Many of Houston’s most vulnerable communities are still struggling to pay their rent during the pandemic. Rent relief programs and the CDC eviction moratorium are meant to protect them — but many are still forced out without an official eviction order.
This is part one in a two-part series on how and why people are being evicted in Houston, despite a federal moratorium halting the practice. Click here for part two, about how whether or not you’re evicted can depend on what judge you’re in front of.
At a trailer park in North Houston, Cristina Rea has spent almost three months without electricity during the tail end of a sweltering Houston summer. She lives there with her boyfriend and his mom.
In Spanish, Rea said their landlord shut off power when they were a few days late with rent. Though they still had access to the trailer, the family had been spending many summer nights sleeping in their silver car due to the heat. The landlord also cut off the water supply, so they weren’t able to use the restroom or bathe.
Her boyfriend and his mother have lived there more than a decade. She says he should have cut them some slack.
“The third day he just came and cut off everything,” Rea says. “It wasn’t right.”
But even if they could get their electricity and water back on, their trailer has become uninhabitable. The smell of rot escapes through a wedged-open door that Rea’s boyfriend, Juan Miranda, says he can barely open. Inside, the family`s clothes, shoes and microwave are all likely destroyed. Debris lies everywhere. Miranda, whose mom owns the trailer, says flooding and wind from Tropical Storm Beta caused their trailer roof to cave in.
“Everything is knocked out,” he says. “I lost everything from inside.”
It`s the latest in a string of poor luck since the pandemic.
The couple has struggled to find work — which is why they were late on rent. Rea hasn`t received any government aid due to her immigration status. And Miranda didn`t qualify for unemployment because he works informal construction jobs.
They don`t know who to turn to for help. And they aren’t alone.
Josephine Lee works with Latino immigrant families through the non-profit El Pueblo Primero. She said she’s talked to many other families who are also going through “self-evictions” — people being informally forced out of their homes.
“All this time the landlord has been pressuring them through different tactics, giving them notices to vacate, putting a padlock on their door,” Lee said. “In response some people have been self-evicting because they don`t want to go to court.”
The CDC moratorium isn’t protecting everybody in Harris County, where courts have heard more than 2,800 eviction cases since the order took effect last month.
It’s not just that some families are forced out by their landlords — they’re also losing out on rent relief and other aid because their apartment is under another name, according Rev. Ed Gomez from San Pablo`s Episcopal Church in Southeast Houston.
“They don`t have leases in their names, they don`t have utilities in their names” Gomez said. “It`s all under the person who they get to sign for them. And like that there are probably thousands — it`s the invisible Houston.”
Guadalupe Fernández works in immigration legal aid at the Tahirih Justice Center and serves on the county`s eviction task force. She said she gets frustrated when she sees families like the Mirandas in dire straits — yet often unable to access local, state and federal aid.
“If you are not addressing and targeting the most vulnerable, who are you actually helping?” she said.
Fernández said she’s seen several barriers that prevent people from getting help.
“It’s clear these systems were not designed for folks that are the most vulnerable,” Fernández said. “When you’re doing an application system online, are you ensuring that (it) has mobile capabilities because you understand that your community, the marginalized community, may have a cell phone and that’s how they are going to apply?”
Nonprofits, churches and informal community groups have picked up the slack to meet the stark need for aid — and many funds have been depleted.
Catholic Charities of Houston, for example, has provided more than $1.6 million for mostly rent and utilities since mid-March. They don`t expect the need to let up any time soon.
For now, the Miranda family is trying to get back on their feet with only the clothes on their backs.
They say it’s been hard finding assistance — they’ve mostly relied on local food banks.
Cristina Rea has two young daughters who are staying with their aunt for now — she hopes she can reunite with them soon.
And she says she’s had trouble sleeping. She stays awake wondering what she’s going to do for work, and where she’ll find the money to eat.
“I’m looking where to work,” Rea says. “If there’s work cleaning houses, I’ll go clean houses. If there’s work in remodeling (houses), I go and I work, because it’s a little bit of money coming my way so I can keep eating.”
“We’re practically left with nothing — everything was lost.”
This is part two in a two-part series on how and why people are being evicted in Houston, despite a federal moratorium halting the practice. Click here for part one, about how some landlords are forcing their tenants to informally “self-evict.”
Shemeka Smith is used to helping others. She`s a nursing student in Clear Lake and planned to assist elderly people and veterans with social services this year.
But that job offer evaporated with the pandemic, so now she`s in the uncomfortable position of needing help herself: She got temporary rent relief through the city and county’s public program administered by nonprofit Baker Ripley, but she`s emptied her savings while applying for jobs.
Running out of luck, she went online and found out about the federal eviction moratorium. She read the rules laid out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, printed out the form, and gave it to the apartment manager.
The manager threw the form in the trash, telling her that they aren`t participating in the program. Smith pushed back, informing the manager that the CDC order is a federal rule, not a voluntary program.
A couple hours later, she put an eviction notice on my door, Smith said.
Smith’s is just one example of the moratorium`s chaotic and uneven results in the Houston area. According to data from consulting firm January Advisors, less than 3% of renters in Harris County eviction courts have legal representation, so most of them are on their own. And the outcome of those cases can depend on which judge you step in front of.
Take, for example, justices of the peace Holly Williamson and Lincoln Goodwin, both Republicans.
In a Houston Public Media review this week, Judge Williamson — livestreaming her court from Pasadena — stopped most eviction cases on her docket, even taking the time to find out if renters qualified for the CDC moratorium if they didn`t know their rights. In one instance, when a renter believed he didn`t qualify for protection because his income was too high, Williamson corrected him and abated his case.
By contrast, in Judge Goodwin`s packed courtroom in the Spring area, 63 eviction cases were heard at the same time. Most renters didn`t show up, so they got evicted. Goodwin told those who did show up that the outcome likely wouldn`t be in their favor if they owed rent, telling them they were free to go before their hearing if they felt the move-out date was acceptable.
Most cases ended in eviction without the CDC moratorium stopping them.
So many Houston-area renters are still being evicted that At-Large City Council member Letitia Plummer has gone door-to-door at apartment complexes across the city to distribute the legal declaration form renters are required to give their landlords.
We`re just letting people know that that`s the declaration, that they do have rights,” Plummer said. “They don`t have to move right now.
When renters don`t get the message in time, some are still desperately trying to avoid eviction even after their court date.
That`s what Jonna Treble saw last week. An attorney with Lone Star Legal Aid and the Eviction Right to Counsel program, Treble got an emergency call early one morning. A woman said she was being evicted — and the constable`s deputy was headed over to remove her.
He was literally on the way, Treble said. She was standing in her front yard melting down because she and her daughter had dragged all of her belongings out into the yard and were trying to load it into a truck. She had nowhere to take the truck to, but she just wanted to try and keep as much of her stuff as she could.
The caller met the CDC qualifications, so Treble raced to get the CDC declaration form to the constable, the court and the landlord. She said her hands were shaking.
When I called her back, I think there was a lot of relief and some happy tears, Treble said.
While the CDC moratorium doesn`t cancel any rent — payments will accrue while the order is in effect — now she has three months to catch her breath.
As for Shemeka Smith, the Clear Lake nursing student facing eviction, she hasn’t given up. Because the moratorium doesn`t automatically stop evictions, it was up to her to know her rights.
So she gave her apartment manager the form again — this time in an email — and they agreed not to file a case.
I`m trying to stay positive about the situation and stay focused. That`s all I can do, Smith said. My goal is to pay them — that`s my entire goal, to pay my rent and go forward.”