Cabo San Lucas Apartments attempted to improperly evict more than 100 residents at once. The tenants fought back and remained housed.

Fair and just trials are not guaranteed for tenants in Texas eviction courts. In reality, landlords often have a upper hand, as the law is skewed in their favor and they are likely more familiar with the process than an average tenant. Furthermore, when a Justice of the Peace tends to believe landlord testimonies and court filings as fact, and fails to allow presentation of differing evidence, the tenant and their family can leave court with a judgment against them, an eviction on their record, and no place to go. 

Fortunately, this was not the case for the tenants at The Redford Apartments and Cabo San Lucas Apartments. As neighbors informed one another about their upcoming hearing, the culmination of this swift organizing manifested into a just victory in court. 

Connecting with tenants

In late July, Redford tenant Samantha Moody connected with a Texas Housers volunteer organizer regarding her upcoming eviction. Moody suspected, judging from the boarded up vacant apartments in her complex and the number of neighbors she knew in the same predicament, that she was not alone in being targeted for displacement. With this knowledge, Moody attended a Houston Tenants Union meeting, with her friends and fellow Redford tenants Frederick and Lisa, to enlist more support and request advice on how to proceed with their upcoming eviction hearings.

Moody would learn that her instincts were right. Her eviction, as well as her neighbor Lisa and Frederick’s eviction, weren’t anomalies. And they weren’t just problems for Redford tenants either; this was an ongoing crisis that impacted an entire community. Throughout the course of 2023, many residents of these two complexes were pushed out of their homes through either formal evictions or the stress of repeated pressure tactics such as regular electricity shut offs, water shutoffs, and other violations against tenants including disabled and elderly renters and families with young children.

Numerous tenants at the Redford had been hard at work seeking some kind of solution to their many issues for a while. Many were placed at The Redford by Rapid Rehousing or other homelessness prevention programs that paid for a portion or all of the rent payment for these households. These residents eventually would connect with people in Housers’ network, which led them to the Keep Harris Housed Coalition. This coalition focuses on building tenant education and we had originally planned to visit tenants in a high-evicting complex in Southwest Houston on August 5, 2023 to pass out educational materials about evictions and tenants rights.

At the same time, Keep Harris Housed and Eviction Defense Coalition member Lone Star Legal Aid noticed a concerning docket slated for August 9, 2023, when 120 Cabo San Lucas residents had eviction hearings set. When Lone Star Legal Aid alerted Texas Housers to further details on the situation, our organizations decided to partner on outreach for a legal aid clinic with Cabo tenants. 

While researching the property prior to our visit, Texas Housers discovered that these neighboring complexes not only seemed similar in their substandard conditions and attempts at mass evicting tenants in Delgado’s court, but they actually were previously owned by the same company that foreclosed on both properties earlier that year: Applesway Investments. 

Housers sifted through financial documents, news articles, and court filings to assemble a clearer picture of who was behind this mass eviction. Our work led us to discover that the previous owner of the complex is being sued by past investors, the Cabo complex is undergoing foreclosure, the complex has been under scrutiny from local government officials for code violations and that Cabo San Lucas was recently sold to a new owner. Before we knew it, our plans had shifted for Saturday morning to visit Cabo San Lucas, and it was time to start knocking doors. 

The block walk

Texas Housers’ volunteer team met at a Whataburger near the property that Saturday morning, ready to hit the ground running and knock doors. We had our work cut out for us – over 120 doors had to be knocked in three hours – but we knew we wouldn’t stop until we had attempted to make contact with every tenant who had an eviction filed against them.

As the residents showed us around the complex, it was disheartening to see the conditions many of the units were in. Electrical wiring was exposed to the sweltering Texas heat and unpredictable weather conditions. Sewage or other liquids were leaking out of some units. Many units were visibly abandoned – some boarded shut with plywood, others you could just walk past and hear a flat silence knowing that no one resided there. Some vacant units had the windows smashed, with broken glass shards lining the windowsills that once might have been filled with decorations, or some semblance of a home. Many eviction citations remained plastered to the front doors of units that may have been occupied a short while ago – solemn reminders of residents who self-evict before their court hearing.

The conditions residents described within many of the units were uninhabitable. Tenants described mold growth throughout their units to the extent that their children were falling ill from breathing in the air in the apartments. Entire ceilings that had caved in, leaving massive, gaping holes that remained unrepaired even when tenants demanded that maintenance fix them for the most basic safety standards. Many tenants recounted how they suffered from physical assault or harm from residents or visitors at the complex. Management and the property owners have indisputably failed the residents of Cabo San Lucas and the Redford by cruelly subjecting them to these deplorable and inhumane living conditions. 

Each tenant’s story echoed parts of another tenant’s story. Management changing the method of payment for rent, or charging residents illogical balances and hidden fees that never added up. Residents asking for critical repairs that were never addressed. Many tenants wanted to move, but had nowhere to go. Some had lost their government aid, and even their housing support due to mailbox locks being changed or the mailbox doors simply removed. Many tenants we spoke to were planning on not attending their eviction hearing, focused on leaving the complex and starting new for themselves and their families.

What was particularly alarming was that the tenants receiving rent assistance – housing vouchers, participation in Rapid Rehousing, or COVID-19 related rent relief – told us their funds from those programs had not exhausted. This raised further questions as to why these tenants were being sued for such high amounts of rent or being evicted in the first place.

We were able to inform all tenants we spoke with that Lone Star Legal Aid had set up a pop-up intake at the Whataburger down the street from Cabo San Lucas apartments. Many tenants walked over and got representation the same day we spoke with them, with others calling throughout the weekend to get representation for their imminent hearing.

Tenants prevail in court with support of legal aid

Four days after our visit to the property, tenants of Cabo San Lucas filled the benches in the courtroom for their hearing at the 8 a.m. docket. Lone Star Legal Aid signed up additional clients eligible for their representation prior to appearing before the judge, working tirelessly to ensure that intake was completed and letters of representation were prepared. 

The clerk called the docket and, to our surprise, a visiting judge took the bench instead of Judge Jo Ann Delgado. As we detailed in our blogpost from earlier this month, visiting judges can often adjudicate cases a little differently than the elected judge they are filling in for. 

The first judgment was a decision for the plaintiff – Cabo San Lucas. Despite the tenant being present to represent themself, they were unable to prevent a judgment for the landlord. Two more tenants followed, also receiving a decision in favor of the landlord. The residents became restless, but Lone Star Legal Aid approached the bench to represent their first client. 

Lone Star Legal Aid argued two defenses for not only their client, but all of the tenants present that day who reside at Cabo San Lucas. The first was that the evictions were invalid due to the manner in which the notices to vacate were delivered. Lone Star had signed affidavits from tenants who had gone under oath to say their notices were improperly delivered. The second defense was that Cabo San Lucas lacked proper standing to bring their eviction cases to court, as the owner who was on the eviction petitions was no longer the owner of the complex. This suggested that they would have to re-file all their evictions under the new owner to have standing in court. 

The representatives from Cabo San Lucas fought back hard against Lone Star’s arguments. Cabo representatives even called in a security guard from the complex to deliver a dubious testimony that he was present the day the notices to vacate were delivered. In the end, the judge called a recess – requesting that the lawyers speak with the Cabo representatives and try to come to a mutual understanding of how to proceed with the remainder of the docket.

After a lengthy recess, court resumed and neither side would move on their claims. The judge ultimately would make the final decision on the eviction cases and ruled that the tenants would remain, stating that Cabo San Lucas lacked standing to bring the cases to the court due to the ownership change. Every tenant who showed up for the morning hearings would have their case dismissed. 

A wave of relief washed over the courtroom. Tenants would remain housed and Cabo would have to re-file their eviction suits, if they wanted to proceed. However, any tenants who did not show up to their hearing received a default judgment – meaning the landlord was able to claim possession of the property because they did not appear in court.

At the afternoon docket, The Redford had eviction cases that were heard before the remaining Cabo San Lucas cases. Lone Star Legal Aid was able to get all cases on The Redford docket dismissed and have all of the Writs of Possession that were to be issued from the past two weeks of eviction hearings to be repealed as well, arguing successfully that the Notices to Vacate were delivered in the wrong time frame.

The last docket of the day was the remainder of the Cabo San Lucas hearings. However, the representatives from Cabo San Lucas requested that those hearings be reset to the following week – further delaying the eviction process. In that subsequent hearing for the Cabo San Lucas cases the following week, settlements were negotiated for some residents to have their cases dismissed if they moved out by the end of the month. For others, they will continue the fight in the courts as their cases were reset once again until September 5th.

The events in court that day illustrated two components that are instrumental to eviction diversion. First, the tenants that showed up for their hearing averted a default judgment in the favor of the landlord. The importance of showing up to an eviction hearing cannot be understated here – as they avoided the outcome of many of their fellow residents just by being present in court. Even the residents who initially had their cases decided before Lone Star Legal Aid argued before the judge had their decisions overturned in their favor due to the arguments presented by Lone Star Legal Aid later in the docket.

Second, the tenants that showed for their eviction hearings were guaranteed representation by Lone Star Legal Aid if they qualified, who were successfully able to argue against the wrongfully filed evictions on their behalf. This speaks to the critical need for more funding, so that tenants have a guaranteed right to an attorney for representation in an eviction hearing, who may be able to either get the tenant more time with a reset, or get their eviction dismissed entirely. 

The road ahead

Despite the clear victories residents won in court, tenants at Cabo San Lucas and the Redford know the fight is not over. The Redford expressed the intent to re-file all of their evictions that were dismissed with a proper Notice to Vacate. Many tenants from Cabo San Lucas are waiting for their reset hearing on September 5, in which they will return to court with representation from Lone Star Legal Aid to fight against these wrongful evictions.

The importance of a well-funded right to counsel program for litigants in eviction hearings cannot be understated. The victories in court for Cabo San Lucas and Redford tenants should not be outliers; they should be the standard for tenants across Harris County. Landlords will nearly always have the resources for attorneys or eviction agencies at their disposal. Cabo San Lucas enlisted an attorney for the reset hearing in a matter of a few days following the first hearing. Given this, every tenant should have the right to an attorney as well. Renters deserve a fair day in court to fight wrongful eviction filings, so they may remain housed on their own terms and have a chance to keep an eviction off their record.

It is not just legal aid that was instrumental in this victory. It was also tenant power, built up by neighbors coming together to advocate for themselves, their families and their community. When tenants choose to come together, organize and take action against inhumane living conditions and abusive landlord tactics, they will prevail. Going against landlords and property management, with their amassed resources and armed by the law in their favor is a certainly daunting task. Safety and power exist in numbers, so tenants can overcome fears of retaliation by working together and taking collective action. Tenant organizing is absolutely critical to any victory for tenants’ rights.

Tenants from the Redford apartments and Cabo San Lucas wanted to have a tenant meeting to get organized and take action against the management. The first tenant meeting was held last week, where grievances were discussed and they planned for next action steps. Tenants from Redford and Cabo San Lucas are ready for the long fight for justice. We are ready to walk alongside them.

Follow along on our blog as we discuss future organizing with the Cabo San Lucas and Redford residents. 

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