at UCLA, Johns Hopkins University and other public health institutions found Texas could have prevented about 4,500 deaths if the state court hadn't lifted its moratorium back in May.
In an interview with Houston Public Media, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht said he did not see the study, but that it "sounds pretty out of line."
Hecht added that the court hasn't suspended evictions over the last seven months because he believed it was up to other branches of government to address the issue.
"The reason that there's not a statewide moratorium is that we continue to rely on the federal moratoria and local jurisdictions," Hecht said.
Meaning that while local officials like Turner are pointing to the state Supreme Court to stop evictions, the chief justice is pointing to the governor's office.
"We naturally just viewed evictions as more from a ‘how's it affecting the justice system' perspective, Hecht said. "We have not consulted with health officials. I think we would see that as more the executive branch's responsibility."
Listen to the extended interview with Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht that aired on Houston Matters.
Instead of a moratorium, the Texas Supreme Court created an eviction diversion program — basically a rent relief fund that will pay up to six months of back rent to landlords.
The program started in October, but it's unclear whether any money has actually been released yet to landlords in Harris County. Hecht said the program had a slow start but should be fully up and running by Feb. 1.
But Dana Karni, a Houston attorney with Lone Star Legal Aid, said the program is a catch 22 — renters can only get help if their landlord has filed the eviction lawsuit, which landlords aren't supposed to do if the renter is protected under the CDC order.
Plus, she said, the eviction filing itself can negatively impact a renter's ability to get housing in the future.
"To require litigation filing and then to call that a diversion program is a farce," Karni said. "That's not a diversion program — that's an invitation to litigation program."
Currently, only a small fraction of renters in the Houston area have an attorney representing them in an eviction case — around 5%. In response to the pandemic, Harris County Commissioners Court earlier this year approved funding to boost eviction legal defense, but Karni said organizations haven't actually received the money, though the conversation has been ongoing since the summer.
"Because of recommendations that the housing stability task force has yet to provide, not a single penny that I'm aware of has gone towards funding to legal representation," Karni said.
Meanwhile, less than half of Harris County's rent relief funding had been claimed as of last week. Because of the way the county’s relief program was designed, most of the money has only been available for renters whose landlords agree to participate.
"These millions of dollars left on the table highlight the fact that so many landlords have refused rent relief in favor of eviction," Karni said.
Congress is also reportedly considering a relief package that would include a stimulus check worth $600 for each adult and child, while according to data from January Advisors, the median amount owed in eviction court is around $1,900.