With eviction rates high in Houston, tenants face a legal representation vacuum


In Houston, legal representation for eviction can be difficult to come by.

The burden that the COVID-19 pandemic placed on renters helped lead to the founding of the Eviction Defense Coalition in March 2020. The member institutions, which operate in Harris County and Houston, continue to work in partnership while also arriving at similar but separate conclusions about the state of evictions in Houston.

The coalition includes the nonprofits Houston Volunteer Lawyers, an ancillary organization of the Houston Bar Association, and Lone Star Legal Aid alongside pro bono programs at Houston’s three law schools — South Texas College of Law Houston, the Thurgood Marshall School of Law and the University of Houston Law Center.

“The pandemic is over,” said Dana Karni, litigation director at Lone Star Legal Aid. “Now, we’re just dealing with our normal epidemic of evictions that’s ongoing. There are challenges. A lot of this work is dependent on funding. Where there’s funding, there’s opportunity to put lawyers, paralegals, intake workers and support staff into various courts.”

A recent Kinder Institute survey on Houston residents’ policy preferences found that 81% of respondents supported the investment of public dollars toward initiatives that would make sure everyone facing eviction has legal representation. However, even if funds were available, multiple attorneys in Houston said the number of eviction cases far exceeds the supply of available lawyers.

Using data that originates from Harris County Justice of the Peace Courts, January Advisors indicates that more than 76,500 eviction cases have been filed in 2023. Since the start of 2020, there have been 225,994 eviction filings. Just 2.02% of defendants — less than 4,600 — have had legal representation during that period.

“We have always wanted to reach at least a 10% representation rate, and we haven’t been able to because the volume of filings keeps increasing,” Karni said. “The number of people we represent may also rise, but the percentage keeps falling. I find it very troublesome.”

Karni said that the number of filings and the number of people represented are two visible factors. A third, and perhaps overlooked, factor is default judgments.

“The story behind default judgments is often tenants don’t show up to court,” Karni said. “What’s not told about default judgments is often tenants are told by their landlord not to show up to court. That default rate prevents representation because the tenant is not there to sign up, even if there’s a lawyer at the ready. If there’s not a tenant to represent, then there’s no defense to be made.”

Local legal aid organizations cannot represent every tenant who comes their way, and each of the five organizations in the Eviction Defense Coalition have slightly differing criteria. Meeting federal poverty guidelines and attempts to make partial payments of overdue rent are two key components of meeting eligibility requirements.

Per Harris County Justice of the Peace Courts policy, an eviction citation “notifies that the defendant must appear for trial at the Justice Court on the date specified in the citation, which must not be less than 10 days nor more than 21 days after the petition is filed, and warns that the defendant’s failure to appear in person for trial may result in a default judgment.”

Should a tenant receive an eviction judgment, they have a minimum of five days to relocate. Judges can extend that period at their own discretion.

Jillian Marullo, senior counsel at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP and a member of the Houston Bar Association, is working an eviction case with Houston Volunteer Lawyers. She said the window for eviction trials makes it difficult for prospective pro bono attorneys.

“The laws are very friendly to landlords, and the timing for eviction cases is very short,” Marullo said. “When you have up to 400 eviction cases being heard in one day across Houston courts, the need for volunteer lawyers is immense.

“Another problem is the tenants that I’ve talked to are so afraid for an eviction to be filed because it goes on their record permanently, even if they go to court and win. Whether it’s getting that policy changed or making the law a bit friendlier for tenants, there’s a lot to be done.”

Richard Whiteley, a partner at Bracewell and a director on the Houston Bar Foundation board, also has an eviction trial in his caseload. With the lifting of national and statewide moratoria and the depletion of various financial aid and rent relief funds, he said the eviction litigation landscape has returned to pre-pandemic methods.

“Before COVID you would see landlords that did not necessarily know the law when they were trying to evict a tenant,” Whiteley said. “They didn’t meet the technical requirements, and it provided tenants with defect and pleading types of defenses. In a strange way, COVID taught landlords how to do evictions correctly because there were so many. Now what you see on the other side of it is residents are further limited.”

Whether it be through civic engagement or philanthropy, Whiteley said there are multiple ways that the public can help with Houston’s eviction crisis.

“When people are evaluating charitable donations, really think about organizations that provide access to justice for those that are in poverty,” Whiteley said. “Writing your state representative, state senator and voting can help. It's not helpful to anybody when residents get evicted, no matter what political party you support. Landlords have their bottom line, and when people don’t pay rent they should in some sort of form or fashion be able to evict. I think there’s a fairer process that could be achieved in the state of Texas today.”

Providing legal assistance to tenants would help reduce non-payment of rent evictions, the most common filing, according to Ryan Marquez, who serves as director of the University of Houston Law Center’s Civil Justice Clinic.

Since August 2021, Marquez said the clinic has worked on about 1,800 cases in some capacity. He said a win in an eviction could mean a case reset, more time for a tenant to find new housing, or negotiating a payment plan with a landlord.

“The way I think about it is there’s a reason why people get representation when it comes to criminal cases,” Marquez said. “Their freedom is at stake. But also, high up on that hierarchy of needs is shelter. Attorneys can make a difference when the stakes are that high. Attorneys can reach solutions that are agreeable to both sides. If worse comes to worst, then we can advise people about what to expect. We want people to have all their valuables ready to go or be picked up, to have all their important documents and medications.”

While Houston’s eviction rate shows no signs of slowing down, Karni said there is still much to be gained by the shared mission of the Eviction Defense Coalition.

“There’s so much benefit to us working together,” Karni said. “Whatever it takes, we will work collaboratively to meet the needs of tenants. When we get asked by any level of government or the judiciary for input, we always collaborate together. We are happy to support one another, and it’s an absolute show of strength for the community.”

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