Texas Courts Open Eviction Floodgates: 'We Just Stepped Off A Cliff'

Apr 7, 2021
Originally published on April 7, 2021 12:13 pm

The Texas state court system is signaling that it will no longer enforce a federal order aimed at stopping evictions during the coronavirus pandemic. That could clear the way for landlords to push ahead with tens of thousands of eviction cases that have been on hold.

The timing could be particularly painful for many families, coming after Congress has approved billions of dollars to help people pay the rent they owe to avoid eviction but before the vast majority of renters have been able to receive any of that money.

Legal aid attorneys are raising the alarm that the state is about to allow a wave of people to be put out of their homes, with no place to go.

"We've had a failure of leadership that's going to result in tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Texans becoming homeless in relatively short order," says Mark Melton, who heads up a pro bono team of 175 volunteer lawyers in Dallas.

"It's devastating," says Christiane Daugherty, a 60-year-old technology consultant who lost her job last year when COVID-19 hit. Her adult son also lost his job at a restaurant, and they moved in together to try to survive.

Daugherty just landed another job and has applied for rental assistance. But she had fallen behind on rent, and this past Friday, a judge ruled her landlord could evict her.

"We're just starting to get on our feet. This would just kill me," says Daugherty, who worries that losing her home will also mean losing her new job. "I work from home, and I'll have no money to go get in a hotel or anything."

What has changed is that an emergency order issued by the Texas Supreme Court has just expired. It had required judges to enforce a federal eviction moratorium from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under which landlords cannot evict people like Daugherty if they sign a declaration saying they have no other good housing options.

The CDC's order is aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19 from people being forced into more crowded living situations such as homeless shelters or doubling up with other families.

After the Texas Supreme Court didn't extend its directive, an advisory body to the Texas courts went further. The Texas Justice Court Training Center issued guidance essentially telling judges it's not their job to enforce the CDC's order.

"Courts are no longer authorized by the Texas Supreme Court to abate (put on hold) cases based on the CDC eviction moratorium," it reads. Groups that are trying to prevent unnecessary evictions are worried.

"Renters who are behind on rent are on their own," says Christina Rosales, deputy director of Texas Housers, a prominent affordable housing group. "That's the message the Texas Supreme Court is sending, and we're gravely concerned."

Even a major landlord group seems a bit baffled by the ruling. David Mintz, vice president of government affairs with the Texas Apartment Association, says he has been reaching out to the Texas Justice Court Training Center.

"We have asked them to clarify their guidance," Mintz says. "We believe that the courts do have the ability to consider CDC declarations that are provided to them."

Despite the changes in the Texas courts, there are landlords who may continue to abide by the CDC order. And Mintz says many want to give tenants the chance to apply for and get rental assistance money since that can be in the best interest of both landlords and tenants.

Mark Melton heads up a group of 175 volunteer lawyers in Dallas working to help renters avoid eviction. "This is the worst possible timing for any of this," Melton says.
Mark Melton

On paper, landlords could still face hefty fines and jail time for violating the CDC rules on evictions. But Melton says in reality there has been virtually no enforcement for landlords who violate the CDC order. He expects a significant number of landlords will now push ahead with evictions.

"I think we just stepped off a cliff that we really didn't want to step off," Melton says. And already he says he's seeing cases where judges are allowing landlords to evict people who had been protected by the CDC's eviction order — people like Daugherty. Melton's group is helping her appeal her case, but she's very worried about what's going to happen next.

"Sometimes I just stay up all night and it just feels like I'm being run over by a truck when I get up in the morning and start working," she says. "It's certainly not a great way to start a new job."

Housing groups are calling on the Texas Supreme Court to extend its emergency order to give people like Daugherty time to get rental assistance money and stay in their homes.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Texas appears to be clearing the way for a wave of evictions. The court system in the state is signaling that it will no longer enforce a federal order aimed at stopping evictions, which could mean a lot of people are about to lose their homes. Here's NPR's Chris Arnold.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: The timing of this could be particularly painful for a lot of families. Congress has approved billions of dollars to help people pay the rent that they owe to avoid eviction, but that money is just starting to flow, and very few people in Texas have received it. And so it's looking like many could get thrown out of their homes with no place to go when that doesn't have to happen.

CHRISTIANE DAUGHERTY: It's devastating 'cause we're just starting to get on our feet.

ARNOLD: Christiane Daugherty lives outside Dallas. She's 60 years old and fell behind on rent after losing her job as an IT consultant after COVID hit. She says her adult son lost his job at a restaurant, and the two of them moved in together just to survive. She's now found another job, but this past Friday, a judge ruled that her landlord could evict her.

DAUGHERTY: This would just kill me. I'm not - I'm worried about losing my job because I work from home, and I'll have no money to go get in a hotel or anything.

ARNOLD: What's happening is that back in September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ordered landlords not to evict people like Daugherty if they sign a declaration saying that they have no other good housing options. That's because evictions can spread COVID. And at the time, the Texas Supreme Court told judges to enforce that CDC order. But that statewide directive just expired, and an advisory body to the Texas courts is now telling the judges it's not their job to enforce the CDC's order.

MARK MELTON: We've had a failure of leadership that's going to result in tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Texans becoming homeless in relatively short order.

ARNOLD: Mark Melton is a partner at a prominent firm in Dallas. And for the past year, he's been running a pro bono team of 175 volunteer lawyers, helping people to try to avoid eviction and stay in their homes. And right now he says he's scared.

MELTON: I've been sick to my stomach for the last four days worrying about this and all of the people that don't even know yet that they're about to be evicted.

ARNOLD: Even a major landlord group seems a bit baffled by the courts not enforcing the CDC order. David Mintz is a vice president with the Texas Apartment Association.

DAVID MINTZ: We have asked them to clarify their guidance. We believe that the courts do have the ability to consider CDC declarations that are provided to them.

ARNOLD: Many landlords may continue to respect the CDC order and give tenants the chance to apply and get rental assistance money. Mark Melton says, at least on paper, landlords could still face stiff legal penalties, even jail time, for violating the CDC rules, though he says in reality, there's been very little enforcement. And he expects many other landlords will start evicting thousands of people.

MELTON: I think we just stepped off a cliff that we really didn't want to step off.

ARNOLD: Already Melton's seeing cases where judges are allowing landlords to evict people who had been protected by the CDC's eviction order, people like Christiane Daugherty. Melton is helping her appeal, but she's very worried about what's going to happen next.

DAUGHERTY: Sometimes I just stay up all night. It just feels like I'm - been run over by a truck when I wake up - you know, get up in the morning to start working. Certainly not a great way to start a new job.

ARNOLD: Housing groups are calling on the state Supreme Court to extend its emergency order to give people like Daugherty time to get rental assistance money and stay in their homes.

Chris Arnold, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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