Does your Houston City Council Member support delaying evictions amid COVID-19?

With more than 300,000 unemployment claims filed in Harris County since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many Houston renters are facing eviction and possible homelessness if they cannot pay June rent when it’s due on Monday — and many still owe back rent from March, April and May.

After a Texas Supreme Court order temporarily preventing courts from processing evictions was lifted May 18, Houston is now part of a first wave of cities in the United States where eviction proceedings can legally resume.

Houston housing advocates say they’re expecting a “tsunami of evictions” and an increase in homelessness, and some have pressed Houston-area officials to allocate at least $150 million for rent relief. Houston City Council responded with a $15 million emergency rent relief fund that opened for applications on May 13, and the money ran out within 90 minutes.

Across the country, the policy response to coronavirus-related evictions has been varied. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has halted evictions through Aug. 20 for renters impacted by COVID-19, and ordered a 90-day suspension of mortgage payments beginning in March. The city of Los Angeles passed an ordinance preventing evictions for residential renters for 12 months and commercial tenants for 3 months after the the city’s local emergency period expires.

In Texas, renters in some major metropolitan areas including Austin, Dallas, San Antonio, and El Paso are still protected under a mix of emergency orders from cities and counties, while in Houston they are not. Both Austin and Dallas have passed 60-day grace period ordinances to give tenants more time to pay rent, while San Antonio City Council voted down the policy.

Some Houston city officials, like At-Large 5 City Council member Letitia Plummer, have discussed passing a similar ordinance, but at an April council meeting, Plummer said the city attorney’s office advised against it.

Houston Public Media reached out to a spokesperson from Turner’s office for an explanation on why Austin’s ordinance wouldn’t be legal in Houston. She declined to answer the question.

Asked last week about a grace period ordinance, Turner said, “our ability to control evictions from a city point of view is very limited.”

But some legal experts have pushed back on that argument.

“If Dallas and Austin are able to do that, then Houston should be able to, as well,” University of Texas law professor Heather Way said. “Cities do have limited powers in terms of regulating the landlord-tenant relationship, and this is one of the few things that I feel like they do have the power to do.”

Houston Public Media asked city council members whether they would vote in favor of an ordinance giving renters a 60-day grace period to delay eviction proceedings. Here’s how they did, or did not, respond:

Amy Peck, District A:

“I would really have to read any proposal before commenting because there are a lot of unique factors to consider. While I don’t want to see anyone evicted, property owners have mortgages, insurance, and property taxes to pay too, so there really needs to be a balance that works for everyone. Keep in mind too that there is a moratorium from the federal government on evictions for those in a ‘covered’ property. According to the Houston Apartment Association, roughly half of apartments are in that covered category. I realize that this does not impact those who are renting homes, but this should also be a consideration when reviewing a proposed ordinance. I don’t know how that number changes for the other cities that passed the ordinances.”

Jerry Davis, District B:

(Did not respond to requests for comment.)

Abbie Kamin, District C:

“Council Member Kamin would support a local ordinance delaying eviction proceedings, provided that the City has the jurisdiction and authority to do so. The best option is for the Texas Supreme Court to re-issue their eviction moratorium to provide consistency and relief throughout the state, and is greatly disappointed that this moratorium expired last week.”

Carolyn Evans-Shabazz, District D:

In a recent city council meeting, Council member Evans-Shabazz “proposed that an ordinance should be put in place to ensure that families have more time to pay rent and prevent evictions and homelessness. She is a yes vote for sure.”

Dave Martin, District E and Mayor Pro Tem:

“Mayor Pro Tem has no comment.”

Tiffany Thomas, District F: 

“Yes.”

Greg Travis, District G:

“I would not vote to support such an ordinance. It is too simplistic a solution to a complicated situation. Each eviction case is unique. Not all evictions are the same—there are multiple reasons a person is evicted and to assume it’s all because of failure to pay due to the government shut down of the economy would be a huge mistake. There are a number of times I have seen evictions due to the individuals behavior within the community. Allowing such an individual to stay would place a number of people, and it’s usually children, in harms way. Now, if I were to only use that example, I would be making the same mistake as those arguing for such an ordinance — I would be myopic as are they. This is unacceptable on all accounts. The better situation is to allow the Court system to work as intended, and as it does. As I stated earlier, each eviction case is unique. The Courts are better able to handle the individual aspects of such cases delving into the special circumstances.  Courts have always delayed evictions for a number of reasons and I think they would do so here too regarding this government shutdown.”

“We have to be careful when we, as a City Council, delve into jurisdictions not our own.  We usually end up making big mistakes as we did with this government shutdown.”

Karla Cisneros, District H:

“This an issue that we’ve received many calls about and Council Member Cisneros wants to make sure she makes the most-informed decision. If this is something that the City of Houston determines is the best way forward and is brought to Council by the administration, then yes she would support it.”

Robert Gallegos, District I: 

“He would support.”

Edward Pollard, District J:

“Yes he would support such an ordinance.”

Martha Castex-Tatum, District K and Vice Mayor Pro-Tem:

“Vice Mayor Pro-Tem Martha Castex-Tatum is definitely sensitive to the tremendous needs of our renters. That’s why she offered an amendment to extend the moratorium to any landlords that participated in the city’s rental assistance program through June. She felt strongly about landlords who received 2 months of rental payments allowing residents a month to catch up without worrying about receiving an eviction notice. She also knows the importance of landlords being able to meet their financial obligations as well. Her push is to use federal funds for more rental assistance and small business grants that can provide direct and immediate relief to renters and landlords. Both are critical to getting through this pandemic.”

Mike Knox, At-Large 1:

(Did not respond to requests for comment.)

David Robinson, At-Large 2: 

(Did not respond to requests for comment.)

Michael Kubosh, At-Large 3:

(Did not respond to requests for comment.)

Letitia Plummer, At-Large 4:

“Absolutely. Within eighty-five minutes, $15 million dollars worth of rent relief disappeared. The City will never have the financial tools to meet the demand, so we must be creative in our ordinance-making ability. My chief aim is preventing an increase in homelessness in the middle of a pandemic.”

Sallie Alcorn, At-Large 5:

“I’ve heard Mayor Turner say the city does not have the authority to extend the moratorium on eviction proceedings; therefore, I don’t expect this to come before council for consideration. If the mayor decides to bring such an ordinance before council, I would support it.”