Problems in Texas eviction courts
By John Henneberger
May 5, 2022
0:00 / 22:37
John Henneberger00:00

This is A Little Louder, a podcast for wonks housers, and rabble-rousers where we talk about fair housing, community development and how we can use these issues to build people power and work toward equity and justice. I'm John Henneberger and today's short version of our podcast is a buzz session where we talk about current issues facing Texas affordable homes and neighborhoods.

And once again, today, we're talking about evictions. In some Texas cities, evictions have reached or exceeded the pre pandemic levels, Texas Housers and other tenant rights organizations have been observing eviction proceedings in Texas justice of the peace courts. We're trying to understand how tenants are doing in the proceedings and whether the judges are administrating the eviction proceedings in compliance with the orders of the Texas Supreme Court

. We've seen judges in a number of instances that are not following the process outlined by the Supreme Court, and the result is that tenants are being wrongfully evicted. Two Texas housers who've been observing court will tell us today about what's going on. Tori Travermina from Houston and Erin Hahn from San Antonio.

Erin what's the eviction situation in San Antonio in Bexar county?

Erin Hahn01:26

According to the Texas Housers eviction case dashboard, Bexar county had 2,166 new eviction cases in February, which is the most recent month that we have eviction data for. That's up 11.2% from a month prior and 41.3% from the month before that, We're estimating that one out of every 122 renter households in Bexar county faced a new eviction case in February.

So it's an, the concerningly high rates of Bexar county renter households being evicted and the problem is only getting worse.

John Henneberger01:58

Yep. Getting bad.

Tori. What about Houston and Harris county? What are evictions looking like there?

Tori Tavormina02:05

Yep. Harris county has been in the top five evicting cities in the country for the entire year of 2022 so far, according to the Eviction Lab. Last week, the Houston area actually saw 1,104 new eviction filings in a single week. And according to the Eviction Lab, Houston area, eviction filings have been worse than before the pandemic for all of 2022. So 65% over average in February, 80% over average in March and 45% over average in April.

According to the Texas Housers eviction dashboard, Harris county also has the highest eviction ratio. In February that was one out of every 109 renters facing a new eviction case.

John Henneberger02:57

Well, so we've got a problem, and it's getting bad again. it's been bad for a long time, but it's getting worse.

The eviction rates going up after the, court orders about, differing evictions. So, Tori and Aaron, you both are spending some time going into the justice of the peace courts and observing the eviction proceedings. And for folks who don't know, the eviction process involves the justices of the peace hearing a landlords' lawsuit against the tenant, and then ruling whether the tenant can be evicted or not.

Tori. What are the problems that you're seeing with the way that the judges in the justice of the peace courts are handling these eviction hearings?

Tori Tavormina03:44

Yeah, good question. So what's really concerning for me is that it really varies by justice. So each court kind of has it's own problems. One common issue that is considered one of the basics for legal hearings is even just swearing in, landlords and tenants before the hearing begins. Some of our justices don't swear in plaintiffs or defendants before the hearing. and that's a really important part of the process. We also are seeing a lot of inconsistencies with how justices are interpreting the emergency order from the Supreme Court of Texas, which requires abatement for cases of active rent relief applications.

John Henneberger04:35

Why is it important that the judges swear the defendant and the plaintiffs and any witnesses in?

Tori Tavormina04:46

It's important to remind them that they are under oath. Right? And so they must speak the truth. during the hearing. There are times when there are disputes between landlords and tenants, right? And we want to make sure that everyone is speaking the truth. This is also really important when it comes to things like, emergency rental assistance applications, because we do have an emergency order from the Supreme Court of Texas that requires judges to abate a eviction cases for 60 days if a landlord is in the process of any rental relief application with that tenant. We see a lot of landlords saying they don't want to participate anymore, but they are technically still in the process. And that's how we get a lot of problems like tenants being evicted and landlords being paid after the tenant has already left,

John Henneberger05:46

Paid by the State of Texas or by the local government's emergency rent assistance program.

Tori Tavormina05:52

Yeah, correct.

John Henneberger05:53

Yeah. So Erin, what about Bexar county and San Antonio? Are you seeing similar, both procedural problems and people getting evicted when they shouldn't be evicted?.

Erin Hahn06:06

Yeah. So yesterday was the first time that Texas Housers staff have observed, Bexar county eviction court in person. We've gathered a lot of data in our Harris county CourtWatch program. but Tori and other Texas Housers have been working on expanding our CourtWatch other cities or other counties.

Just on our first day of observations in Bexar county, we are already seeing that, justices of the peace were not interpreting, the emergency order that Tory mentioned before, correctly. in regards to abating a case where the tenants and landlord has applied for rental assistance.

We were seeing that the JP would still issue an eviction judgment, to a tenant who had a pending application for rental assistance. If the landlord, requested it, instead of, instead of, abating this case for 60 days to give the application time to be approved. And so in this case, he would inform the tenant that they could, that they should try to get in touch with either Texas rent relief or the local program they applied to, try to get the program to expedite the payment. And if the payments could reach the landlord before the constable showed up at the tenant's door, then the tenant could call the courts and he would undo the judgment. But that, that's just an incorrect interpretation of, of this emergency order.

It's not open to interpretation. It's very. black and white. If a tenant and landlord has a pending application for assistance, the case needs to be abated. The payment doesn't need to reach the landlord in the next five days before the, the writ, is issued. so that was unfortunate to see on our very first day of court watch in Bexar county.

John Henneberger07:40

Both of you all have seen instances in which justices of the peace have gone ahead and proceeded with granting an eviction order against a tenant and told the landlord, you can go get the constable and remove the tenant from the property when the justice of the peace should not have done under the instructions that they have received from the Texas Supreme Court. Am I understanding that right?

Tori Tavormina08:10

Yes.

John Henneberger08:13

Let's unpack this again a little bit, because this is really complicated stuff for people who havn't ever been to an eviction hearing. There is this emergency rental assistance program that the state administers and in some cases, cities and counties administered. When the Supreme court issued its order to the justices of the peace about when to evict somebody and when not to, the Supreme Court said to the justices of the peace, "you need to find out if the landlord and the tenant have agreed to apply for rent assistance." And that's a requirement that they both agree in order to get rent assistance from most of these government agencies.

The Supreme Court said if they both agreed, the landlord and the tenant, then what has the justice of the peace have to do in order to grant the landlord's request to give an eviction?

Tori Tavormina09:13

So first I want to clarify that it does say, the landlord and tenant have to agree. Yes, that is correct. But it also specifies that even if the landlord has submitted documents to participate in the rent relief program, that counts as participating. yeah. So what, what we're seeing is justices ask, "do you want to proceed with the eviction? Do you want a judgment today?"

John Henneberger09:43

Asking the landlord that question?

Tori Tavormina09:45

Yes. During the hearing you ask that of the landlord and the landlords tend to say, we want a judgment today, we want possession and back rent of the unit, something like that. Despite that active rent relief application. But technically what the justices are required to do according to that language in the emergency order would be to immediately abate the case for 60 days and seal the record.

So that means, if a tenant is applying to other housing ,then their name won't be searchable in the eviction record database, which is very important for finding new housing. And then what can happen is if within that 60 day abatement, the rent relief application is denied, then the landlord can petition to reinstate the case.

And then they'll have another hearing.

John Henneberger10:39

So basically what the Supreme Court told justices of the peace to do is if there's a pending application where both the landlord and the tenant have agreed to apply, then you can't evict that person for two months, 60 days?

Tori Tavormina10:54

So during the 60 day abatement, the landlord can reinstate the case if the application has been denied for a rental assistance and then they'll have another hearing, because reinstating the cases basically saying, "okay, we're ready for another hearing." So, then they get on the schedule to go back in front of the judge

What we believe judges must do is, if there is a pending rent application request from the landlord and the tenant, then the judge needs to stop the eviction hearing at that point, hold off for 60 days and tell the landlord, you can come back in 60 days and we'll then hear this case. What the Supreme court ordered is a 60 day freeze on evictions when there is a pending application.

John Henneberger11:46

And what have you all observed as happening in some cases?

Tori Tavormina11:52

What we're seeing in multiple courts are different interpretations of this emergency order, which what we've described as pretty clearly stated in the order itself. but we'll see judges ignore rent relief, not even ask if there's an existing rent relief application or interest in rent relief.

We see judges who will proceed with the eviction judgment and say, if you do pay the landlord or if the rent relief does come in before the writ date, which is when the constable can come and force a tenant out of a unit, then you can call the court and we'll dismiss the case or, rescind the judgment, something like that.

And then there are, there are a few justices that do actually, um, uh, the cases, which is wonderful. It's wonderful to see when someone follows the law. Oh, and then we do have another situation where judges will, hear that rent relief is in process. And instead of abating the case for 60 days, they'll reset it for one week or reset it for two weeks which, as Erin can attest to it, that's usually not enough time for rent relief programs to get through the whole process of processing the application, sending out the money, money being delivered, which is why the 60 days is really important.

John Henneberger13:23

Some of our listeners may be surprised to learn that there are judges who are not following the law in this instance. The consequences of this seemed to me to be very serious. This is not a trivial matter. It's a matter of whether you and all your possessions are put out on the street or not.

And we are saying that we are observing. courts, justices of the peace in this state who are not following the law, who are evicting people in contradiction to the Supreme Court's order about how those cases should be handled when rent assistance has been applied for. And thus people are out at least 60 days before they would normally be required to be removed from the property.

They're not given the time to prepare. They're not given the time to find alternative housing and there's serious repercussions with that. And in addition to that, there's the problem that you mentioned about people ending up on a black list, it's far worse than a bad credit report, because there are professional organizations that landlords subscribe to who go around collecting information about what tenants are evicted.

And then when you end up on one of those lists as having an eviction, basically a lot of the better properties won't be available to you. So there's serious life repercussions to judges, not following the law. And I think one of the few places that we really expect that the laws will be implemented and the laws will be followed, is in a courthouse when a judge is setting there, Erin, have you seen other problems that are associated with the rent relief program?

Erin Hahn15:12

Yeah, probably the most frustrating moment for me while as an, as a housing advocate while observing court yesterday was the case of one woman who expressed to the judge, that she had applied to Texas rent relief and been approved for several months of assistance that would cover all of her back rent that was owed.

But Texas rent relief, unfortunately. sent the check to the wrong landlord, to somewhere in Alabama. And she was in constant conversation with them, trying to get this fixed. and Texas rent relief reissued the check, and sent it to the wrong address again. so at this point for her landlord was, was frustrated, just wanting to evict and was done waiting for Texas rent relief to fix its mistakes.

The judge issued the eviction, and told the woman, even though there was, again, a pending application for rental assistance, the check had not yet been delivered to the correct landlord. The application was still in process and the payment was still in process. So the JP should have abated this case for 60 days so that they could, they could get it sorted out, especially because the assistance was already approved.

But unfortunately she was issued an eviction. and the JP just seemed very, unaware of, of the nuances of rent relief and how Texas rent relief can. it can be very difficult for a tenant who is likely experiencing a lot of other life happenings, a lot of other, stresses in their life. For a tenant to get into contact with Texas rent relief, their call centers is overwhelmed and it can take tenants days or and hours spent on hold to reach someone who can help them when they experience issues like this.

The judge just did not seem aware of how difficult it can be to get in touch with Texas rent relief and was telling the tenant, who was frustrated. he kind of snapped at her and as if he was, doing her a favor, giving her these five days, in between when he issued the judgment and when the constable was going to remove her from the property, to get in touch with Texas rent relief, and ask them to expedite the payment and get it to her landlord.

When clearly she had been doing everything she could through this entire process to try to get through to the call center and just wasn't able to. And so we're seeing one, judges aren't abiding by tenant protections like this emergency order that mandates the abatement of a case with the pending application for rental assistance.

There's also just a lack of awareness and kind of coordination between all of these different spheres of government that work in housing and tenant rights. If there's obviously the disconnect between the Supreme Court, who's issuing these emergency orders and the courts, which are not interpreting them correctly or choosing not to.

And then there's also a disconnect between the courts and the, the rental assistance programs, in executing this emergency order because there's kind of no way for the judge to confirm, It's not an easy way for the judge to confirm that there is a pending application for rental assistance and maybe in an ideal world, there'd be some kind of database where they can look up and see the tenant has applied, the laminate has applied just immediate abatement. But instead, sometimes the JP will rely on, on what the landlord is saying over what the tenant is saying. And so there's that empowering balance in the courts. so in summary, protections, aren't being followed through aren't being interpreted and executed as they should be and tenants are being evicted wrongfully.

John Henneberger18:33

So we've got, in some cases, the JPs are not swearing in people, so it's not clear there's consequences for not telling the truth and the whole system is very dependent upon landlords representing factually accurate information about the situation with the tenant. Number two, we've got a situation where the government agencies that are administering rent relief are too often having administrative problems, which are denying people who correctly applied for assistance the check. And so when the check doesn't come, the eviction process moves forward. And then third, we've got justices of the peace who are not following the direction of the Supreme Court, the order of the Supreme Court, to abate for 60 days cases where there is a pending application for rent assistance.

And then finally, we've got situations where some justices of the peace are rude or seem to be biased against the tenant. And the consequence is the tenant loses the apartment prematurely and they end up on a black list and their life is turned upside down. And the one place where we all hope that you could come to get justice and equal and fair treatment is the courthouse.

It doesn't sound like that's happening. And I think it's important that we point out that this is not all justices by any means that we've seen. These are a limited number of instances that we've seen, but they're not isolated instances. We've seen this happen more than once repeatedly and some judges are better and some judges are worse about doing this.

It's a serious problem, which is why we wanted to bring this to everybody's attention today. The solution is we believe for the Treasury Department and the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs and others administering rent assistance to make sure that the systems that they're using are appropriate, and that they're getting the checks out and for the Supreme Court to ensure that the law's being enforced by the lower courts and that their orders are being followed. And for the state agency, which does training for justices of the peace to redouble their efforts to provide training and instructions to the justices on what the law is, so that the judges are not doing this out of ignorance.

Erin Hahn21:07

I'll just say the past two years has seen an unprecedented amount of federal funding go to rental assistance programs. and so we need to make sure that it's, that it works, that it's reaching the households who need it, and that it's properly preventing evictions. And that's why it's so discouraging to see, these cases in which there's funding available and maybe it almost reached the hands of the house. but something happened either Texas rent relief made a mistake where the judge is not interpreting a tenant protections, correctly. and so I think it calls for increasing the coordination between all of these different sectors that are working in housing and eviction prevention.

We need to see better coordination between the Supreme Court and better enforcement over the JPs who are not abiding by these protections. and we need to see increased coordination between the rental assistance programs and the courts, who are really seeing where these programs are playing out and whether the money is, is properly preventing evictions or not.

John Henneberger22:08

That's all for this buzz session of A Little Louder, keep listening for both our regular in-depth podcasts and these shorter buzz sessions.

You can listen to A Little Louder wherever you find your podcasts, and you can also watch the video version of A Little Louder on our website at texashousers.org. And now our friend JT Harechmak will take us out with our theme song.