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Houston Renters Face Mounting Uncertainty As Officials Reject Eviction Grace Period

It’s Sept. 1, and rent is due. For those who have been financially impacted by the coronavirus pandemic and cannot afford to pay, the threat of eviction looms large.

Unlike other cities in Texas and across the U.S., Houston’s city officials have not moved to introduce an eviction grace period ordinance, questioning the legality of such a measure and arguing that it would only leave people further in debt.

That claim has been refuted by housing advocates, who say it is far more important to keep people in their homes during a massive public health crisis than to worry about debt down the road.

A map of Harris County, depicting the location of cost-burdened renter households.

It is difficult to quantify exactly how many people in Houston are seriously facing the threat of eviction. But households with an extreme cost burden, which is defined as paying 50% or more of their income on rent, are likely at the most immediate risk. That amounts to about 164,000 households, or 23% of renter households in Harris County, according to the Kinder Institute.

“The vast majority of them are incredibly low income, extremely low income. And so we're talking about households that are making, you know, $10K a year, $20K a year, $30K a year, and they're spending half of that income on their housing,” Rice University's Kinder Institute for Urban Research Deputy Director Kyle Shelton told Bisnow. “These are already relatively vulnerable or relatively fragile households in terms of their income and in terms of their housing situation.”

“People are doing their best to manage it, but they still need protection from the eviction machine in Harris County,” Texas Housers Houston and Southeast Texas co-Director Zoe Middleton told Bisnow.

Harris County has had more evictions than the national average every year since 2009. Princeton University's Eviction Lab found Harris County evicted 17,749 households, or 48.49 families per day in 2016, its last available data. That resulted in an eviction rate of 2.46%, compared to 2.17% Texas-wide and 2.37% across the U.S. That is specifically for fully-executed evictions — the county's eviction filing rate is 4.91%, meaning about five of every 100 renter homes faced eviction proceedings in Harris County in 2016.

Eviction Lab gave Texas a dismal zero out of five on its COVID-19 housing policy scorecard, noting that court orders limiting evictions began expiring in mid-May, and Texas courts did not halt eviction hearings.

Between March 15 and Aug. 31, about 9,602 eviction cases were filed in Harris County, according to January Advisors. In Harris and Galveston counties, eviction filings have been lower than average since March, according to Eviction Lab. That trend is likely a reflection of state and federal eviction moratoriums, stimulus checks, extended unemployment benefits, small-business loans and rental assistance funds.

The Texas Supreme Court ordered a statewide eviction moratorium on March 19. Initially slated to last one month, the moratorium was extended until May 19, when eviction hearings were permitted to start up again. A week later, eviction orders could be resumed entirely.

Renters who lived in a federally backed property in Texas had more protection. The $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act introduced a 120-day eviction moratorium on any property with a federally backed mortgage. That moratorium expired on July 24, with an additional 30-day notice period for tenants to vacate.

Now that the federal and state moratoriums have expired, it’s up to each city and county to decide on its own. But unlike Austin and Dallas, Houston has not introduced legal protections for people facing eviction, leaving the city’s most vulnerable renters in a precarious position.

“Evictions are incredibly destabilizing,” Shelton said. “There are already many households dealing with loss of jobs, health issues and so many other things, that to put this potential instability of eviction on people's plates could be hugely disruptive, and probably is hugely disruptive in almost every case.”

The issue hasn’t gone unnoticed. The city of Houston and Harris County announced a joint Housing Stability Task Force on June 12, made up of a wide range of stakeholders who touch all points of the housing stability cycle. The task force was created to provide strategies and recommendations to city and county officials on how to combat the pressing eviction problem.

Mindful of the expiring CARES Act provisions, the task force quickly moved to draft an eviction grace period ordinance, which would give tenants 21 days to respond in writing to an eviction notice. Those who complied would have 60 days to strike a deal with their landlords, obtain rental assistance or find rent through other means.

Members of that task force unanimously recommended that Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner support the ordinance, with the goal of implementing it by Aug. 1. Instead, Turner rejected it.

“I am concerned that a moratorium does not remove the financial obligation and increases the hole people would have to dig themselves out from under,” Turner told the Houston Chronicle.

Houston City Council Member Tiffany Thomas represents District F, which spans a broad area south of I-10 West, ranging from Westchase to just past the Grand Parkway. Thomas told Bisnow the task force didn’t consult with members of Houston City Council or the mayor before making its recommendation.

“It's a joint task force with the county and the city. Even an ordinance from the city perspective is inadequate because it doesn't even respond to the needs within the county,” Thomas said.

When other cities began to introduce similar ordinances or extended their own city-level eviction moratoriums, Houston officials looked into the feasibility of doing something similar, according to Thomas. But concerns arose over the legality of the city of Houston implementing a grace period.

“That was our concern, is that legally we would be kind of stepping into some waters … and which we’re seeing in other cities in the state now, they’re now being sued. And they have other things happening… we just can’t [afford it], the city’s already broke,” Thomas said.

Texas Housers' Middleton is a member of the Housing Stability Task Force. She said she has not seen any legal filings against other Texas cities that have extended eviction moratoriums or implemented a grace period.

“[Turner] does not believe that a grace period ordinance would further stabilize people because they would owe too much on back rent still. He views it as kicking the can down the road. And I view it as keeping people stably housed during a pandemic, to be quite blunt about it,” Middleton said.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner

There have been other city-driven sources of relief for renters.

Houston City Council approved a $15M rent relief fund in early May, using CARES Act funds. Local nonprofit BakerRipley administered the fund on behalf of the city of Houston. When applications opened on May 13, the fund was drained in less than two hours.

A $20M second round of funding was approved by the city at the end of July. CARES Act money contributed $15M, while the remaining $5M was sourced from private donations. Harris County also contributed $40M in funding to the rental relief program. Unlike the first round of funding, which was distributed on a “first come, first served” basis, the second round is being distributed based on vulnerability.

Applications opened in mid-August and the deadline has been extended to Sept. 2 for both landlords and tenants. To qualify for the rent relief, landlords must apply to participate in the program, and agree to hold off on or rescind any eviction proceedings, as well as waive late fees and arrange a payment plan for outstanding rent. If they don’t choose to participate, then interested renters are not eligible to receive the money.

Thomas said the rental assistance fund is designed to create an unofficial eviction moratorium, using fiscal initiatives. 

“The terms that the [Houston] Apartment Association and the advocates agreed upon, that's what's written into the contract. It's the same thing,” Thomas said. “I think people are attached to the form of a thing versus the thing.”

The problem is, it’s only effective if landlords choose to participate. Though tens of thousands of landlords and tenants have applied, that’s not always the case

“My preference is always, that money goes directly into the hands of renters. We know ... what happens when you give [people] money to pay their rent? They pay their rent,” Middleton said.

Downtown Houston

Thomas said the first rent relief fund was created with the expectation that by now, a new federal aid package would be approved. That hasn’t happened.

“We stood up our first rental assistance fund, with the expectation that we would have had something out of Congress … a deeper package by now. We had anticipated we will do this and then something will happen. And that has been stalled completely,” Thomas said.

Lawmakers have proposed a $100B national rental assistance fund, as well as an eviction moratorium. However, consensus on a federal aid package could still be weeks, if not months, away, leaving struggling Houston renters dependent on whatever local aid they qualify for.

Middleton said that to combat the threat of mass evictions in Houston, she would like to see protections at every level of government. That includes more legal protection for renters, as well as eviction moratoriums and rental assistance from Congress.

“It includes cities using their full ordinance-making power, and it includes states really reimagining what it means to keep people housed, and what the benefit is to the state to keep people housed. Not only during a pandemic but during nonvolatile times as well,” Middleton said.

On a state level, Middleton believes Texas needs to revisit its property code and increase renter protections to meet the level of other states.

“Frankly, you can't be business-friendly if you're not renter-friendly,” Middleton said.