In-Depth

Texas Lifts Moratorium On Evictions, Leaving Houston Renters Vulnerable 

Renters in Texas, many of whom have lost their jobs because of the pandemic, can now be kicked out of their homes. 

Drivers in Montrose call on Houston to freeze rent, on Friday, May 1, 2020. After a state moratorium on evictions was lifted, Houston became one of the first large cities in the U.S. to start eviction proceedings.

The Texas Supreme Court lifted its moratorium on evictions this week. Now renters in Texas, many of whom have lost their jobs because of the pandemic, can be kicked out of their homes. 

Some Texas cities are taking additional steps to delay evictions, but not Houston, making it the largest city in the country where evictions can resume

Houston resident Bridgett Hewitt is afraid she might be evicted from her apartment, where she lives alone. 

“I’m fixing to be three months behind in June,” Hewitt said. 

When COVID-19 hit, Hewitt lost her job babysitting her granddaughter and niece, which brought in an additional $1,000 each month. 

Now she relies on her $800 disability, which isn’t enough to cover her $900 rent. 

She said when she spoke with her apartment manager, they warned her eviction notices were on the way.

“Nobody needs to be stressed out (about) whether they are going to have a place to live today and be homeless tomorrow. I can’t think like that right now,” she said. 

Many people like Hewitt are vulnerable now that the eviction ban has been lifted. Attorneys who work with low-income clients are preparing for the worst.

“We anticipate that there will be a tsunami of evictions filed,” said Dana Karni, an attorney with Lone Star Legal Aid, which provides free legal representation to low-income Texans. 

“I have no doubt about it, we are going to see homelessness,” she said. 

Houston is one of the the first large cities in Texas resuming evictions, as other cities have implemented further protections. Eviction dockets are scheduled in at least half of Harris County’s 16 Justice of the Peace courts during the first week of June.

Austin and Dallas have both passed 60-day grace period ordinances to give tenants more time to pay rent.

2.2 Million Jobs Lost

Evictions are starting back up as unemployment numbers are through the roof. Since mid-March, more than 2.2 million Texans have filed for unemployment, according to the Texas Workforce Commission.

The economic impacts of COVID-19 have hit working class families especially hard. 

Nationally, 40% of households who made less than $40,000 a year in income lost a job in March, according to Shamus Roller, executive director of the National Housing Law Project.

“It’s staggering to try to get your head around what that means in practice, and the huge numbers of low-income people that were already teetering on that edge, that they are now unemployed,” Roller said. 

In North Houston, church leaders helped low-income residents apply for rental assistance through City of Houston’s short-lived program.

Roller said there’s still a federal moratorium on evictions through July 24, but that only applies to rental properties with federally backed mortgages. Experts estimate only about 28% of rental properties nationwide are covered by the moratorium. 

Texans can see if their property is federally-backed, meaning they are currently protected from eviction, using this online tool

Limited Protections For Tenants 

For now, moratoriums and government assistance, like expanded unemployment benefits, have kept evictions at bay in cities like Houston. But as these protections expire, experts have said a wave of evictions is on its way.

And with coronavirus spreading, Roller said these evictions create a public health risk.

“Displacing people from their housing and sending them out to look for additional housing or sending them into homelessness is a danger for all of us,” Roller said.  

For now, Harris County has seen its eviction filings drop from about 5,000 a month to just hundreds. And local rent relief programs, like those created by the city and county will likely help thousands of renters get caught up, for now. But attorneys and advocates question if these programs are enough.

So many people applied online for Houston’s rental assistance program that it ran out of funding in about 90 minutes. Bridget Hewitt was one of the lucky few able to submit an application.

She’s still waiting for final approval. If the rent money doesn’t come through, she expects to be forced out of her home.

And like many Houstonians, Hewitt will be at the mercy of friends and family when looking for a place to live. 

“I pray and hope that if I do (get evicted), that I’ll be able to get into a shelter or my daughters will open their doors to me,” Hewitt said.

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