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With Moratorium Lifted, Houston Becomes Largest U.S. City Where Evictions Can Resume

May 23, 2020
Originally published on May 23, 2020 7:17 am

Evictions are expected to skyrocket in Texas where the state Supreme Court has lifted a moratorium on evictions and unemployment has risen to historic levels amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Some cities are taking additional steps to protect renters and delay evictions, but many Texans remain vulnerable.

Houston, for example, is now the largest city in the nation where evictions can resume. A rental assistance program there ran out of funding in just 90 minutes.

"We anticipate that there will be a tsunami of evictions filed," said Dana Karni, an attorney with Lone Star Legal Aid, which provides free legal representation to low-income Texans. "I have no doubt about it, we are going to see homelessness."

Bridgett Hewitt, 59, is afraid she might lose her apartment in Houston, where she lives alone. She said she'll be three months behind in rent payments in June.

When COVID-19 hit, Hewitt lost her job babysitting her granddaughter and niece. Now she relies on her $800 disability check, which isn't enough to cover her $900 monthly rent. She said her apartment manager has warned her that eviction notices are on the way.

"Nobody needs to be stressed out ... whether they are going to have a place to live today and be homeless tomorrow. I can't think like that right now," she said, sobbing. "I don't want to think like that."

Hewitt submitted an application for the city's rental assistance program. If she doesn't get approved, she expects to be forced out of her home.

"I pray and hope that if I do, that I'll be able to get into a shelter, or my daughters will open their doors to me, that they'll open their home to their mom."

Nationally, there has been a patchwork of protections for renters. Some states, like Wyoming and South Dakota, never had an eviction moratorium. Other statewide eviction moratoriums are set to expire in early June, including in Illinois, Florida and California, though they could be extended.

Some cities, like Los Angeles, also have passed ordinances to further delay evictions after the statewide moratorium expires.

There's still a federal moratorium on evictions through late July, though that only applies to rental properties with federally backed mortgages. Experts estimate only 28% of rental properties nationwide are covered by the moratorium.

Meanwhile, unemployment is through the roof. Since March, 38.6 million people have filed for unemployment, according to the Department of Labor.

Working class families have been hit especially hard — 40% of households with annual incomes of less than $40,000 lost a job in March, said Shamus Roller, executive director of the National Housing Law Project.

"It's staggering to try to get your head around what that means in practice," Roller said.

For now, moratoriums and government assistance — like expanded unemployment benefits — have kept evictions at bay. But as these protections expire, experts say a wave of evictions is on its way.

And with coronavirus spreading, Roller said evictions create a public health risk.

"Displacing people from their housing and sending them out to look for additional housing or sending them into homelessness is a danger for all of us," Roller said.

Houston Public Media's Jen Rice contributed to this story.

Copyright 2020 Houston Public Media News 88.7. To see more, visit Houston Public Media News 88.7.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Tenants behind on their rent can be kicked out of their homes in Texas. The state has lifted its moratorium on evictions. Some Texas cities are taking additional steps to protect renters, many of whom have lost jobs because of the pandemic. Houston is not one of them. It's now the largest city in the United States where evictions can resume. Elizabeth Trovall of Houston Public Media reports.

ELIZABETH TROVALL, BYLINE: Before COVID-19, life was good for Houston resident Bridgett Hewitt (ph).

BRIDGETT HEWITT: I was a happy grandma taking care of her grandchild and just going about my everyday living, doing what I do - wake up in the morning, say my prayers, drink my coffee.

TROVALL: Then coronavirus hit.

HEWITT: Everything got quiet. It's like my life stood still.

TROVALL: Hewitt talked to me over the phone from her apartment, where she lives alone. She used to make money babysitting her granddaughter and niece. That ended with COVID-19. And her $800 disability check doesn't cover her monthly rent of $900. She says her apartment manager warned her eviction notices are on their way.

HEWITT: Nobody needs to be stressed out whether they're going to have a place to live today and be homeless tomorrow. I can't think like that right now, you know? I can't think like that, and I don't want to think like that.

TROVALL: People like Hewitt are vulnerable now that the Texas Supreme Court lifted a ban on evictions this week. Attorneys who work with low-income clients are preparing for the worst. Dana Karni works for Lone Star Legal Aid, which provides free legal representation to low-income Texans. Karni expects more families on the streets in the months ahead.

DANA KARNI: And we anticipate that there will be a tsunami of evictions filed. I have no doubt about it. We are going to see homelessness.

TROVALL: Nationally, there's been a patchwork of protections in place for renters. Other statewide moratoriums are expected to expire in the coming weeks, and unemployment is through the roof. Shamus Roller is with the National Housing Law Project.

SHAMUS ROLLER: Forty percent of households under $40,000-a-year income lost a job in March. And that's just staggering to sort of, like, to try to get your head around what that means in practice.

TROVALL: Roller says there's still a federal moratorium on evictions through late July, but that only applies to rental properties with federally backed mortgages, and that's only a third of all properties. For now, moratoriums and government assistance, like expanded unemployment benefits, have kept evictions at bay in cities like Houston. But as these protections expire, experts say a wave of evictions is on its way. And with coronavirus spreading, Roller says these evictions create a public health risk.

ROLLER: Displacing people from their housing and sending them out looking for additional housing or sending them into homelessness is a danger for all of us.

TROVALL: In Houston, so many people applied online for the city's rental assistance program that it ran out of funding in just 90 minutes. Bridgett Hewitt was one of the lucky few who were able to submit an application, but she's still waiting for final approval. If the rent money doesn't come through, she expects to be forced out of her home.

HEWITT: I pray and hope that if I do, that I'll be able to get into a shelter or my daughters will open their doors to me - that they will open their home to their mom.

TROVALL: Hewitt, like many Americans, will be at the mercy of friends and family when looking for a place to live.

For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Trovall in Houston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.