Renters need to meet certain criteria — they must make under $99,000 or have received a stimulus check, and they must be unable to pay rent due to loss of income. The moratorium doesn’t remove the obligation to pay rent, so tenants still need to make payments, but it does temporarily stop evictions proceedings from taking place.
The move could have a big impact on Houston, the largest city in the country without eviction protections during the COVID-19 pandemic, after the Texas Supreme Court let its statewide moratorium expire in May. Renters also make up half the city’s population.
Mayor Sylvester Turner has refused to put an eviction grace period on the Houston City Council agenda, and has instead pushed for state and federal help. The mayor has also advocated for rental assistance programs, and has asked landlords to work with tenants to avoid evictions.
Houston Public Media spoke with Dana Karni, an attorney with Lone Star Legal Aid and a member of Harris County and the city of Houston’s joint housing stability task force, about what the moratorium means for renters.
The following interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Were you surprised by this news coming out?
I think I’m a little bit surprised. I’m not certain that we expected this to come out of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). If this has teeth, and if it holds through the end of the year, I certainly applaud the effort. And if I have any criticism, it is that this didn’t take place a very long time ago. But better late than never.
We suspect that there will be landlord interests that will be attacking the CDC moratorium and litigation that will probably carry us through the end of the year — just like the CDC moratorium — and maybe even past and into 2021.
What does this mean for justices of the peace, who oversee eviction court?
My sense, as an attorney in the trenches, is that there are lots of judges overseeing eviction courts who are looking for a place to rest their gavels and that this moratorium gives them that place while this pandemic sorts itself out. In other words, where we are seeing some parts of Harris County go through hundreds of cases being called a week, we also have a number of justice of the peace courts that have a very slow docket, where the justices of the peace are trying to protect tenants and their homes.
So this moratorium really gives the judges an opportunity to take control of the situation and say, “We don’t have to make these decisions anymore.” And finally, and I think sadly, there will be lots of tenants who don’t know about the protections that are put in place and will continue to self-evict at the very high rates that tenants have historically self-evicted when landlords threaten them with eviction.
The scope of this moratorium — extending through the end of the year — could help the word get out to renters.
I hope so. But I also feel like there are lots and lots of people who have thrown in the towel, who really have given up hope, people who understand they’re not getting unemployment benefits anymore or feel like the unemployment benefits they’re getting just don’t put enough food on the table. And so I have concerns this might be too little, too late for lots and lots of tenants who don’t keep up with the news, who aren’t well-read. You know, the tenants themselves don’t know and the landlords might not let them know.
Some parts of the country already have state and local eviction moratoriums. Since the Houston area doesn’t have eviction restrictions in place, does this news have more of an impact here?
Absolutely. If you look at the numbers — and I think January Advisors had put on some data at the most recent housing stability task force meeting — just over 1,700 evictions were filed in the month of August. And the claim that the number of filings of evictions in Harris County are relatively low and holding a steady low pace, but the truly outrageous number is the number of defendants who are represented in evictions. And if you look at that number, it continues to be abysmally low — less than 3% of defendants are represented by an attorney in housing courts in Harris County.
And so you kind of look at that number and you have a better understanding of just how terribly impacted tenants are in a place like Houston. Houston has been reported repeatedly in national headlines because we trail second only to Phoenix, Arizona, in the race to the bottom as being the highest in number of evictions. And so, yes, cities like Houston need this relief from the CDC desperately.