Here are answers to your questions about evictions and renters’ rights during the coronavirus pandemic

A sign with the message to cancel rent is displayed from a vehicle as a caravan of May Day protesters drives up 2nd Avenue outside the offices of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Friday, May 1, 2020, in the Manhattan borough of New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo) (John Minchillo, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

HOUSTON – Millions of Texans are unemployed right now. Paying their rent or all of it may not be possible. That is why the Texas Supreme Court has ordered a ban on evictions until May 18th.

Many of you have questions about what this means and how it impacts you. We are answering some of your questions here.

Q: If you are unable to afford your rent due to COVID-19, can you break your lease without repercussions?

A: No. The Supreme Court’s order does not allow you to break your lease. It doesn’t even allow you to NOT pay rent. It only says courts can not process evictions for non-payment of rent that landlords have filed until after May 18th. Landlords can still file your eviction in court. It will just sit there until May 18th. At that time, the courts will start processing the evictions and you could be legally evicted.

Q: Can landlords charge late fees?

A: Maybe not. The Texas Supreme Court order does not prevent landlords from charging late fees. They can add those onto what you don’t pay.

However, the federal CARES Act does prevent landlords whose mortgages are federally backed from charging late fees to their tenants. For example, if you live in an apartment complex where the mortgage is backed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, your landlord can not charge you late fees. So how the heck is a renter supposed to know that information? Attorney Mark Grandich with Lone Star Legal Aid said it’s not easy to find out, but many mortgages are federally backed. To protect yourself, you should write a letter to your landlord stating you believe the mortgage for your apartment or house is federally backed and "according to the CARES Act, is barred from initiating eviction proceedings for 120 days from the law’s March 27 enactment. They are also prohibited from charging fees or penalties during the moratorium.”

The letter will at least hopefully get kicked up to your apartment’s corporate office where someone can help delay and/or erase those fees.

Q: What should I do if I can not pay my rent right now?

A: Talk with your landlord about any changes you have had in pay that impact your ability to pay your rent.

If you can only make a partial payment, pay what you can.

Q: What can I do if my landlord locks me out of my home or apartment or shuts off my water or electricity?

A: If the Justice of the Peace covering your area is open, you can file a writ asking the judge to force the landlord to let you back in or turn your water or power back on. You can also contact an attorney for help.

You can reach out to Lone Star Legal Aid by calling 713-652-0077.

The Houston Bar Association is holding its Legal Line every Wednesday through the end of May. You can register online to get a volunteer attorney to call you back and talk about your legal options.

About the Author:

Passionate consumer advocate, mom of 3, addicted to coffee, hairspray and pastries.