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Amid high rents, eviction filings in major Texas cities soar above pre-pandemic levels

By Joshua Fechter, The Texas Tribune

Amid high rents, eviction filings in major Texas cities soar above pre-pandemic levels” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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As more renters struggle to afford housing, Texas landlords are filing more evictions than they did before the COVID-19 pandemic — and tenants have few, if any, protections to keep them housed.

Landlords filed more than 177,000 eviction cases in the Houston, Dallas, Austin and Fort Worth areas in 2023, according to records tracked by Eviction Lab, a research center based at Princeton University that tracks eviction filings. The figure represents a slight uptick from 2022, the first full year after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the federal government’s nationwide eviction moratorium. In Houston and Fort Worth, eviction filings have consistently exceeded pre-pandemic levels for nearly two years.

“Cities in Texas used to be some of the more affordable ones in the country,” ​​said Adam Chapnik, a research specialist at Eviction Lab. “It’s not like that anymore. A lot of renters are facing this new reality and the laws don’t exist to protect them.”

Some $1.8 billion in federal rent relief flowed to Texas over the course of the pandemic, helping more than 265,000 families keep a roof over their heads. Now that money has all but run out. Texas shuttered its statewide rent relief program last summer along with a sister program aimed at diverting tenants from eviction. Most local governments, too, have closed their rental assistance programs for lack of federal funds.

That has left vulnerable renters in a pinch at a time when they’re under more pressure than ever from the state’s high housing costs. As the Texas economy boomed in the pandemic era and demand for housing skyrocketed, rents in the state’s major urban areas increased by double digits.

A record 2.1 million renters, more than half of the state’s renters households, are “cost-burdened,” a recent Harvard University report found — meaning they spend more than 30% of their income on rent and utilities, leaving them with fewer dollars to spend on household costs like food, health care and transportation. Those most affected by Texas’ rising rents are low-income earners, who face a dire shortage of affordable housing and have seen their options for cheap rental housing further diminished amidst the state’s economic boom.

“Renters are no better off in the state of Texas than they were before the pandemic,” said Ben Martin, research director for Texas Housers, a research and advocacy group.

In a state with some of the country’s weakest protections for renters, lawmakers last year didn’t extend relief to tenants. Texas legislators left renters out of a $12.7 billion property tax-cut package that included $5.6 billion in direct relief for homeowners, though proponents of the legislation have argued the tax cuts landlords will see on their rental properties will trickle down to tenants.

Lawmakers also barred cities from enacting additional tenant protections, a move aimed squarely at rules in Austin and Dallas that gave tenants more time to make good on their rent before their landlords filed a formal eviction against them. Those safeguards ended when the new state law took effect Sept. 1.

Lawmakers who pushed for the legislation and landlord groups argued that allowing cities to write their own eviction laws created inconsistent judicial standards across the state. Chris Newton, Texas Apartment Association executive vice president, said the law was “desperately needed to provide uniformity across the rental industry … as companies dealt with a patchwork of regulations across jurisdictions, resulting in increased costs of operations that impact property owners.”

Housing experts and tenant advocates in the Dallas area hypothesize the now-gone local tenant protection could be why landlords in Dallas County filed some 5,000 fewer evictions last year than they did the previous year.

Lawmakers “didn’t learn anything,” Mark Melton, an attorney who leads the Dallas Eviction Advocacy Center. “They killed the protections that were there.”

There’s at least one bright spot for tenants. Before the pandemic, it was rare for tenants facing eviction to have a lawyer represent them in court. That’s still true, but it’s more common now to find legal aid lawyers offering free legal representation at justice of the peace courts, which hear eviction cases.

Merely having a lawyer can significantly boost tenants’ chances of keeping a roof over their heads, even if just for a little longer, research shows.

In a survey of nearly 1,300 eviction cases in Dallas County from November 2022 to April 2023, observers working for the Dallas nonprofit Child Poverty Action Lab found that judges ruled in favor of landlords 69% of the time when tenants didn’t have legal representation. When they did, landlords won only 7% of the time.

“When tenants have legal representation, their outcomes tend to be a lot more favorable,” said Brianna Harris, Child Poverty Action Lab’s director of housing initiatives.

Some judges are taking additional steps to make sure tenants have a lawyer at their side when their case is heard. Judge Steve Duble, a Harris County justice of the peace, used part of a $2 million grant from the National Center for State Courts’ Eviction Diversion Initiative to hire a full-time employee to connect tenants when they arrive for their hearing with legal aid groups to see if they qualify for free legal representation. Duble said he hopes to eventually put tenants in touch with legal aid as soon as they receive their notice of eviction.

“If we have someone that is coming through and we identify that this person is really at risk and could be on the street … it’s just going an extra mile in trying to help people,” Duble said.

Harris County commissioners in December allocated $4 million in federal pandemic relief funds to expand legal aid services across the county’s 16 justice of the peace courts, on top of a similar $4 million investment in March.

But legal aid groups say there simply aren’t enough lawyers to keep up with the sheer volume of eviction filings.

Of the 81,510 eviction cases filed in Harris County last year, only 2.1% of tenants had legal representation, according to January Advisors. Paul Furrh, chief executive officer of Houston-based Lone Star Legal Aid, said his organization turns away roughly two out of every three prospective clients facing eviction simply because they don’t have enough lawyers — or enough funds to hire more.

“Our biggest problem is that we need more boots on the ground,” Furrh said.

There are some moves afoot to try to address the shortage of legal aid lawyers. The state’s Access to Justice Commission in December approved a recommendation to allow legal paraprofessionals to provide legal advice and counsel to tenants facing eviction — as well to low-income people facing other legal problems — even though they don’t have a law license.

The “justice gap” for poorer people is “so big and we’ve been working on it so hard for so long,” said Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, a longtime advocate for legal aid for low-income Texans. “We’ve got to keep trying. We’ve got to close it as much as we can.”

Disclosure: Texas Apartment Association has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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