Texas Housers believes that in order to stabilize tenants, we must build affordable housing, pass tenant protections, invest in eviction diversion programs, and reform eviction courts to assure tenants have a just trial. All of these tactics were scaled up and executed effectively as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic and built the blueprint for permanent changes to enhance tenants’ rights moving forward.
The Supreme Court of Texas (SCOTX) was able to provide guidance through their emergency orders on how to navigate two of our platform goals – investing in eviction diversion programs, and reforming eviction courts. And as long as there is rent relief funding both available and still being distributed to landlords through these programs, the Supreme Court of Texas should continue to extend its emergency order, which is currently set to expire on July 1, 2023.
SCOTX began issuing emergency orders early on in the pandemic to freeze debt collection and stave off evictions. As the health crisis continued, the federal government offered states and local governments funding for rent relief and other housing stabilization practices, including ordinances to pause non-payment of rent-related evictions and funding for legal aid representation in civil eviction proceedings. SCOTX has reissued its emergency order for these Eviction Prevention protections as long as rent relief funds have remained available at the state or local level.
A Look Back
- Emergency Order Twenty Five, signed into effect on September 17, 2020, was the first to acknowledge the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Temporary Halt in Evictions to Prevent Further Spread of COVID-19 (CDC Declaration) and how Texas courts should handle the administration of the CDC Declaration within their proceedings.
- Emergency Order Twenty Seventh’s language changed to acknowledge the need for the courts to work with rent relief programs with the arrival of federal funding, specifically the Texas Eviction Diversion Program (TEDP). The Order instructed Justices of the Peace (JPs) to include information about TEDP in their citation paperwork, to discuss the opportunity to apply for rent relief assistance during the eviction proceeding, to ask both parties if they are interested in the opportunity, and if both parties agree to participate, the judge is instructed to abate the case for 60 days to allow the local and state agencies time to process the application in order to pay the landlord to stabilize the tenant and keep Texans housed during the surge of COVID-19.
- The latest SCOTX emergency order, issued on April 28, 2023 and set to expire Saturday, July 1, 2023, states that eight rent relief programs – which include Bell County, Dallas County, Harris County, City of Houston, City of Dallas, City of San Antonio, City of Arlington, and the State of Texas – received additional rent relief funds from the federal government’s quarterly reallocation. As TDHCA “continues to process previously submitted applications, and some cities and counties have rental assistance funds available,” the previous order and all of the protections guaranteed to tenants in eviction courts must be extended.
Where We are Today
Rent Relief funds are still being disbursed from the state and several localities. Some localities are even currently accepting new applications for rent relief programs in a limited capacity, providing crucial relief to those immediately facing eviction. Moreover, if there are more funds available from the federal government, there is the possibility of a final reallocation of rent relief funds to states and localities later in the year.
If the current SCOTX Emergency Order were to expire, tenants would lose essential rights and protections in eviction court that have practically become norms due to the multiple extensions of the emergency order, and that Texas Housers deems as best practices for eviction court judges. If SCOTX were to let the order expire on the scheduled date, tenants that are waiting for their rent relief funds to be disbursed would not have an equal guarantee of protection in court that was guaranteed to other tenants who applied for the same rent relief due to elements beyond their control.
Through the Houston Eviction Solidarity Network, we have seen that many JPs are working within the legal bounds of the SCOTX order to balance justice for tenants and are actively preventing evictions during this difficult time with the tools at their disposal from the SCOTX order, often resulting in positive outcomes for both tenant and landlord. Sealing of eviction records is a benefit that is emerging from this order. We know many landlords were forced to file an eviction against their tenant in order to apply for rent relief. In order to do good, they inadvertently created a harmful effect which stays on a tenant’s credit report for up to 7 years. Sealing eviction records, as stated in the emergency order, helps alleviate some of this burden as upon receiving rent relief funds, the case is automatically dismissed unless reinstated by the landlord. Furthermore, the immediate access to legal aid for intake has allowed some of the most vulnerable tenants to figure out legal issues with their evictions unknown to them had they not had access to speak with and be represented by legal counsel. Having immediate access to counsel allows tenants to gain a reset or dismissal on their eviction case, both of which are better outcomes for tenants.
With the proven effectiveness of the SCOTX order in improving outcomes for tenants facing eviction during an ongoing public health emergency, we believe the continued implementation of the SCOTX order should lead to permanent implementation of these protections for renters in state law and local ordinance. It has proven to be a life-changing measure for renters continuing to recover from ongoing financial and health crises.
The end of this emergency order would force those shielded from the effects of an ongoing public health and economic crisis into an unjust and rapid “return to normal,” at a time when they are near their most vulnerable. Court observers have seen the power that the emergency order has in dramatically altering tenants’ outcomes for the better. The order improves their chance of remaining stable in their own home or having a better opportunity at finding new, stable housing.
It must be considered that rent assistance for tenants will still exist even after the federal funds related to COVID-19 are finished being disbursed. Many community organizations and charities offer rental assistance to the most vulnerable tenants. And because rent assistance will continue to exist even after the emergency funds are exhausted, it stands to reason that the protections that were conferred to tenants under the SCOTX emergency order should persist as well.
While government and self-imposed preventative measures to stem the spread of COVID-19 have been scaled back, with expiring federal protections and fewer people donning masks on the street and in public spaces, the long-term effects from the pandemic, such as extended health issues and financial and economic struggles, are still prevalent. We call on the Supreme Court of Texas to continue extending and enforcing these tenant protections while funds are still being disbursed by rent relief programs.