Beyond the Moratorium: Eviction courts must use Community Navigation to get rent relief to tenants quickly

Following the Supreme Court ruling to end the CDC moratorium in August 2021, Texas Housers wrote a 5-Point Plan that detailed what state and local officials should do to ensure that critical rent relief is delivered to households before they are evicted. This blog post is meant to be an extrapolation on Point 4: “Help tenants and landlords get the assistance.”

Texas Housers’ Houston Eviction Solidarity Network (HESN) has witnessed over 1,600 unique court hearings. Through our observation system, we witnessed community navigators in Harris County’s eviction courts help tenants exercise their rights and remain housed during the COVID-19 pandemic. The presence of these community navigators in eviction courts is one of many proven strategies that must be employed to ensure that rental assistance funds work and to keep Texans housed as COVID-19 surges throughout the state.

What are community navigators?

A community navigator is a representative of a nonprofit organization, legal aid group, or other similar organization who has direct experience with people who are vulnerable to eviction. Navigators can explain often-changing Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) guidelines and application processes, help negotiate payment plans, and speed up the rental relief disbursement process. During our observations, community navigators were either present during eviction court dockets as facilitators between landlords and tenants, present in court without taking an active role in facilitation, or mentioned as a resource. Their role in the court process is largely determined by the Justice of the Peace (JPs) presiding over that court. 

Why is a community navigator’s presence in the eviction process important?

  • Community navigators are experts. It is difficult for JPs to keep up with changing ERA guidelines, leading to confusion and potential misinformation in the courtroom. Navigators can alleviate some of that burden by serving as real-time experts on ERA.
  • They can keep tenants off the streets. Texas Housers observed tenants and landlords who make it all the way to eviction court without any knowledge of rental assistance programs. Community navigators can give parties the time and space to make ERA decisions in court, instead of after a judgement has been made. 
  • They can make the programs appealing to both parties. Some landlords are hesitant to apply to rental assistance programs citing “complicated eligibility criteria” and “uncertainty about receiving the ERA payment” as common reasons. Ideally, community navigators can serve as ERA experts, assuaging any fears that tenants and landlords may have, which can lead to higher participation rates and therefore, less evictions. 

The model program we observed in Harris County is county-funded, and assigns representatives from a Houston-based nonprofit called The Alliance to courtrooms that will allow their presence. During the court process, tenants and landlords who may qualify for rental assistance can meet with community navigators in separate rooms (or virtual breakout rooms) to discuss rental assistance options, though neither party is required to accept assistance. According to The Alliance community navigator Sarah Perez-Klausner, if parties refuse rental assistance for whatever reason, they can “…assist with job search services and refer them directly to The Alliance’s Financial Opportunity Center.” This means that even if an eviction does occur, there is a safety net for tenants who are struggling to pay rent or find work. 

Right now, six out of 16 JPs in Harris County have agreed to use community navigators in the courts, though we have witnessed only two JPs who fully utilize their services, JP David Patronella and JP Wanda Adams. Texas Housers analyzed the outcomes of cases where The Alliance was present or mentioned during the docket to all observed cases in that same time period:

Court RulingNumber of Cases with Alliance Mentioned or PresentAll Observed Cases
Default Judgements53 (35.1%)272 (36.8%)
Abated Cases47 (31.1%)162 (21.9%)
Dismissed Cases28 (18.5%)117 (15.8%)
Ruled for Plaintiff76 (50.3%)456 (61.6%)
Total151 (100%)740 (100%)
Table 1: Analysis of HESN all observed cases and cases where The Alliance was mentioned in the docket from April 12 to August 31, 2021. 

Out of 151 cases that HESN witnessed where The Alliance was mentioned in some way, 21.9% of cases were abated for pending rental assistance applications, compared to only 12.2% in all cases observed during the same time period. In other words, almost twice as many tenants were given additional time to access rent relief in cases where The Alliance was present. HESN also observed a positive correlation for all tenant outcomes where The Alliance was mentioned. There were less default judgments, more dismissals, and significantly more abated cases. The analysis of observed eviction cases suggests that the presence of community navigators has a real effect on abating evictions and connecting renters to financial assistance. 

Figure 1: Comparison of case abatements between The Alliance mentioned cases and all cases observed by HESN from April 12 to August 31, 2021.

Use community navigators as a preventative measure 

Despite the surprisingly good tenant outcomes, there is still a high number of default cases; meaning a tenant does not show up for their court hearing so the judgment is automatically awarded to the landlord. While speaking with Texas Housers, The Alliance made it clear that the gold standard of community navigation is to intercept the tenant before their court date. This strategy is common sense; often, tenants do not show up to their eviction court hearing because they do not know they have a hearing, do not feel like they have any legal defenses, or they experience language, transportation, or technology barriers. 

Right now, community navigators in Harris County do not have legal access to tenant contact information, making it impossible for them to perform basic eviction defense strategies. If community navigators had access to tenant contact information, they could prevent evictions while decreasing a JP’s workload. For example, they could remind tenants about their court date, refer them to a Legal Aid representative, find them an interpreter, or help them apply for rental assistance, all of which has a direct impact on keeping people housed during the pandemic.

After speaking with The Alliance, Texas Housers designed this table which ranks how courts can utilize community navigators from best to worst:

Scenarios for Utilizing a Community Navigator Ranked from Best to Worst

Texas Housers’ Call to Action

It is imperative to utilize every tool at our disposal to staunch the spread of COVID-19 and keep people safely housed during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is Texas Housers’ call to action: 

  1. All courts should allow nonprofit community navigators access to their courtrooms. As outlined in this writing, nonprofit organizations like The Alliance can bring tenants and landlords together to understand their options and explore a solution that works for both parties. JPs can help this process by granting access to these organizations to the court and encouraging the parties to explore their options by talking with these organizations.
  2. Harris County courts should require landlords to include the last known phone number and email address of the tenant(s) in the sworn original, amended, or supplemental petition so this information can be accessed by navigators. By including this information, community navigators can reach tenants before their court date. This alleviates the burden of education in the courtroom while decreasing the number of cases on eviction court dockets.
  3. Provide both virtual options and in-person options for parties to attend their hearings. While some low-income tenants may put themselves and their families at risk by using public transportation to attend in-person eviction court hearings, others may lack access to technology in the home that would otherwise allow them to attend eviction court. Not only does having both options ensure democratic practices, but it allows Texas Housers to continue monitoring how COVID-19 impacts eviction court. 
  4. Allow visitors to observe courts, both in person and virtually. This helps Texas Housers track vital data about the administration of rental assistance in the county. Our observations have been reported to state and local rental relief programs in order to streamline operations and distribute funds more efficiently.
  5. JP courts across Texas should support community navigators. While Texas Housers focused its court observation program on Harris County, we do believe community navigator programs like this one can work across Texas. The administrators of the state rental relief program, Texas Rent Relief, expect their program to last for at least 5 more months. There is still time to enact measures that will save the lives of countless Texans.
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