When Mayor Sylvester Turner announced an eviction “grace period” in February to give Houstonians impacted by the pandemic more time to pay rent, the city of Houston and Harris County were working to set up a program to distribute a combined $159 million from the federal government that they set aside for rent relief.
It was significantly more assistance than they’d been able to distribute in the past, with Turner calling it a game changer.
“I do not think people ought to be evicted when these dollars are coming, in this time period, because the dollars are there,” Turner said.
Council members voted to approve a grace period ordinance that the mayor said would put evictions on pause from mid-February through the end of March, coinciding with the date a federal eviction moratorium was set to expire.
But an analysis of eviction data found that the grace period had little to no effect on stopping or delaying evictions in Houston. According to data from January Advisors, landlords filed 2,132 evictions and judges heard 2,959 cases. The federal moratorium was extended, while the city’s grace period was not.
In the Houston area, more renters have been evicted during the COVID-19 pandemic than almost anywhere else in the country — more than 18,000 cases have been filed within the city alone — and Turner’s recent effort to slow that down doesn’t appear to have had much of an impact, though January Advisors founder Jeff Reichman said it may have made a slight difference in the number of case filings.
“During the grace period, what we saw is that the number of cases filed went down and the number of CDC declarations went up,” Reichman said. “But the movement was very small. It was not significant. So it did what it was supposed to do, but it did it in a very small way.”
The cities of Austin and Dallas have each had grace periods in place for more than a year. The Austin grace period delays the eviction process by requiring landlords to post a warning notice to renters and wait 60 days before they’re able to post the official notice to vacate. The Houston grace period had no similar requirement.
With a near total ban on evictions during the pandemic, the Austin area has had among the lowest eviction rates in the country.
The city and Harris County did manage to allocate a good portion of federal rent relief money while the ordinance was in effect. With a staggering 44,821 applications to sort through, by the first week of April, $30.5 million had been allocated for 8,377 families.
A spokeswoman for Turner directed questions to Tom McCasland, the city’s housing department director.
Asked about whether the grace period was effective, McCasland said the drop in filings was a sign that the grace period did help people, especially since it was coupled with rental assistance.
“As you can see if you look at Harris County’s eviction filings, the numbers do go down,” McCasland said. “Now does it go down to where it needs to be as a result? It doesn’t.”
The ordinance wasn’t modeled on the grace period policies in Austin and Dallas. The goal, according to McCasland, was to signal to landlords to hold off on filing evictions with a one-time pause.
“One of the things we wanted to communicate to the landlords was that just like our prior programs, just like the county’s prior programs, this rental assistance was going to be effectively, efficiently, and we would get the money out quickly, and that we needed time to do so. So pushing through a bunch of evictions right as $150 million is coming into the community is not a good plan,” McCasland said. “And so that’s what that plan was modeled on.”
Yet thousands of evictions were in fact pushed through, housing advocates argue.
“The numbers don’t lie – for this grace period to have been effective it should have outlasted the CDC, monitored and enforced violations, and suspended filings,” Zoe Middleton, another member of the housing task force and the Southeast Texas co-director of the policy group Texas Housers, said. “Instead, Houstonians got a PR move in the eleventh month of the pandemic after thousands of evictions had been filed that masqueraded as policy.”
Others called the Houston grace period more or less a duplication of the national moratorium.
“It was just very limited in its scope, and really at the end of the day pretty similar to the protections that were already available under federal law, which also have a lot of limitations that come with them,” said Heather Way, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
Sandy Rollins, the Dallas-based head of the Texas Tenants Union, said it was difficult to determine what impact the ordinance had. And in fact, Rollins said, she couldn’t tell it played any role in stopping evictions.
“It was disappointing,” Rollins said. “One, that it was a six-week ordinance. Two, that it came so very late in this crisis. And three, that it seems as though evictions continued to be filed despite the passage of the ordinance.”
For Houston’s renter advocates, the grace period came after nearly a year of refusals. Despite calls from the public, support from council members, and a unanimous vote of approval from the city and Harris County’s joint COVID-19 housing stability task force, Turner kept a grace period off the council agenda, insisting that delaying evictions would hurt renters by putting them further in debt.
When District B Council Member Tarsha Jackson asked Turner the week before the grace period expired if he planned to extend it, Turner responded that the rent relief program was going well, but wouldn’t say whether or not he would offer to extend the grace period.
Chrishelle Palay, a member of the housing task force and the executive director of the Houston advocacy group the HOME Coalition, said she was grateful to see a grace period proposal resurface in February, especially since Houston City Council passed the measure in the middle of Winter Storm Uri, while many Houston renters were experiencing a power outage crisis on top of a pandemic.
But she added that she wished it had done more.
“We were glad to see that it passed, but also understanding that it was not as strong as it really could have been. It did not provide clear protections for tenants,” Palay said. “So definitely disappointed in that, and then also even further down the line when we realized that there was a moment that this was definitely going to end, that it never was revisited.”