Contributed by Julia Orduña and Ally Harris
As we enter the new year, many Texans are coming to terms with the fact that the pandemic was not left in 2020 and will extend well into 2021. With the 1 year anniversary of COVID-19’s arrival in the U.S. this past week, many people around the nation continue to wonder when they will receive their next paycheck, how they will put food on the table, and whether they will be able to pay rent next month. The CDC eviction moratorium, a temporary ban on residential evictions for non-payment of rent introduced by the federal government in September 2020, was their opportunity to remain sheltered during the pandemic. Research by the Texas Housers’ Houston Eviction Solidarity Network (HESN) has concluded that the CDC moratorium has not had its intended effect of keeping people housed in Harris County in 2020, and it needs specific amendments in order to be fully useful to the people it intends to help.
Through HESN, Texas Housers set out to understand the landscape of eviction court during the pandemic. In order to gather qualitative data, we established a virtual court watch system where volunteer observers are educated about the eviction process in Texas and the ever-changing pandemic eviction protections. The goal was to document the tenant experience during eviction hearings and note the gaps in rights and assistance. Unfortunately, one of our biggest limitations to this undertaking is the lack of Justice of the Peace (JP) courts publicly streaming hearings. Since March, over 21,000 evictions have been filed in Harris County. In the month of December, we documented that 3,060 eviction hearings were held in the 16 JP courtrooms. Our staff and volunteers were able to submit over 275 observation logs for 244 unique case hearings.
We have observed that the biggest loophole with the CDC moratorium exists in how it is triggered; the protection is not automatic. Under the moratorium, a tenant must present a signed declaration to their landlord stating that they are impacted by COVID-19 and unable to pay rent, among other qualifications. If the tenant does not know about the CDC moratorium and they do not submit the declaration, a tenant can be evicted from their home.
The shocking reality is that only 30 tenants from the 244 hearings we observed in December presented a CDC declaration, or 12% of our sample size. Even though landlords are now required to attach a copy of the CDC declaration to their 3-day Notice to Vacate, our court watchers saw that most tenants still did not know about the CDC moratorium or understand how the protection worked.
Texas Housers staff and volunteers noticed JPs across the county have different approaches in handling the protection. When the moratorium was first introduced, some JPs were flexible about the declaration and would extend the case to a later date, so tenants who had not heard of the CDC moratorium could have the chance to submit the adequate paperwork. Other JPs would simply ask if the tenant had a CDC declaration and evict them without proper discovery made possible by simply inquiring whether the tenant was impacted by COVID-19. This is not required by the moratorium but judges have been encouraged to do so by the 25th Emergency Order of the Texas Supreme Court. It became clear that the CDC moratorium did not fully protect tenants impacted by COVID-19, and that the treatment of tenants was not consistent or predictable across all courtrooms.
The current CDC declaration has been extended by the Biden Administration until March 31, 2021. But as the pandemic enters its 12th month, lease contracts will expire. Since the CDC declaration only covers nonpayment of rent, and not lease expiration, Texas Housers believes that landlords will effectively remove tenants by refusing to renew leases, which leaves families in the streets or doubled up with relatives or friends, creating a higher risk of infection and COVID-19 transmission. A simple refusal to sign a lease could be an act of violence against the tenant, their family, and the community. Unfortunately, Texas Housers expects to see a higher percentage of these types of cases, or what are known as “holdover” cases.
Because the onus falls on the tenant to declare their COVID-19 hardship by using the CDC declaration, it’s more of a decorative decree than an essential protection. If the CDC moratorium intends to prevent the spread of COVID-19 by keeping people stably housed, an automatic protection against eviction would further that effort. Protections and relief funds are being piece-mealed together by all levels of government. Tenants are losing trust while they navigate labyrinthian rental relief applications and eviction protection loopholes while coming to grips with the lack of legal education, lack of access to technology, or lack of digital literacy, among other barriers. Judges are sworn to uphold the laws as they are written. Based on what little we have been allowed to see, justice and dignity are being systematically denied to many people, especially renters with low incomes and people of color. We hope that the Biden administration takes this into account and amends the CDC eviction moratorium to provide meaningful protections instead of simply extending it.
You can access the CDC Declaration in Spanish here.
Stay tuned for more news and stories from Houston Eviction Solidarity Network. For updates on Texas Housers’ work focused on the pandemic, visit www.KeepTexansHoused.org.