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Group aims to provide free legal help to Harris County families facing eviction during pandemic

HOUSTON – For many Houston-area families, there is a new ripple effect from the COVID-19 pandemic. After losing jobs and having their incomes cut because of layoffs and shutdowns, some are now facing eviction.

“It goes without saying that people who cannot afford to pay their rent typically can also not afford to hire an attorney,” said Dana Karni, the managing attorney at Lone Star Legal Aid’s eviction right to counsel initiative.

Karni and a team of attorneys are working hard to help tenants stay in their homes, even if they can’t afford to pay rent.

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“We see these sort of systemic issues from a socio-economic, mostly economic standpoint, all the time. But I think that they’re really highlighted now in the middle of the pandemic,” Karni said.

The new pilot program in Harris County Precinct 2 and Precinct 7, is comprised of a coalition of lawyers and law students from Lone Star Legal Aid, Houston Volunteer Lawyers, and the three local law school clinics, is determined to keep a roof over their heads. If you want to get help from Lone Star Legal Aid, you can start here: LSLA COVID Eviction Interview.

Evictions by the numbers

A quick look at cases from court dockets shows the need for free legal services for struggling Houston-area residents.

According to research from January Advisors, from July 1 through September 9, a total of 4,988 eviction cases were filed in eight Harris County precincts. About 34% of those were filed in Precinct 5, which covers West Harris County.

Total evictions in Harris County between July 1 and Sept. 9. (Courtesy of January Advisors)
Total evictions in Harris County between July 1 and Sept. 9. (Courtesy of January Advisors) (KPRC)
Evictions in Harris County Precinct 5 between July 1 and Sept. 9. (Image courtesy of January Advisors).
Evictions in Harris County Precinct 5 between July 1 and Sept. 9. (Image courtesy of January Advisors). (KPRC)

A reprieve for renters in need

On September 1, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ordered a temporary halt of residential evictions through the end of the year.

The order states if a tenant makes less than $99,000 a year and can’t pay rent, all they need to do is sign and present a statement provided by the CDC, to their landlord.

“If you qualify under these terms, and if you provide this documentation to your landlord, your case needs to be dismissed. Your case needs to be stopped. No eviction should continue under these circumstances,” Karni said.

Just days ago, Karni says the coalition saved a family from being put on the street.

“Of all of the tenants who were set for the eviction docket, everyone was in fact served an eviction judgment with the exception of the one tenant who was represented by counsel. And so we feel very strongly that tenants have a much better chance of defeating an eviction if they have an attorney present,” she said.