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COVID-19 Recession in Texas

As eviction cases resume in parts of Houston, low-income Texans fear losing a place to live

Since Gov. Greg Abbott declared a public health disaster in March, almost one-third of Harris County's evictions have been filed in the justice of the peace precinct covering the southwestern portion of the county.

Demonstrators rally against evictions outside the Harris County Courthouse in Houston on Aug. 21, 2020.

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Hilda Ramírez says she’s never missed paying rent. Even when the pandemic started and she couldn’t work for two months in the kitchen of a Houston restaurant, she managed to cobble together enough money from her siblings to pay for her two-bedroom apartment in Gulfton.

But two months ago, as Texas steered into a recession and the pandemic continued raging, Ramírez’s siblings also started having financial problems and couldn’t help her out. That’s when she started falling behind.

Last week, Ramírez got a letter from the management company telling her that she owed more than $2,000, including late fees, and that she had to leave. On Thursday, staff from the building came to her apartment.

“The manager came saying that I needed to get my stuff out because I haven’t paid rent,” the mother of four girls said in Spanish. “To be honest, I don’t have anywhere to go.”

And Ramírez is far from alone.

Since Gov. Greg Abbott declared a public health disaster in March, landlords have filed more than 2,600 evictions in the Harris County justice of the peace precinct that takes cases from Gulfton and the southwestern portion of the county, according to data from the consulting firm January Advisors. That’s almost one-third of all evictions filed in the county since the pandemic began.

The two justices of the peace for Harris’ Precinct 5, unlike some of their counterparts elsewhere in the county, resumed eviction proceedings in mid-May as soon as they were allowed.

Housing advocates point out that other justices of the peace have stopped or slowed down eviction hearings, prioritizing only the ones that involve violent crime or a risk to the community. This has happened in Travis County, where no eviction hearings are being scheduled, and with some justices of the peace in Dallas and Harris counties.

“Stopping evictions is a public health necessity, as a prevention measure, while we are dealing with this very contagious disease,” said Rodrigo Hernández, who protested at a Precinct 5 eviction court last week.

With more than 1.2 million residents, Precinct 5 spreads all the way from Katy in the west to the border of the affluent city of Bellaire and includes large swaths of Houston in between. It includes areas where many rental apartment complexes were built in the 1970s, during an oil boom. Today, those properties have become the homes for thousands of low-income immigrant families who have been disproportionately affected by unemployment, according to housing and community advocates working in the neighborhood.

Mitzi Ordoñez is a resident of the area and a community organizer with the Texas Organizing Project, a nonprofit that advocates for working-class Texans of color in some of the state’s biggest counties. She said many people in Gulfton work construction jobs or in restaurants.

“They work in jobs with no benefits like health care or paid sick leave,” Ordoñez said in Spanish.

According to a survey from the U.S. Census Bureau, 39% of renters in Texas weren’t certain they could pay their rent in August, but most eviction moratoriums enacted during the pandemic’s initial blow to the economy have expired. That includes moratoriums at national, state, county and city levels. The Texas Supreme Court lifted its statewide moratorium in mid-May. A provision included in the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, which delayed evictions for tenants of federally backed housing, expired in late July.

The number of Texans without jobs skyrocketed in April, when the unemployment rate hit a record high of 13.5%. In July, that rate fell considerably to 8%. But it still remains much higher than the 3.5% rate of unemployment in July 2019.

More than 3.2 million people have applied for unemployment benefits since March. Meanwhile, help for the vast number of struggling Texans has been stretched precariously thin. In Houston, the first round of a rental assistance program ran out in 90 minutes, according to the Houston Chronicle. The city is now in a second round, but landlords — and not renters — have to apply.

“I’ve also tried with several churches, where I heard people could help me,” Ramírez said. “But they tell me that there are no more funds available, and I haven’t been able to get the help I’ve heard exists.”

A protester holds up a "stop evictions" sign outside the Harris County Courthouse in Houston on Aug. 21, 2020.

A renters’ precinct  

In Harris County’s Precinct 5, about 100 people last week protested the evictions in the court of Justice of the Peace Russ Ridgway, who is one of two judges for the judicial district. Although both judges are hearing eviction cases, protesters said that Ridgway’s court has more evictions scheduled and handles cases for immigrant neighborhoods like Gulfton.

“Eviction numbers are really high in this neighborhood," Ordoñez said. "Most people living here are low income. … They are experiencing a lot of uncertainty."

Last week, Ridgway’s docket had 109 eviction hearings scheduled, more than any other justice of peace in Harris County, according to records from the advocacy organization Texas Housers. Ridgway did not respond to requests for comment.

The Houston Apartment Association said that landlords in the city have also been deferring million of dollars in rent and canceling late fees to avoid filing for evictions. Andy Teas, the association’s vice president of public affairs, said it’s not surprising that Harris County’s Precinct 5 has the most eviction activity. The precinct also had the most evictions compared with other parts of the county before the pandemic, according to January Advisors.

Teas said the precinct isn’t just large but covers an area with a “tremendous amount” of apartments.

“There’s probably more rental apartments than in any other court in Texas.”

Justices of the peace throughout Texas have said that once eviction proceedings take place, state law leaves little room for mercy on tenants who haven’t paid rent — even those affected by a recession brought on by a pandemic.

Ridgway, a Republican, is up for reelection in November. The Houston Apartment Association has endorsed him, though Teas said that’s because the group typically backs incumbents. Ridgway’s Democratic challenger, attorney Israel García, thinks the pandemic and its subsequent recession should have prompted a rethinking of how evictions are approached.

“We need to stress from the top down all the way to the local level that we need a national moratorium on eviction,” he said.

“Where are we going to sleep?”

Ordoñez thinks there are even more people affected than eviction dockets indicate. For one thing, she fears landlords are taking advantage of vulnerable tenants and bullying or threatening them into leaving before filing for evictions and going through the courts.

Meanwhile, some tenants leave once they’re so far behind they can’t catch up and before their landlords file cases with justices of the peace. There’s no record of how many people take that so-called “self eviction” route.

In his apartment complex 15 minutes away from Ridgway’s court, Rolando Pulido has already seen several of his neighbors kicked out. The father of five is worried he will be next.

Before the pandemic, he worked almost every night as a salsa DJ. His wife helped register students at a local school. Between their incomes, they were able to afford rent, their car, and food for their kids and his wife’s mother, who also lives with them in a two-bedroom apartment.

Then Pulido and his wife both lost their jobs during this spring’s statewide shutdown, and they haven’t gotten them back. Through friends, Pulido found jobs landscaping, installing floors and painting houses, among other things. Many times, he had to learn a job from scratch.

But that wasn’t enough, and he also had to borrow money from his friends.

“I’m super indebted. If I have to ask for more money, I wouldn’t be able to show my face again,” Pulido said in Spanish. “For this upcoming month’s rent, I’m trying to find more days of work, because I don’t think I can make it.”

Ramírez has the same worries for herself and her daughters. The restaurant where she works reopened, but she’s only getting 10 hours a week. It’s not enough to cover rent, and on Monday she got a letter from court, telling her that her eviction hearing is scheduled for Sept. 10. Her landlord did not respond to a request for comment.

But Ramírez said her family was already feeling the impact of not being sure of what tomorrow will bring, even before getting the notification.

“My youngest one asks, ‘Mom, where are we going to sleep? Where are we going to eat?’” Ramírez said. “I just say to her, ‘Don’t worry, God will provide.’”

Pu Ying Huang contributed to this report.

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