Nearing the Eviction Cliff: What We’re Observing in Harris County Courtrooms

Credit: Patrick Feller, CC 2.0

Contributed by Erin Hahn and Ally Harris

The CDC’s federal eviction moratorium, which was set to expire June 30, 2021, has been officially extended through July 31 for what officials are stating will be the final time. Texas Housers’ Houston Eviction Solidarity Network (HESN) has continued to collect observational data on Harris County eviction courts in order to both evaluate the effectiveness of state and federal protections to keep people housed while they wait for critical rent relief funds to be disbursed, and predict the consequences for Texas tenants as protections fluctuate or expire. We have collected data from previous months to infer what needs to be done in order to prevent a widespread eviction cliff when the federal government allows the moratorium to expire.

HESN volunteers collected data on 604 unique eviction court cases in the months of March and April, 2021. In the majority of the observed cases (60.1%), the judge ruled in favor of the landlord and issued the tenant an eviction judgement. A smaller portion of cases were either dismissed by the Texas Eviction Diversion Program (7%) or abated under the CDC moratorium (8.4%). Although our data suggests that the moratorium did not offer complete eviction protection, it played a critical role in ensuring the success of rental relief programs by pausing numerous eviction cases while tenants waited to be approved for rental relief funds. With the moratorium now set to expire on July 31, the number of eviction cases and judgements can only be expected to rise in the future. 

COVID-19 Protections and Issues

1. Lack of communication between administrators and courts about long rental relief program wait times.

It can take several months for tenants who apply for the State’s Texas Rental Relief (TRR) program to be approved for assistance. Because of this, many tenants face the threat of eviction during the large span of time that their application is pending approval. Unfortunately, judges are often unaware of the average amount of time that a TRR application takes to process or other barriers tenants and landlords face to successfully receive rental relief funds. 

HESN has found that judges who aren’t familiar with long program wait times are likely to side with an impatient landlord, even if the tenant has applied and eventually qualifies for rent relief. This is due to poor communication on the part of both Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs (TDHCA) and local eviction courts.

2. Lack of legal aid to tenants.

While defendants in Texas have a legal right to representation in criminal court, this rule does not apply to civil court, where eviction proceedings take place. Renters, in particular those facing eviction, are unlikely to have access to the legal help that could provide them with important information. Only 2% of defendants in the 604 unique eviction cases observed by HESN in March and April were accompanied by a lawyer. For comparison, landlords were approximately five times more likely to be represented. 

Most judges have been unwilling to take time in an eviction proceeding to explain rules to a tenant without a lawyer. HESN volunteers observed judges impatiently telling tenants who ask questions to “figure it out” on their own or simply to “look online,” despite the fact that many tenants communicated that they did not have internet access or computers at home. In one scenario observed by a HESN volunteer, a tenant expressed to the judge that she had an email showing she applied for rental assistance. Despite this, a judge issued her an eviction judgement, but later admitted that he would have ruled differently had she properly submitted her evidence to the court. 

These tenants’ lack of preparedness in eviction court suggests that they are not being provided with the basic information necessary to protect themselves amidst long TRR wait times. In numerous cases, a tenant is being punished for lack of legal literacy, not because they did something illegal or egregious.

3. Landlord bias in eviction court.

Tenants are not being provided with the same paperwork as the landlords and, per guidelines, it is up to the landlord to share this information with their tenant. These documents could aid a tenant in prolonging an eviction judgment in order to grant them precious time to receive rent relief. Conversely, landlord representatives are more frequently in attendance of eviction court and are more familiar with its rules and procedures, giving them the upper hand in these tenuous legal situations.

Without a way to certify that a tenant has applied for rent relief, eviction court often resorts to hearsay between the tenant and the landlord representative, who are free to tell a judge they have no knowledge of the tenant’s pending assistance application on their word alone. HESN observers reported that judges often sided with the landlord. Since they are frequently in court, landlords and property managers may benefit from an ongoing relationship with the judge, unintentionally or otherwise.

4. Evictions still pose health concerns to tenants and the community in which they live. 

For a tenant during COVID-19, an eviction judgement can mean sleeping in a car, doubling up with friends or family, or worse, homelessness. Recent research by Princeton University’s Eviction Lab finds that the neighborhoods with the highest eviction rates across multiple cities in the U.S  also have the lowest vaccination rates. This means that evictions could have drastic consequences on the health of evicted tenants and their surrounding communities. 

HESN continues to observe tenants who express that their household has been affected by COVID-19 either physically or financially. Data suggests that once the moratorium expires, there could be a surge of COVID-19 cases in neighborhoods most affected by evictions — low-income Black and Latinx communities. It will become increasingly pertinent that rent relief programs operate effectively and that tenants are provided with the necessary information.

What Can Be Done?

After watching eviction court for over 7 months, Texas Housers has devised these simple solutions that policymakers, administrators, and court officials could adopt to better protect renters. Here is what we are advocating: 

1. Enforce the federal CDC moratorium and rental relief case abatement policies.

The first and most important solution to preventing the impending eviction cliff is for the Texas Supreme Court to require eviction court judges to enforce the CDC moratorium so that qualified tenants are not evicted before their rent relief is disbursed. If tenants are being evicted while they wait for their application to be processed, then the rent relief program is not given adequate time to take effect and federal dollars are wasted. 

There is also a critical onus on judges to familiarize themselves with the legal rules and contractual obligations they have regarding rent assistance. HESN has observed that eviction court judges confuse or ignore contractual rules about abating cases, which is another way that tenants can be evicted before they qualify for essential rental relief. Ultimately, it should also be the goal of a federally or locally enacted moratorium on evictions to keep tenants safely housed while they navigate a complicated and often-changing rental assistance program. 

2. The Office of Court Administration (OCA) must hold eviction court judges accountable and penalize those that do not uphold the rules and regulations of rental relief programs.

The OCA, which operates under the Texas Supreme Court, is charged with providing resources and information for the efficient administration of the Judicial Branch of Texas. If eviction court judges do not abide by the rules and regulations of rental relief programs, the OCA must put pressure on them to do so. If there is no penalty or punishment for not following the laws and regulations, it is clear that some judges will not honor them. Understanding the letter of the law is the basic duty of a judge, and in Texas, they are paid handsomely by residents to do so.

3. Rent relief administrators should spend time in Texas eviction courts to gain firsthand knowledge of what changes need to be implemented in order to run a successful rent relief program. 

Texas received $1.5 billion in its second round of rent relief administered by the federal government. In order for a rent relief program to stabilize tenants as intended, there must be more coordination between program administration and the courtroom. While the TDHCA and OCA communicate frequently, Texas Housers believes that if TDHCA and local rent relief employees spent time in eviction court (some of which are still virtual), they could gain a better understanding of how its program operates in reality and how to adapt their system to best serve tenants and landlords equally. Texas Housers believes it is vital for TDHCA to update the courts on application processing wait times, and that eviction court judges should be vigilant in their research and education on legal COVID-19 protections. 

4. TDHCA should work with local rent relief programs to create a single online registry of tenants who have applied to any rental assistance program that judges can reference during eviction cases. 

As outlined in previous sections, court judges do not always have ready access to information that allows them to ascertain whether a tenant has applied for rental assistance or not, and tenants often do not know the burden of proof is on them. One recommendation is that TDHCA work with other administrators of rental relief programs to improve their system and create an online registry of tenants that have applied for assistance. Ideally, judges could use this tool as a reference during court proceedings in order to receive clear, up-to-date information and keep more tenants housed during the pandemic.

How can the average person get involved? If you’d like to be a volunteer court observer, please navigate to our website Houston Eviction Solidarity Network and click “Train to be an Observer.” This is a volunteer opportunity, so experience is not necessary. After you fill out the form, Texas Housers will be in contact with you about upcoming training sessions.