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Houston Renters Among First In The Country To Face Evictions After COVID-19 Moratoriums

Mayor Sylvester Turner at a press conference Monday, April 6, 2020.

The courts are no longer blocking landlords from evicting Texans struggling to pay rent amid the economic instability of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, eviction proceedings are moving forward in Houston-area courts, weeks ahead of many other cities.

Houston is part of a first wave of cities in the United States where eviction proceedings can resume, after the Texas Supreme Court order temporarily preventing courts from processing evictions was lifted Monday.

Renters in other major Texas metropolitan areas including Austin, Dallas, San Antonio, and El Paso are still protected under a mix of emergency orders from cities and counties, while renters in cities like Houston and Fort Worth are among the first in the country to face eviction proceedings, despite significant job losses.

Between April 1 and May 2, more unemployment claims were filed in Harris County than in Dallas County and Travis County combined — 184,281 claims in the Houston area, compared to 92,380 in Dallas and 42,623 in Austin. 

Austin Mayor Steve Adler has ordered landlords not to issue notices to vacate through July 25, while both Austin and Dallas have passed 60-day grace period ordinances to give tenants more time to pay rent. San Antonio City Council voted down a similar grace period measure last week, though Bexar County has halted eviction proceedings through June 1. An order from the City of El Paso prohibits evictions while the local disaster declaration is still in effect, currently through June 10. 

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Both Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo have called for additional protections for renters — they wrote a joint letter to the Texas Supreme Court asking to extend the eviction moratorium, and both the city and the county have allocated rent relief funds

In a statement, Hidalgo said she was “deeply disappointed” by the court’s decision to lift the moratorium, partly because evicting renters during the ongoing emergency could be a threat to public health.

“We’re working day and night to stop the spread of this virus and, at a time when we’re asking residents to stay or work from home to limit spread, we cannot afford to contribute to a surge in homelessness,” Hidalgo said. 

In most of the largest cities in the U.S., renters have been protected under statewide eviction moratoriums. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has halted evictions through Aug. 20 for renters impacted by COVID-19, while orders are currently in place in California and Illinois through the end of the month, in Pennsylvania through July 10, and in Arizona through July 22. Notably, Cuomo also ordered a 90-day suspension of mortgage payments beginning in March.

Under an order from California Gov. Gavin Newsom giving local governments authority to extend eviction protections beyond the statewide moratorium, some California cities have given renters more time to recover. The city of Los Angeles passed an ordinance preventing evictions for residential renters for 12 months and commercial tenants for 3 months after the the city’s local emergency period expires. Other California cities have passed eviction moratoriums, including San Francisco, San Diego, and San Jose.

Some big cities that are still under state moratoriums — like New York, Chicago and Philadelphia — have not passed local eviction measures. In Chicago, Alderman Matt Martin introduced an ordinance modeled on the one in place in Los Angeles, but according to Martin, it’s unlikely to pass. In Philadelphia, council members have introduced bills extending the moratorium, creating a year-long repayment plan, and waiving late fees. 

Though the statewide moratorium is no longer in effect in Texas, many Houston renters still cannot be evicted under federal law. Under the CARES Act, renters who live in properties that receive federal subsidies have eviction protection through July 25. Nonprofit housing advocates BASTA, Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, and Texas Housers have compiled an online map of properties covered by the CARES Act. 

Some Houston city council members like At-Large 5 City Council member Letitia Plummer have discussed passing a grace period ordinance similar to the one in place in Austin, but at an April council meeting Plummer said the city attorney’s office advised against it. 

“I know that Austin has done some things to support tenants,” Plummer said, “and after talking to the city attorney, that was not something that we were able to do from a legal perspective.”

Houston Public Media reached out to Turner’s office to explain why Austin’s ordinance wouldn’t be legal in Houston, and they declined to answer the question. But some legal experts disagree with that finding.

“If Dallas and Austin are able to do that, then Houston should be able to, as well,” University of Texas law professor Heather Way said. “Cities do have limited powers in terms of regulating the landlord-tenant relationship, and this is one of the few things that I feel like they do have the power to do.”

Way said in both Austin and Dallas, if a tenant is behind on their rent, they have 60 days to either catch up or enter into a payment plan with the landlord. 

Texas Tenants Union executive director Sandy Rollins helped push for the grace period ordinance that passed in Dallas, and said Houston renters need similar protection. 

“There’s a huge tenant population there, and it seems negligent for Houston not to step up and recognize what lies ahead for tenants when the courts reopen,” Rollins said. 

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Jen Rice