Harris County

Housing Advocates Say Houston’s Approaching An Eviction ‘Doomsday’

The only formal emergency eviction protections in place in the Houston area are set to expire on July 25.


Harris County recovery czar Armando Walle, Judge Jeremy Brown, and Houston recovery czar Marvin Odum announced an eviction task force on June 11.

Houston-area housing advocates are expecting a new surge in eviction notices beginning July 25 when some federal protections expire, allowing landlords to resume evictions at federally subsidized properties.

The expiration of federal CARES Act eviction protection will set in motion a wave of evictions across the country, but renters in the Houston area will be among the hardest hit next week, because local elected officials like Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County's 16 justices of the peace have not implemented policies similar to those in Austin and Dallas to protect renters, critics say.

"July 25th is on our calendar as doomsday," said Dana Karni, a Houston attorney with Lone Star Legal Aid. "We are expecting a significant uptick in the number of people who call us to say that they've received a notice to vacate. And 30 days thereafter, there's going to be a flood, tsunami — call it whatever natural disaster you want — of eviction cases filed in the courts."

The new wave of filings will pile up on top of the more than 5,500 eviction cases landlords have filed in Harris County since the state Supreme Court's COVID-19 eviction moratorium went into effect on March 19, according to research from January Advisors. And housing advocates say in reality that's a vast underestimate of the total number of evictions that have taken place in the county, because it doesn’t include the countless people who simply pack up and leave when they get a notice to vacate rather than go through the court process.

After July 25, landlords at properties covered by the CARES Act can post a notice to vacate — and while many renters will leave immediately, under the federal law they have an additional 30 days to stay in their homes.

"A covered property wanting to pursue an eviction must still file a 30-day vacate notice prior to filing for eviction,” Houston Apartment Association president Clay Hicks said, “meaning the owner is prohibited from even filing the case until late August, and an actual trial couldn’t take place until mid-September at the earliest."

The expiration of the CARES Act eviction policy marks the end of emergency protection for renters in the Houston area. But in other parts of the state, county and city officials are still protecting renters with additional measures.

After the state Supreme Court’s eviction moratorium was lifted May 18, allowing eviction proceedings to resume at properties not covered under the CARES Act, Travis County's five justices of the peace formally announced in June that they were extending the moratorium on a local level, holding off on eviction proceedings until at least July 22.

Dallas County justices of the peace have ordered a partial moratorium that's currently in place through Aug. 5.

Austin and Dallas renters have more protection than Houston renters on a city level, as well. Those cities have passed emergency grace period ordinances giving renters more time to pay rent during the pandemic.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has said he opposes a grace period ordinance, though at least half of council members have said they would support the ordinance.

Turner himself has admitted the need for help is severe — the city's $15 million rent relief fund ran out of money in less than two hours, while the county's $30 million relief fund closed in June.

"We could put it up on the agenda, but the reality is that even if you put a hold on, let's say, people paying this month's rent or next month's rent, at the end of that period of time the obligation is still there," Turner told Houston Matters Special Edition last week.

Turner said help should come from the federal government instead.

“This is really where you need federal intervention,” Turner said. “There needs to be a rental assistance program on the national level, because locally we don't have the dollars that are really needed to provide enough assistance for the number of people that are needing assistance.”

But many of Houston's community advocates — like the Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation, Workers Defense Project and Texas Housers — have argued that local action is urgent and necessary.

"We're talking every day to people that are experiencing these historic hardships. People who are having to wait in lines to feed their families and who are sleeping in their cars," said Jay Malone, political director for the Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation. "So we know how serious this is and we expect our elected officials to step up and behave like we're in the crisis that we know we're in.”

Not only are many Houstonians still unemployed — like people who work at theaters, hotels, and airports — Malone said they're expecting more layoffs in the coming months.

"In the airline industry, they have protections through the CARES Act, but those run out in September," Malone said. "They're already getting letters about layoffs from American and United Airlines. People are still unemployed in historic numbers and it's not going away any time soon."

With more than 32,000 active coronavirus cases in the Houston area, Harris County justices of the peace have refused to issue an order similar to the ones in place in Travis County and Dallas County pausing evictions during the pandemic, though Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner sent a letter to the 16 judges on June 3 asking them to formally postpone eviction proceedings until Aug. 24.

Many of the judges are holding eviction hearings in person, relying on social distancing measures to keep people safe, while others are holding hearings over telephone or videoconferencing. While some of the 16 judges have informally chosen not to hear eviction cases, there's no official order informing renters that they have emergency protections in place.

Harris County Justice of the Peace Jeremy Brown isn’t hearing eviction cases until late August. On Tuesday, he cited constable office staffing shortages as the key reason.

"Recently, it has come to our attention that the Precinct 7 Constable office is facing a staffing shortage amongst those deputies assigned to serve eviction citations and writs of possession because of COVID-19,” Brown said in an email. “In light of the current rise in COVID-19 cases and this concern for our peace officers, our court staff, and our community at large, the Precinct 7 Justice Courts will necessarily face a delay in scheduling and hearing all new eviction proceedings for filings beginning July 17, 2020.”

The Texas Supreme Court has not renewed the eviction moratorium that was lifted in May, though last week, State Rep. Gene Wu, a Houston Democrat, and another 51 state representatives sent a letter to the Supreme Court asking them to halt evictions again.

Dana Karni, the attorney with Lone Star Legal Aid, said while the number of eviction cases filed during the pandemic is much lower than the same period last year, they’re anticipating a dramatic rise in the coming weeks.

"We should expect to see the same average number of evictions that would have happened,” Karni said, “and then some. And then a lot more."

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