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Evictions in Texas can move forward again, so what rights do tenants have?

HOUSTON – The COVID-19 pandemic cost millions of people their jobs, which means paying rent in the last two months became nearly impossible.

“It’s been very hard because we don’t have money for anything,” said Virginia Cabrera.

Cabrera is staring down the barrel of an eviction notice because she is two months behind on rent. She lost her job as a cook in March.

“I have been looking for another job, there is just not a lot of jobs out there. A lot of people are looking,” she said.

Alma Sastre, through Iglesia Generaciones, tired to help Cabrera and dozens like her.

“I had over 74 voicemails, 48 text messages of people like, ‘help us, we need help,'” said Sastre.

She and a team of volunteers tried to help people sign up for the city’s rental assistance program, but that money ran out in 90-minutes.

“Of about 80 people that were here, we got to register maybe six people,” she said.

Housing advocates hoped Texas would change its mind, but last week the state supreme court ruled eviction proceedings can start moving forward again. On March 19, Governor Greg Abbott put a two-month moratorium on evictions.

“At this time we’re just pleading for time, time is of the essence, we need time," said Sastre.

Channel 2 Investigates analyzed a database of 4,029 eviction cases filed in Harris County between March 2 and May 12. All of these cases can move forward again, along with those already filed and put on pause.

“As a result of those evictions for non-payment of rent, people will end up homeless, which is the last thing you want in a pandemic,” said Zoe Middleton, southeast Texas director for Texas Housers.

Middleton worries far too many people are still unemployed.

“We know there is an enormous amount of need and an enormous number of people that are going to be in a vulnerable situation, but an exact number is really impossible to tell,” said Middleton.

Middleton and Dana Karni, an attorney with Lone Star Legal Aid, say there yet still may be a reprieve for tenants facing evictions.

“There will be a lot of properties that will be subject to the Cares Act,” said Karni.

The Cares Act is the massive federal economic aid package passed in March. If a landlord has a federally backed mortgage or participates in a federal assistance program then evictions on those properties cannot yet proceed.

“Those tenants are not subject to eviction until July 25th, with a 30-day notice to vacate. And then August 25th before that eviction can be filed,” said Karni.

Finding out who owns a mortgage can be tough, but the Texas Supreme Court made sure tenants aren’t responsible for doing this legwork. The high court has ordered landlords are required to sign a sworn statement that their properties are not subject to the CARES Act before moving ahead with an eviction.

“We wanted to make sure that this was something that the tenant was not responsible for,” said Karni. “That can’t be the tenants’ problem on top of other issues to now also have to research whether their landlord is federal-backed in their mortgage.”

Karni urges every tenant facing eviction to inquire whether the property where they live is subject to the CARES Act. Karni said not to rely on landlords doing this check on their own or Justices of the Peace remembering this detail while handling thousands of cases. You can apply for legal assistance with Lone Star Legal Aid here.

Texas Housers put up a map of 14,000 multi-family units with federally backed mortgages in Texas. The map can be found here. However, this database does not include single-family rentals with federally backed mortgages.

“We weren’t able to get data because of privacy concerns on single-family rentals that have federally backed mortgages,” said Middleton.

Middleton suggests sending a letter to your landlord to inquire whether the property falls under the CARES Act.

Channel 2 Investigates also reached out to constables in Harris, Fort Bend, Montgomery, and Galveston counties to see if they are ready to resume serving eviction orders once a Justice of the Peace issues them. So far, they all intend to follow the direction of the Justice of the Peace and serve eviction papers if they are issued, though Harris County Precinct 1 Constable Alan Rosen plans to give tenants a list of resources to help them find a place to stay.