Written by Julia Orduña and Ally Harris
There have been over 23,000 eviction cases opened against tenants in Harris County since mid-March 2020, and the harsh reality is the result of those cases overwhelmingly depends on geography dictating the judge assigned to a tenant’s case. A Justice of the Peace (JP) is an elected official that serves a term of 4 years. This judge is responsible for hearing trials dealing with small debt claims, traffic violations, misdemeanor drug charges, and landlord/tenant disputes, including evictions.
Texas Housers’ Houston Eviction Solidarity Network (HESN) aims to reduce the shame and stigma around evictions by being a visible and supportive presence during eviction court. As we educate volunteer advocates about the judicial system, we are able to create a picture of what is happening with the eviction crisis that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. In the month of December, we recorded that 3,060 eviction hearings were held across the 16 JP courts in Harris County. Below is our breakdown of eviction cases heard by JP in the month of December:
- Precinct 1, Place 1 Judge Carter held 197 cases
- Precinct 1, Place 2 Judge Patronella held 46 cases
- Precinct 2, Place 1 Judge Delgado held 128 cases
- Precinct 2, Place 2 Judge Risner held 69 cases
- Precinct 3, Place 1 Judge Stephens held 273 cases
- Precinct 3, Place 2 Judge Bates held 72 cases
- Precinct 4, Place 1 Judge Goodwin held 426 cases
- Precinct 4, Place 2 Judge Korduba held 171 cases
- Precinct 5, Place 1 Judge Ridgway held 450 cases
- Precinct 5, Place 2 Judge Williams held 489 cases
- Precinct 6, Place 1 Judge Vara held 73 cases
- Precinct 6, Place 2 Judge Rodriguez held 3 cases
- Precinct 7, Place 1 Judge Brown held 194 cases
- Precinct 7, Place 2 Judge Burney held 286 cases
- Precinct 8, Place 1 Judge Williamson held 150 cases
- Precinct 8, Place 2 Judge Ditta held 33 cases
Texas Housers has limited its court watch program to virtual observation. We have requested that all 16 JPs of Harris County abide by Guidance for All Court Procedures During COVID-19 Pandemic and have streaming options available for their court.
Of the 16 JPs, only seven have been publicly streaming — and some inconsistently. We appreciate the efforts made by Judges Patronella, Delgado, Risner, Stephens, Brown, Burney, Williamson, and Ditta for being transparent and bridging the digital divide. Unfortunately, we have yet to see Judges Carter, Bates, Goodwin, Korduba, Ridgway, Williams, Vara, or Rodriguez on camera.
HESN utilized the Harris County court database to visualize the location of at-risk tenants who had a hearing or judgment passed in the month of December. The map below illustrates tenants’ addresses according to court records and denotes the outcome of their case. This is laid over a census tract map where lighter, brighter colors represent lower income residents. Red dots denote disposed cases that ended in a default judgment. Cases denoted by purple dots have been appealed. As many cases share the same address, several points may be overlapped; the dots have been given a level of transparency so the map can capture high eviction concentrations with stronger hues. Please note, however, that there are some limitations to this data: some addresses may not have been able to map by GIS, not all entries have addresses, and outcomes are either obscure or have not been updated. It is overwhelmingly visible that evictions are amassed in low and moderate income neighborhoods.
Harris County Eviction Case Outcomes in the month of December. A Case is represented by one dot.
HESN Volunteers were able to log over 275 observations for 244 unique case hearings. The following data has been compiled from these observations.
An eviction begins when a landlord presents a Notice to Vacate (NTV) to a tenant. From start to finish, the whole eviction process can take as little as 21 days. This leaves tenants in a precarious situation. And if a tenant does not show up for their eviction hearing, the court will automatically rule in favor of the landlord, which is called a default judgment.
Of the 244 unique cases we observed, 44% of tenants did not show up to their hearing. More than half of observed cases where a judge ruled to evict a tenant were because the tenant did not show up. We assume many tenants may not be aware of COVID-19 eviction protections and self-evict. Other reasons that may impede a tenant’s appearance in court include language barriers, scheduling conflicts, lack of technology, transportation, or childcare, lack of understanding of court procedures and jargon, and distrust of the justice system.
High percentages of both parties attended court in person. This is concerning to us as it creates the possibility of a super-spreader event. Finally, our data showed that 18% of case hearings were dismissed, either because the landlord didn’t show up, neither party showed up, the landlord dropped the case, the tenant made partial or full rent payments, or because of legal representation, which we will discuss in a later section.
Weak Eviction Protections: The CDC and TEDP
Tenants are having a difficult time utilizing state and federal pandemic protections in Harris County. Unlike other Texas jurisdictions, the City of Houston has resisted passing meaningful, local protections against landlords serving NTVs. Last week, the City Council passed their version of a grace period ordinance which will be “adopting and enforcing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Order.”
Housers monitored the effectiveness of the CDC moratorium, which requires a tenant to sign and submit a declaration in order to avert an eviction. Only 30 tenants presented a CDC declaration at or prior to their eviction hearing. The tenant is the party responsible for triggering this protection and their inaction—usually due to the lack of information about the protection—is their demise. Learn more about the CDC moratorium and how it works in part one of this series.
The Texas Eviction Diversion Program (TEDP) is a state CARES-funded initiative that offers to pay landlords up to 6 months of rent on behalf of the tenant. In December, this initiative was in its pilot program. TEDP requires a tenant to have an active eviction case against them in order to access these funds. This incentivizes eviction filings without any guarantee that the landlord accepts the assistance. In fact, HESN observed 20% of landlords reject TEDP participation in court. Landlord reluctance for participation makes this protection futile.
Implementation of TEDP varied based on the JP presiding over the court. For example, Judge Burney usually gave a general statement about the program at the beginning of court, and seldom answered questions during hearings directing parties to the bulletin boards outside. This can be troublesome for tenants and landlords who are hearing of TEDP for the first time and being asked to make a life-changing decision without all of the information clearly laid out in front of them.
On the other hand, Judge Patronella took a different approach to conflict resolution, encouraging landlords and tenants to negotiate an agreement that would benefit both parties. While this benefits tenants who live in Judge Patronella’s district, it is obvious that justice is not served uniformly in Harris County eviction court.
The TEDP pilot has now closed in Harris County. The Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs (TDHCA) has begun the rollout of its statewide program. Texas Housers has outlined certain recommendations for the TEDP and Texas Emergency Rental Assistance Program. Tenants looking for assistance should go to TexasRentRelief.com.
Legal Representation (Or Lack Thereof)
If a tenant cannot afford to pay rent, they probably cannot afford legal counsel. According to Matthew Desmond in Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, 90% of landlords have legal representation in eviction court, while only 10% of tenants do. Unlike criminal court where an indigent defendant is given the right to counsel, tenants are not guaranteed representation in civil matters.
HESN data for Harris County showed trends that looked worse than the aforementioned national trends. Only 7 tenants from our sample size were noted to have legal representation. The presence of legal counsel on the defendant’s side changed the outcome for all 7 of these tenants. Five cases were abated with a CDC Declaration, and two were dismissed.
There are five legal groups in Harris County that make up the Eviction Defense Coalition, and they are severely underfunded and overburdened, especially in light of the coronavirus pandemic. For that reason, we recommend that Harris County expand its Right to Counsel pilot program budget and create a memorandum of understanding with the JPs to direct every tenant to legal assistance. If you or someone you know are having eviction trouble, find a way to get legal assistance here.
Tenants and Elected Officials
The power dynamic in the courtroom between the tenant and landlord weighs heavily on the tone of the JP. Observers reported that some JPs were friendlier to landlords and their lawyers than tenants. While volunteers noticed JPs and lawyers have casual conversation between hearings implying that they probably interface several times a week, volunteers also witnessed some JPs demeanor change drastically, particularly with tenants who have limited understanding of the judicial process or those having technological issues. When tenants would ask questions or clarify their position, JPs seldom entertained the conversation or did so with impatience or annoyance. In one instance, a JP has gone as far as insisting to a landlord multiple times participate in TEDP and suggesting they can still accept the assistance and evict the person afterwards.
Basic discovery, including the total amount owed and when a NTV was served, is not being discussed in Harris County. If observers are confused about the details of the case, the tenants may be as well. This lack of transparency during the hearings may result in an unjust trial because the defendant is not being told the facts of their case in court in order to argue their side.
Because a JP is not required to have any type of legal education to be elected, we believe all JPs should heed any procedural recommendations or education on the protections that must be enforced in their courtrooms. We also recommend more collaboration between JPs to combat the disparate interpretations of procedures we have witnessed during virtual eviction hearings. The JPs must understand that their decision to continue hearing eviction cases, and insist on holding court in person, increases the spread of COVID-19 in their own community.
To listen to community navigator Julia Orduña speak further about the December court watch finding, watch this interview with independent journalist Sam Oser. To volunteer for Texas Housers’ Houston Eviction Solidarity Network, click here. For more information about Texas Housers’ work around COVID-19, visit our COVID-19 website Keep Texans Housed. Stay tuned for more from the HESN Series.