Eviction court is packed today. One property manager holds a box full of manila folders, each representing a different tenant. When a woman who’s been sitting for more than a hour in the court with her mother and young daughter appears before the judge, she’s told there isn’t much the court can do. There’s a disagreement about whether she’s been paying rent and how much and when. According to the landlord, it’s been months since a payment was received.
"Generally speaking, if rent wasn’t paid or paid on time, a hearing is not going to go in your favor today," says Judge Lincoln Goodwin, who presides over this particular court, addressing all of the tenants at once. The back rents owed hover around $1,000 to $1,500, going as low as $509.“If you did not pay, you cannot stay,” is how Judge Goodwin, one of two Justices of the Peace in Precinct 4, puts it.
In Houston, aside from the overworked Lone Star Legal Aid and a handful of legal clinics, renters in the court are often on their own. And with rents steadily rising in the Houston metro area, agencies that offer aid like short-term rental assistance say they’re seeing demand creep upward. For those who don't get it, an eviction can send major ripples through a person’s life. And because of the insidious logic of the process, it typically serves as an additional, sometimes debilitating blow amid existing hardship.
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