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Evacuation filings in Texas’ largest cities have soared to the highest point since the onset of the COVID-19 epidemic, as federal dollars for rent assistance dry up and rising living expenses squeeze tenants hard.
Homeowners in Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth, cities that routinely advertise some of the highest eviction filings in the state, together filed more than 37,000 evictions in the first three months of 2022, according to data from eviction organizations in those cities – levels not seen since The epidemic began.
Of the 31 cities followed by Eviction Lab, a Princeton-based research center that studies evacuations, the Houston area saw the second-highest evacuation rate in the state during the first week of April, second only to New York City. Dallas and Fort Worth also sat in the top five for weekly evacuations, along with Phoenix.
And in Austin, the number of eviction cases has skyrocketed since the local ban on most evictions ended last year. Austin is ranked eighth among the cities on the Eviction Lab list, after Las Vegas and Philadelphia.
The high rate of filing of cases comes after the expiration of government bans on eviction and the well-being of federal dollars for rent relief has almost dried up. Now, Texas residents who struggled to make ends meet while COVID-19 destroyed the economy must go without the safety net built during the epidemic to maintain housing – while rents in many large cities have risen by two digits in the past two years. Rising inflation makes it difficult for households to even pay for expenses such as groceries and fuel.
“We can not say for sure, but it feels like there’s a kind of perfect storm of conflicting factors,” said Ashley Flores, senior director of the Dallas Nonprofit Child Poverty Laboratory.
Until recently, Austin had some of the state’s strongest eviction bans to help the city’s poorest residents stay in their homes amid the raging housing market. Austin rents have risen more than 21 percent since March 2020, according to data from the list of apartments – faster than any other major city in Texas. Apartment prices there soared against the backdrop of the plague; The median sale price of a house in Austin exceeded $ 600,000 last month, according to the Austin Realtors Board.
Those defenses are gone now. Since the city and county emergency orders expired for most evictions in Austin and Travis County in December, homeowners there have filed more than 2,500 eviction cases in about four months, according to eviction lab data – more than homeowners requested in the 21 months between March 2020 and late 2021.
“We really believe we are going to see this number grow really drastically because the pressure points that exist now are much worse than they were in 2019,” said Menachem Yaakov, a spokesman for the tenants’ building and strengthening organization, or BASTA Austin. “Where you’ve seen evictions, gentrification and people struggling to survive, it’s exponentially now and there’s basically zero defenses.”
In many cases, landlords waited months for tenants to arrive with rent back or rent assistance money to arrive, said David Mintz, vice president of government affairs for the Texas Apartment Association, a trading group of rental property owners. As rent assistance funds dry up, apartment owners sometimes have no choice but to evict tenants, he said.
“Unfortunately, from the owner’s point of view, when someone is unable to pay his rent, depending on the circumstances, there are not many other options for him,” Mintz said.
Meanwhile, the state’s reserve in federal dollars for rent assistance has almost run out. During the epidemic, the U.S. Treasury Department sent more than $ 3.7 billion to Texas to fund the state’s rent relief program as well as local rent assistance funds.
This money was spent almost entirely – although some of it was rejected by the federal government because the locals could not spend the money fast enough. In March, the Treasury Department withdrew $ 10 million from rental programs in nine cities and counties in Texas – including Laredo, Dallas County and Hays County.
At the same time, the Treasury has raised another $ 70.6 million to hire aid programs in Texas that it believes can effectively divide the funds – including the state program and those in Houston, San Antonio and Austin. But many of these programs, including those of the state, do not accept new applications because they use the new dollars to try to deal with a backlog of candidates.
Even when the apartment owners receive rent relief, it is not a guarantee that the tenants will stay in the house.
“Uncle Sam’s out of money,” said Dana Karni, an attorney for Lone Star Legal Aid, which provides free legal services to low-income Texans, including tenants facing eviction. “So homeowners have to make their decision: will they try to work with the tenant – and some tenants, I think, are on a shakier leg than others – or do they just want to move on?”
The future of the state’s protection balances for tenants is unclear. According to an emergency order from the Texas Supreme Court, local justice of the peace must give legal aid groups or volunteer legal services to enter their courtroom to advise evacuees – usually tenants have no legal representation in eviction proceedings. Often, only a lawyer can help keep a tenant in the home, say legal aid attorneys.
The same Supreme Court order requires judges to dismiss eviction cases if a landlord confirms that he has filed an application for rent assistance or joined a tenant’s application for rent relief.
This order will expire in May – and it is unclear whether the court will renew it.
Some justices of the peace have become more deliberate during the epidemic when it comes to ruling on eviction cases, said Justice Nicholas Cho, a justice of the peace in Travis County. It is common for eviction hearings to last no more than a few minutes, but some judges take longer to hear cases to make sure they do not evict people from their homes if there is a viable alternative, Cho said.
“In the future, I think courts will be more active in trying to prevent unnecessary evictions,” Cho said.
Despite this, there are fears that higher numbers of eviction filings are here to stay.
“I think once we see a certain volume of eviction filings, and the economy or society as a whole does not crash as a result, there is no reason to back down from it,” said Karni, Lone Star’s lawyer. “There is no reason to shrink to a smaller number unless there is someone else paying the bills.”
Disclosure: The Texas Housing Association was a financial backer of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, non-partisan news organization funded in part by donations from authors, foundations, and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters have no role in the tribune’s journalism. Find their full list here.
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