'It's Fairly Merciless' — Texas To Resume Evictions As San Antonio Renter Protection Ordinance Dies
The Texas Supreme Court’s statewide hold on eviction proceedings ends on Monday. Some cities and counties have implemented their own extensions, and many renters are protected under federal law. But unprotected renters without the ability to pay rent are at the mercy of their landlords.
Nelson Mock is a managing attorney with Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid.
“The legal process in the state of Texas is — it's fairly merciless with regard to residential tenants,” he said. “And so tenants have to rely on the discretion of the landlords.”
Many municipalities have put short-term protections in place. The City of Houston and several others started emergency financial assistance programs. In Houston, the $15 million fund dried up in 90 minutes.
Austin and San Marcos barred landlords from issuing notices to vacate until July, at the earliest. Other cities, like Dallas, have protections in place for renters who can prove financial hardship as a result of COVID-19. El Paso put a hold on notices to vacate and evictions until local emergency orders are lifted. None of those ordinances prevent eviction proceedings or waive a tenant’s obligation to pay rent.
A similar ordinance failed in San Antonio after landlords threatened legal action.
In Bexar County and others, courts aren’t hearing any eviction cases until June. And under the federal CARES Act, about 50% of rental properties in the San Antonio area are protected until August. But once those deadlines roll around, advocates fear a wave of mass evictions.
‘We Don’t Have A Job’ — Unemployed Texans Struggle To Pay Rent
Nearly 2 million Texans have filed for unemployment benefits in recent weeks.
Many more have lost jobs but can’t file because the Texas Workforce Commission website was down or because the system is too complicated. Juanita De Leon is one of them. She said TWC’s site crashed every time she tried to log on. She’s been getting food from the Food Bank.
De Leon worked at a bakery in San Antonio before the pandemic hit Texas.
“We don’t have a job because of the virus and the lockdowns that we have, and all the chaos that’s going on,” she said.
De Leon has been unable to pay rent for several months, and she lives at the Olmos Club Apartments. More than a dozen tenants were locked out of their units in April.
When De Leon found the plastic lock on her doorknob, she spoke to the property manager.
“He knew about the virus and that we had lockdowns and that there was people that got laid off, and I was one of them,” she said. “Why did he do it? He told me that if I didn’t pay my rent on April the 27, we were going to get evicted.”
When TPR reached the owner of the property — Manuel Cruz — by phone, he refused to identify himself. An employee of MacTex, Cruz’s company, later confirmed his identity.
“They (the tenants) supposedly were in Mexico, Cuba and Puerto Rico,” Cruz said. “Like, everybody wasn't around.”
De Leon and other tenants said they don’t know any residents who travelled to those places.
“They're selling drugs. They're doing this,” Cruz said. “There's prostitution. There's women coming in, coming out, and the people that are renting are not there.”
“Prostitution? No, I don't — no, I don't know nothing about that one,” said Edward Garza, the on-site property manager. He said most of the tenants were behind on rent, and a few were suspected of selling drugs.
He also said the plastic locks placed over the doorknobs don’t count as an eviction.
“Just because we put a lockout knob, that is not part of an eviction notice — a notice to vacate or nothing,” he said. “All it is just informing you that you have not paid your rent, and you have access to the apartment. We have to let you into your apartment. We're not going to leave you outside.”
Garza said he placed locks on the doors of about 18 tenants. He said maintenance can be contacted 24/7 to let people into their apartments. But this tactic, at best, falls into a grey area legally.
In a written statement to TPR, Bexar County district attorney Joe Gonzales said “Whether the process a particular landlord follows for a temporary lockout is consistent with state law depends on the specific facts, including the lease agreement and whether the landlord undertakes all legally required steps in the process.”
Property managers are usually required to notify residences before temporary, pre-eviction lockouts. De Leon said she was not notified.
Throughout the pandemic, emergency eviction proceedings for cases of criminal activity or threats to physical safety have been allowed to continue.
A Matrix Of Renter Protection Policies
The CARES Act covers certain properties that receive federal funding. Under the new federal law, those property managers and landlords are not allowed to issue notices to vacate or begin eviction proceedings until August.
The National Low Income Housing Coalition has a database of these properties on their website. The database is titled “Multifamily Properties Subject to Federal Eviction Moratoriums.” Olmos Club Apartments is in the database.
Even if the lockouts are not done properly, the CARES Act carries no enforcement mechanism. It doesn’t come into effect until the eviction is filed, at which point a judge — or the renter’s lawyer, if they have one — has to know about the CARES protections and bring them up. Some counties are forcing landlords to check on these protections before filing suit.
“In Travis County, the Justice courts just issued an order that requires the landlord to verify that the property is not a covered property,” Nelson Mock said.
And other municipalities are assisting renters through financial aid.
After Austin passed its 60-day hold on notices to vacate, San Antonio city council considered a similar ordinance, called “Right To Cure.”
“People’s paychecks have stopped flowing, but their bills have not,” said San Antonio mayor Ron Nirenberg at a press conference the day before city council voted on Right To Cure.
In San Antonio, about half of all rental properties are protected under the CARES Act.
“Well, this Right To Cure ordinance — a local ordinance — will cover the other 50%,” said San Antonio councilman Roberto Treviño before the vote. He said eviction protections are necessary to keep people at home in accordance with the city’s emergency orders.
Roberto Treviño's office said renters should have similar protections to the ones extended to property owners with mortgages.
“The very first phase of our strategy has always been Stay Home, Work Safe,” he said. “And so that doesn't work if you're being kicked out of your home.”
When the city council took public comment on the Right To Cure ordinance, landlords spoke up.
Teri Bilby, the executive director of the San Antonio Apartment Association, raised the spectre of legal action.
“(Helping vulnerable communities) includes getting back to work not on passing ordinances that will not stand up to a legal challenge, and that will waste taxpayer dollars and hurt tax-paying San Antonio small business owners, for whom there will likely be no relief for the damage inflicted on their families by those they trust to represent them,” she said.
On the day of the vote — May 14 — other landlords and property managers said the ordinance would deter investment and housing development, encourage tenants to not pay rent, force foreclosures and wouldn't stand a chance in court.
Some councilmembers echoed the concern that the Right To Cure ordinance would deter property investment.
“We’re not going to be known as Military City USA anymore,” Clayton Perry said before the vote. “We’re going to be ‘Business-Unfriendly City USA’ here in San Antonio.”
Several councilmembers cited a potential legal challenge as their reason for voting against the ordinance.
“There are too many questions,” Jada Andrews-Sullivan said. “And with the legality showing that we could be potentially sued, taking even more of our taxpayer dollars and putting them towards a court system is not going to benefit the residents of the City of San Antonio.”
Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid said the ordinance is within the city's purview.
Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid said the city had the legal right to pass the ordinance. But Right To Cure died with four council members and the mayor supporting the ordinance, and six council members voting against.
BREAKING: San Antonio City Council downvotes ordinance that would have required a 60-day right to cure before a renter faces eviction proceedings during the COVID-19 pandemic.— Joey Palacios 😷 (@Joeycules) May 14, 2020
Vote was 5-6. Several council members expressed concerns over potential legal threats.
Pending approval of several thousand requests, about half of San Antonio’s $25 million emergency financial assistance program has been exhausted.
‘There’s Not Really A Safety Net’ — Landlords And Tenants Feel Stretched Thin
Mark Hurley is the president of the Texas Apartment Association. He also owns several rental properties. He told TPR that evictions are a last resort, and that landlords operate on thin profit margins — sometimes only taking 9 cents out of every rental dollar after expenses.
“(Property tax) is a very large cost to apartment owners that there is no way out of,” he said. “And then there are numerous other types of expenses such as, you know, property insurance, casualty insurance, taking care of the residents needs and the list goes on.”
Property taxes are based on property values in January, before the pandemic and accompanying economic recession hit. Hurley said those expenses are fixed, and he described protections for property owners in the CARES Act as nonexistent. The CARES Act allows property owners to not pay mortgage payments — for now.
“But then that must be paid back within 12 months,” he said. “And so there's that's not really a safety net, plus many owners that I know would not sign on for that because the associated rules with it are so onerous as to be — they consider — more destructive than if they were to take that forbearance.”
“I mean, the safety net for tenants in Texas is a strand of dental floss. It's almost non-existent,” said Marlon Davis, an organizer with the San Antonio Tenants Union.
The Tenants Union — a grassroots activist organization — provides resources and solidarity to renters across the city. Moureen Kaki is a fellow organizer.
“There's not too much tenants can do in terms of protecting themselves, especially when it comes to a lack of funding,” she said. “It's completely unjustifiable and unfair to sort of blame them or square a global pandemic on their shoulders.”
Davis said the Tenants Union spreads awareness of tenants’ rights and helps at-risk people find financial help. He agreed that renters aren’t to blame for inability to pay bills during a pandemic-induced economic recession.
“So much of our society is kind of based on this notion of personal accountability,” he said. “So, even in the midst of a global pandemic, people see eviction as this thing that's like a personal failure, and ‘It's their problem,’ right? But I think people need to understand that resuming evictions means condoning higher rates of infection among the population.”
‘Not A Whole Lot Of Grace’ — What Renters Face As Eviction Proceedings Resume
If a renter breaks lease by not paying rent — at any point in the lease, including now — the landlord has the right to evict.
“There's not a whole lot of grace built into the system,” Nelson Mock said. “In fact, before the pandemic, I can tell you that I was in a court, and I saw a landlord evict a tenant for owing $20.”
That lack of “grace” could put people out on the street during the extreme heat of a Texas summer, and during a global pandemic of a deadly virus.
Rogelio Lopez, a Bexar County Justice of The Peace who oversees eviction proceedings, said he always encourages tenants and landlords to reach an agreement outside of court.
“Obviously, this situation has placed hardships on everybody, both landlords and tenants,” he said. “And so we are cognizant to that.”
But once proceedings resume, his hands are tied if an unprotected tenant owes money and a landlord wants them evicted.
“Once things resume and cases resume, everything's done according to law,” he said. “I don't have discretion to change the law.”
For some parts of Texas, eviction proceedings can begin on Monday, May 18. If not then, in June. If not in June, in July or August. Evictions will continue at some point.
When August rolls around and the CARES Act protections expire, Juanita De Leon, the renter from Olmos Club apartments, will have few options.
“Well for one, I don't have nowhere to go,” she said. “So, I would try to see where I can get help — to see where I can go because I don't have any family members that are willing to help me, and my people are deceased already.”
And beyond those immediate, serious concerns, evictions have a lasting impact on a person’s finances. Mock said evictions show up on background and credit checks, and can impact a person’s ability to borrow money, get a job, buy a car or rent another apartment.
For Texans without the ability to pay rent — like Juanita De Leon — once local and federal protections expire, their immediate safety and financial futures are at the discretion of their landlords.
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