A sharp rise in unemployment in Texas has renters and landlords worried during the COVID-19 pandemic. Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune
It’s the first of the month, which means that for millions of Texans, the rent is due.
But much has changed since a month ago. Thousands of people have lost their jobs as the COVID-19 pandemic has shut down businesses across the state. Many more have taken pay cuts. Now, renters who can’t pay and landlords who are losing rent money are both worried about how they’ll make ends meet.
Most evictions are halted across the state until at least April 20, thanks to a Texas Supreme Court order, but landlords are still posting notices to vacate and threatening to kick out renters after the moratorium elapses, Zoe Middleton of Texas Housers said.
“[Rent notices] change in tones, but they are all pretty insistent on the fact that rent is due and you will be not living there if you don’t pay,” said Middleton, the southeast director of the affordable housing advocacy organization.
Some cities and counties have opted to ban evictions for even longer than the Texas Supreme Court has ordered. Austin has instituted a 60-day grace period, and the Dallas City Council may follow suit. Earlier this month, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins halted evictions through May 18. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo suspended them through the end of March and signaled she was prepared to extend the ban past April 20 if the state didn’t act first.
But an eviction moratorium isn’t a cure-all. Tenants are still worried about racking up late fees in the meantime and having to back pay several months of rent when the state and city orders lift.
Whether the Supreme Court, city councils and county judges can go beyond eviction moratoriums and forgive owed rent is unsettled, but that is likely beyond their authority. Austin City Council member Greg Casar said in a tweet that although “the City, by law, cannot waive rent agreed to in a private contract,” there are other remedies available.
“The new law buys everyone valuable time,” Casar tweeted, referring to Austin’s grace period. “In 60 days, some families will recover. Others won’t. That’s why we’re working on a big rental assistance program in coming days to support the new law [and] fight to ensure no one loses their home.”
Grand Prairie resident Vincent Garza said people will need more time to pay rent. Garza was a week into his new job as a graphic designer for a screen-printing company before he got laid off. Soon after, his girlfriend’s realty job dried up.
The money they have saved will barely be enough to pay this month’s rent. He’s hoping his apartment complex will reduce his rent temporarily or let him roll over missed payments to future months once the job market stabilizes.
“I heard the neighbors the other day arguing about not having money either, so people are having trouble paying their rent for sure,” Garza said.
Sandy Rollins, executive director of the Texas Tenants' Union, said she’s hopeful the governor will implement the same 60-day grace period Austin has on a statewide level as soon as possible or that other cities will take action to follow suit.
Gov. Greg Abbott did not respond to a request for comment.
Texans in need of assistance can apply for nonprofit or government rent assistance programs, but the timeline on when that money will come through can vary.
Even with an evictions moratorium, landlords can still post notices to vacate and file with the court. The Supreme Court’s order means the process is frozen at that stage until at least April 20. Until a tenant loses an eviction hearing and is removed by a constable, which won’t happen until April 27 at the earliest, the tenant can remain in the home.
“Texas is an extremely landlord-friendly state. Tenants deserve basic rights and basic protections in the name of fairness and right now in the name of public health,” Rollins said.
But landlords say they’re hurting, too. And they have bills of their own to pay, which are jeopardized when people don’t pay rent on time.
Amariah Olson, who co-owns and manages rental property in Dallas, said layoffs have started to hit his tenants hard. Because his property provides affordable housing and “probably the majority of the tenants live month to month without any savings,” Olson said he expects to see a significant impact on his residents.
In anticipation of the financial blow, Olson said his company has deferred its utility payments and is already considering letting staff go. The federal or state government needs to take responsibility for shutting down jobs and pay rent to multifamily property owners, he said.
“It really hasn’t hit hard yet, but it’s a looming monster up ahead that’s definitely going to start to impact the multifamily industry over the next one to two months, pretty severely,” Olson said.
Other property managers say they’re trying to be flexible.
Mike Francis, who runs a property management company for single-family homes in greater Austin, said his goal is “to keep [residents] in the property and reduce their stress.”
“If they’ve been affected by the COVID issue in any way, shape or form, then we’re flexible in letting them tell us what they can do,” Francis said. “Pretty much whatever they’re asking for, we’re doing all we can to accommodate their request.”
Those requests include payment plans, rent deferment and, occasionally, rent forgiveness.
The Texas Apartment Association is encouraging landlords and property managers to make payment arrangements with people affected by the coronavirus crisis and to waive late fees, association President Mark Hurley said. His company has reduced rent by 10% for all tenants through April.
The most important thing, Francis said, is that tenants be proactive in reaching out to their landlords early so they can form a plan together. Jenkins, the Dallas County judge, echoed this sentiment.
“All evictions [are] halted but pay what you can and work out a plan if you can’t pay your contractual obligation,” Jenkins tweeted. “Show grace to one another. Both of you are hurting.”
Both renters and landlords are waiting on help from the federal government.
The recently passed $2 trillion stimulus package allows property owners to defer federally backed mortgages for 90 days — if they halt evictions and late fees for that period — but the relief doesn’t address other kinds of mortgages.
But Rollins said there’s no guarantee that landlords will pass that relief on to tenants.
As for the promised $1,200 stimulus check, some won’t receive it: Anyone claimed as a dependent — which applies to most college students and many elderly and disabled people — is out of luck. For those who are eligible, it’s unclear when the one-time payment will make it to them or how long it can stretch.
Two days before the rent is due, managers for Damaris Sevillano’s public housing unit in Baytown have said nothing about how they’ll handle rent collection.
Sevillano, who lost her income because of the COVID-19 pandemic, doesn’t expect a rent cancellation, but she is pulling for management to relax its policies so tenants have more time to put together their rent check. One-time federal stimulus checks are still weeks out, and without a change to rent policy, Sevillano worries late fees will eat up the bit of money she’ll have left over for her family of four.
“It's a little bit scary waiting for the government check right now that'll come in two or three weeks,” Sevillano said. “A lot of our concern is that if you don’t pay your rent on time, they're going to start charging fees. That can actually make it more difficult for people to pay.”
Juan Pablo Garnham contributed to this report.