Editor’s note: Houston and Harris County are being hit hard by the dual challenges of COVID-19 and a slowing energy sector. To track their long-term impacts and understand how the region’s housing system is changing over time, the Kinder Institute for Urban Research has published “The 2020 State of Housing in Harris County and Houston” report. The project brings a wide range of housing-related indicators into one place and makes them accessible for all stakeholders.
Key findings of the report include:
► There are more renters than homeowners in Houston, and renters are nearing a majority in all of Harris County.
► Nearly half of renters in Harris County are spending more than 30% of their on rent, and close to one-quarter spend over 50%.
► The large affordability gap makes it nearly impossible for the average renter to purchase a home without significant subsidy.
This blog post is part of a series related to the release of the new report.
On Friday, March 13, two weeks before the passage of the CARES Act, my organization began working on a plan to halt evictions in Harris County during the COVID-19 crisis. That evening, the Texas Supreme Court issued a ruling that gave the state’s justices of the peace discretion to pause eviction proceedings after filing. By the following Monday, however, only a handful of judges had agreed to suspend eviction hearings. For the next week, Harris County residents pressured the region’s 16 justices of the peace to agree to a uniform suspension.
On March 19, the state Supreme Court issued a fourth emergency order suspending residential eviction proceedings statewide. After two extensions, eviction proceedings have been allowed to resume at the discretion of justices of the peace. Our work to keep renters housed during this time made urgent the crisis of political will in Houston and Harris County, gaping holes in state policy and the need to bring our public participation practices into the 21st century.
This post is part of our “COVID-19 and Cities” series, which features experts’ views on the global pandemic and its impact on our lives.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act included an impressive set of protections for renters of properties with federally backed mortgages and provided housing stabilization through mid-August by prohibiting late fees and evictions for nonpayment of rent. Still, confusion lingers among lawyers and policy wonks about just how deep CARES protections go.
Despite the creation of popular education tools to help renters discover if they are in a federally backed multifamily building, there is no easy way for those renting single-family homes with federally backed mortgages to find out whether or not they are covered by the CARES Act. There has been no publicly communicated plan from the Harris County District Attorney’s Office about how it will deal with property owners who violate the CARES Act by charging late fees or pursuing illegal evictions.
Lack of political will
Texas is home to over 9.5 million renters, yet we have observed a lack of political will at every level of government to keep renters housed.
At the state level, the Supreme Court issued continuances of the suspension at the 11th hour. On May 26, the court allowed proceedings to resume entirely, despite no uniform plan for holding remote or physically distanced hearings.
On the local level, an ordinance meant to create a grace period for renters failed, and a $15 million rent-relief program that wasn’t restricted to any specific income level was depleted in 90 minutes. In Dallas, all justices of the peace were able to agree to a uniform suspension of their dockets through June 15, which provided a stronger safety net for renters. Meanwhile, in Harris County, where 10 of the 16 justices of the peace are choosing to hear eviction dockets, more than 2,000 eviction cases were heard (some of them pre-dating the COVID-19 suspension) between June 8 and 16.
Holes in state policy
For decades, housing advocates have been trying to pass a statewide “right to cure” law that would help stabilize tenants. Texas is one of the few states without such a statute, meaning renters aren’t given the option to cure — or make right — lease violations such as payment of back rent before an eviction is pursued. Cities across Texas have tried to set up their own “right to cure” and grace-period ordinances with varying success. Austin, Dallas and San Marcos have passed their own versions, while efforts failed in San Antonio.
Another gap in state policy that will have long-term implications for renters is the fact that eviction records are unsealed in Texas. Someone evicted because of the financial fallout from COVID-19 will have the eviction on their record unless they go through the process of expungement. Left unsealed, the eviction will show up on background checks for new rental housing and job applications. To make matters worse for tenants, landlords are allowed to report missed or late rent payments to credit agencies.
For Texans who struggled to earn a living wage before the COVID-19 pandemic, the lack of meaningful protections will have serious reverberations for years to come.
On May 5, fully aware of the risks of exposure to the new coronavirus, dozens of Houstonians attended the city council meeting to speak about the need for a rent-relief program. They had no choice but to attend in person because, at that time, no protocol had been established for addressing the city council remotely. In fact, the city did not develop a plan for remote public participation until a council member was diagnosed with COVID-19.
Even with accommodations that allow remote testimony in city and county proceedings, tenants going through evictions are met with technical challenges that harm their right to due process.
Our experience as advocates during the COVID-19 pandemic and observation of the city’s budget vote have demonstrated that creating policies that protect renter residents is a function of political will. Strong policy development and thoughtful changes to the public participation process will help protect our physical health, homes, neighborhoods and democracy.
Zoe Middleton is the Southeast Texas director for Texas Low Income Housing Information Service.