HOUSTON – More than half of the Houston area’s population is renting a home or apartment, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The state lifted its moratorium on evictions at the end of May and since that time, the number of evictions cases filed in Harris County court has continued to rise.
“I’m not used to being where I don’t have no money. It’s been hard on me and my wife,” said Donald Pogue shortly before his eviction case was called at a courthouse on Griggs Road. “I don’t want to beat my landlord, I just need time and help to pay. That’s the situation I’m in.”
From southeast Houston to West Harris County, and from Pasadena to Humble, Harris County Justice of the Peace courts have dockets filled with eviction cases. There were 2,300 eviction cases filed Harris County just in the last month according to Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, which is studying evictions nationwide.
“That’s about 60% below average,” said Peter Hepburn with Eviction Lab.
Hepburn said despite historically lower numbers — unlike other cities such as Boston, Cleveland or even Austin — there are fewer protections for those facing eviction in Harris County.
“There are a lot of new filings coming in,” said Hepburn.
Many KPRC 2 spoke with outside courthouses said they lost their job because of the virus and once they found new employment or secured unemployment benefits, they were behind on all their bills, not just rent.
“You’re not able to do the same things. Your children suffer, everybody suffers,” said a Houston mother who asked that KPRC 2 not use her name.
This woman said she lost her job due to COVID-19 and has not yet found a new job. She also said it took months to receive unemployment benefits and her apartment complex would not work out a payment plan.
“They wanted full payment all at one time, which was next to impossible to do with having to pay everything else,” she said.
On the other side of the issue are landlords who say eviction is not their goal, but argue they have bills to pay too.
“As a landlord, I have to pay mortgage, I have to pay taxes, I have to pay everything,” said Doina Berea.
We spoke to Berea outside the courthouse on Clay Road. She had moved to evict a tenant who she said was behind on rent, who had not responded to offers of working out a payment plan and who damaged the home.
“I believe she took advantage of the situation and it’s not fair,” said Berea.
We spoke to another landlord outside of court on Griggs Road who said he tries to be flexible with his tenants but points out he has to support his family as well.
“If I don’t pay after two or three months, they go to foreclosure,” said Mehdi Naghabi. “I have a good heart and they take advantage. I let them stay two or three months free.”
Last month, Houston and Harris County’s Recovery Czars announced a 24-member Housing Stability Task Force. Among the task force’s goals, is finding ways to prevent evictions.
“We are seeing the evictions are as full steam ahead as the court system will allow,” said Dana Karni, an attorney with Lone Star Legal Aid and a member of the task force. “The eviction dockets will not let up on the volume and that volume is only going to get worse.”
The Justices of the Peace who preside over these cases are elected officials who decide what’s best for the operation of their respective courts.
“Do you have the authority to just stop processing evictions that come into your courtroom?” asked Channel 2 Investigator Robert Arnold.
“We as judges really can’t select who can file cases and who can’t,” said Judge David Patronella.
Patronella said some steps can be taken during this period to give tenants a little extra time. For example, Patronella said when the county moved its COVID-19 threat level to red, he pushed all cases involving only non-payment of rent to the back of his docket until August.
He said this helps reduce the number of people called to court and gives tenants extra time to look for work or discuss payment plans with landlords. He said he is only hearing what he calls “essential” cases.
“You don’t have a right to brandish weapons on the premises, you don’t have a right to bring in five or six other people that weren’t on the lease,” said Patronella.
He said he can also push back the date an eviction takes effect to give tenants another chance to work out a payment plan.
“We encourage landlords, if it’s just non-payment of rent, this is a time to be reasonable and to be flexible,” said Patronella.
Some tenants are still protected by the federal government under the CARES Act.
The Act states if a landlord receives any kind of federal assistance for their property or has a federally backed mortgage, then they can’t file evictions until next month. When an eviction case is filed, the law also requires landlords to file an affidavit stating their property is not covered under the CARES Act.
However, Eviction Lab and the Houston-based data science consulting firm, January Advisors found 7.5% of the new eviction cases filed in Harris County violated the CARES Act, by not having an affidavit on file.
Patronella said the courts don’t have the resources to independently verify every landlord’s claim and if a landlord knowingly files a false affidavit then a criminal complaint can be filed with the District Attorney’s Office. Karni said many people facing eviction don’t even know to ask if they’re covered by the CARES Act.
“It would take an attorney representing a defendant or a really savvy defendant to go do their own homework,” said Karni.
If you are facing eviction you can seek help from Lone Star Legal Aid by clicking here.
A clearinghouse of other organizations helping tenants avoid eviction can be found here.
ProPublica can also help tenants search their property to see if it is covered by the CARES Act.