The feared spike in eviction filings due to the end of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention moratorium has yet to take shape, at least in Bexar County, local records show. City officials, who have been stationed at the four county precincts since last year, advising renters going through the eviction process of their rights and options, said they are “cautiously optimistic” that filings won’t drastically trend upward.
This year, monthly eviction filings have been erratic and unpredictable, hitting a high of 1,044 filings in March followed by a low of 392 the next month in April. In August, eviction filings topped 990, which is more than double the 476 filings in August 2020. Both numbers are far less than the 1,998 pre-Covid eviction filings in August 2019.
For the weeks of Aug. 30 and Sept. 6, there were 260 and 267 eviction filings, respectfully—totaling 527 filings for the month so far—compared to 674 during September in 2020, and 1,828 the same month in 2019.
Judge Rogelio Lopez Jr., Precinct 4’s Justice of the Peace, believes that during the crisis, including the CDC moratorium, tenants and landlords have been forced to work closer together to resolve disputes.
“These are such different times that (we live in),” Lopez Jr. said. “We—landlords, judges, all of us—have learned to work things differently. Now perhaps it’s a little bit easier to try and work things out with each other.”
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Lopez Jr. cites the presence of city staff at the four county precincts, along with workers from SAMMinistries, who help renters navigate the labyrinthine system by informing them of their rights under Texas law. They also tell them of financial assistance available through the city and state.
“With all the agencies that are out there, willing to help,” Lopez Jr. says, “the help is for both sides—for both the plaintiff and the defendant.”
When it was in effect, the CDC moratorium paused rent for tenants impacted by Covid, including for reasons that included lost jobs, wage cuts, and exorbitant hospital bills. The ruling attempted to allow renters, who would have to submit the proper paperwork, safety in a particularly uncertain time. The moratorium was struck down by the Supreme Court on Aug. 26, less than a month ago.
One tenant lawyer, who’s been on the front lines of eviction court battles, says it’s too early to tell whether evictions filings—and actual evictions—will skyrocket.
“I do think that we are going to see increasing numbers as time goes on,” said Matt Garcia, an attorney with the Texas Rio Grande Legal Aide, which offers pro bono legal services for low-income tenants.
Garcia says because of the backlog of eviction filings, from both the former state-enforced moratorium, and the CDC moratorium, we will most likely see a spike in numbers simply because the backlogs are being worked through.
“It’s really difficult to predict exactly how things are going to play out … but you know, there’s no silver bullet in this crisis. We need to attack it from every angle,” Garcia says.
Inside JP court
Eviction proceedings before the Supreme Court struck down the CDC moratorium seemed overwhelmingly normal in Lopez Jr.’s courtroom in that people were still getting evicted. Normal, not counting plastic partitions separating the rows of seats, masked folks sitting two seats apart, Lopez Jr. holding court via Zoom. Defendants spoke into a mic and also into a computer screen directly in front of them, and they still had judgments go against them. A few cases were abated because of the moratorium, but most were not.
“I’ll survive,” a woman said after an Aug. 4 court session in Precinct 4. She was evicted from her home for unpaid back rent. She stood on the curb outside the precinct, waiting for her ride. “I’ll get through this.”
When approached, defendants asked, “What can we do?,” when faced with the reality of eviction. Most didn’t know what would come next for them. Even with the moratorium, the paperwork could be hard to sift through for a distressed tenant.
Kimberly Wolfhard fell behind on rent. She worked in construction, and her job “fizzled out,” she says, because of the pandemic. For over two years, she’s built her life with her husband, Tony, and their 4-year-old grandchild in a rented home on the southeast side of town. In August, their landlord, Paul Hawbecker, took the Wolfhard’s to court due to what he claimed was a “holdover”—meaning the tenant still resides in the home after a lease had expired. But the case was filed under unpaid rent due to Hawbecker filling out the forms incorrectly.
Kimberly Wolfhard says she immediately went to the Texas Rent Relief Program (TRRP), which “provides emergency funds available to help Texas renters pay rent and utility bills (including past due rent and utilities),” and followed through with the paperwork.
Wolfhard also says that Hawbecker wanted to frame the case as a holdover because the TRRP already paid her back rent—even though Wolfhard “is not paying me, hasn’t paid for (rent), I don’t know, since April,” Hawbecker told the Heron.
Either way, because the Wolfhards filed for help under the CDC moratorium, the case was postponed for 60 days. “None of (Hawbecker’s) paperwork is current,” she says. “He didn’t go through the right legal means.”
When it comes to evictions in Bexar County, the bureaucracy and the language of the law can often hinder folks’ understanding of their rights as tenants and landlords. This can eventually cause unnecessary harm and hardship, and sometimes even unlawful evictions.
Under Texas law, when a landlord wants to evict a tenant, they must issue them a “notice to vacate” for nonpayment of rent, the first step in a weeks-long process. Landlords then have three days before they can file an eviction lawsuit against the tenant. Even then, it may be a few weeks before both sides appear in court. Some tenants, however, interpret the initial “notice to vacate” to mean they themselves must vacate the premises.
In June 2020, the City Council passed a local ordinance, called a “notice of tenants’ rights,” which requires landlords to provide a document to renters informing them of their rights and providing a list of resources. The note also urges both parties to resolve their dispute through a payment plan.
[ Related: San Antonio landlords now obligated to inform tenants of rights | June 26, 2020 ]
Also a product of the pandemic have been workers with the city’s Neighborhood and Housing Services Department (NHSD) and SAMMinistries setting up stations at Justice of the Peace courts helping tenants navigate the eviction process with consultations and resources. The tables are set up with pamphlets, papers, and brochures outlining resources.
The city’s Emergency Housing Assistance Program, also known as EHAP, has helped tenants pay for rent as well as cost of living expenses during the pandemic. Since April 2020, the program has dispersed $141 million toward rent and cost-of-living expenses, and is funded primarily by the CARES Act. Of that total, $119 million has gone toward rent and mortgage assistance, helping 126,191 individuals in San Antonio, according to the city’s EHAP dashboard.
Additionally, on Sept. 2, the City Council voted to seek a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) to bolster its “right to counsel” program, which grants tenants an attorney pro bono during the process, as well as housing navigators, which inform tenants of their options and resources available to them.
For two years, the city would be able to hire five full-time housing navigators who would work strictly in the JP courts. The Texas RioGrande Legal Aid could also add four full-time attorneys and three paralegals to augment the program.
Already, the program has had over 90 percent success rate in keeping families in their homes, the city says. If awarded, the augmented program will go into effect Oct. 15, and end in October 2023, but the city is hopeful it will become a permanent program.
[ Related: San Antonio’s rental assistance to continue as CDC eviction moratorium expires | July 29, 2021 ]
Other planned outreach efforts by the city include installing housing info kiosks, like ATM machines, throughout the city, and house calls for families likely facing eviction, NHSD Executive Director Veronica Soto told the City Council earlier this month.
“We know filings are going to increase, but it’s still too early for us to know by exactly how much,” said Sara Wamsley, NHSD’s housing policy manager. But with the Texas Rent Relief Program and the Emergency Housing Assistance Program still an option for renters, the city is “cautiously optimistic,” Wamsley says, that the increase in number of filings won’t be as drastic as feared.
Teri Bilby, executive director of the San Antonio Apartment Association, says her organization works to provide education and training for people who operate rental housing. The association also works with the San Antonio Board of Realtors and the city to provide education to landlords and tenants.
When tenants are served notices to vacate, Bilby says, tenants don’t often realize that the notice is just that—a notice—and not an immediate eviction. In talking to and educating residents, she says, it “starts a dialogue” over the procedure. Even when all other avenues have been exhausted, Bilby says, “sometimes … filing an eviction is where the education actually is able to happen.”
Although these new programs have helped keep San Antonio residents housed, facets of the CARES Act and the CDC moratorium raised more questions and seemingly caused more confusion with local officials, landlords, and tenants alike. Most renters are not aware of the laws, their deadlines, not to mention their basic rights as tenants.
Ian Benavidez, NHSD’s assistant director said the city can do everything it can to help a tenant, but if the tenant doesn’t “show up for court, the way that the (judicial) process is, it really limits some of our ability to intervene.”
Bilby said when the moratorium was in effect, some tenants saw the word “moratorium” and mistakenly believed that under the order they didn’t have to pay rent. “It’s been called an eviction moratorium. But it’s not a moratorium … it pauses the process,” she said in an interview before the moratorium was ended. “It doesn’t actually stop the process. And so there’s a lot of confusion around that, right? Because it’s called an eviction moratorium.”
If a landlord managed a federally subsidized property (such as one where the landlord accepts housing vouchers), under the CARES Act, they were required to give the tenant 30 days notice to vacate—far more advanced notice than Texas’ three-day notice to vacate. The 30-day notice to vacate is no longer in effect. But that temporary edict wasn’t always followed, and renters were getting judgments against them anyway.
Garcia thinks that if there was a more direct link between the courts and the Texas Rent Relief Program, for example, there could potentially be less confusion and more communication between the court system, tenants, and landlords.
Although judges mentioned the CARES Act in the beginning of their proceedings, if the law was not mentioned in the hearing itself, “if the tenant doesn’t argue, ‘Hey, I only got a 24-hour notice and not a 30-day notice (to vacate)’, then most likely that defense is just going to get waived, and the court is going to find that the tenant should be evicted,” Garcia said before the moratorium was struck down.
In an interview this week, Garcia said, “The problem though, is that there’s not really any mechanism in the law for challenging … all the deadlines (that) have passed.”
Judge Lopez Jr. says that in those cases, the tenant and landlord might not know the law, and cases like that could be slipping through the cracks. This happens sometimes when legislators put laws together, Lopez Jr. said.
Lawmakers are “in such a hurry to get things going, and they don’t always follow through in terms of, ‘OK, now that we’ve got this emergency statute in place, was that supposed to be for now, until eternity, or only until the CARES Act expires?’ That question … under the terms of the language has not been cleaned up,” he said when the moratorium was still in play.
Garcia said the courts have the power to clear up any confusion and discrepancies within a case.
“Generally the courts wait for the parties to bring them issues,” Garcia said. “The Justices of the Peace certainly have the ability to require landlords to provide proof that they’ve…followed the law.”
Whatever the tenants and landlords swear to, Judge Lopez says, is what he takes as true.
For Kimberly Wolfhard, she filed for CDC Moratorium herself, brought it up in court herself, and thus the case was abated. Some tenants haven’t been so lucky.
Judges Jeff Wentworth of Precinct 3 disregarded the CDC moratorium entirely.
“The CDC moratorium (was) not a law,” Wentworth said before the CDC moratorium was killed. “The law was challenged initially, in several different federal courts around the country … so because you had different federal courts ruling differently, it went all the way to the United States Supreme Court.”
“It’s not that I’m hesitant to back the law,” Wentworth said. “I do what the Supreme Court says, not what the CDC says.”
The application process for programs like the Texas Rent Relief Program need to be streamlined, Wentworth says. What used to take two weeks to process now takes two months.
“If a tenant tells you, under oath, that they’ve made an application to the Texas Rent Relief Program, you (as a judge) don’t have any discretion, you’re obligated to reset that case for 60 days,” Wentworth said. “And that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been abating these cases for 60 days.”
The Wolfhard’s landlord, Paul Hawbecker, says the case is a circumstance instigated by a “broken system.” He owns one property, he says, and it’s the bulk of his income. Although the case was ultimately abated due to the CDC moratorium, Hawbecker also incorrectly filled out forms and says “the judge took two minutes to listen to my case and say that I messed up on the application and so I lost outright. Unfortunately, I’ve got to hire a lawyer now, which is something that I can’t really afford,” Hawbecker said in a recent interview.
“I was under the impression that I was supposed to just walk into court and the judge was going to review all of my documentation paperwork that I submitted in advance,” Hawbecker said. “And then it was all trumped by a CDC moratorium declaration page that had nothing to do with a holdover case.”
There aren’t enough resources for landlords, he says, “who just don’t know what’s going on and what to do.”
He says he might have to foreclose on his house just to make ends meet.
After the moratorium
In a recent City Council session just days before the moratorium was shut down, Veronica Soto explained how “in anticipation of the end of July moratorium date, we ramped up a lot of outreach activities” and that they saw “an uptick in moratorium applications” because of the event. Although there is no longer a moratorium, in speaking with the city, Wamsley and Benavidez again touched on the importance of outreach events, of going to the people to educate them.
Bilby says if smaller landlords continue to struggle, “(that) could potentially have a negative impact on the availability of rental housing in our city over the cost of rental housing.”
Garcia offered his take, “If folks are not able to access this rental assistance, and are displaced or made homeless, I think we’re going to see the deterioration of a lot of the social fabric that’s been built over many generations in our city.”
Emily Drisch is a freelance journalist in San Antonio. Follow her at @partylkeits1999 on Twitter
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