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Tenants' advocates and federal, state and local leaders have raised concerns for several months about a potential wave of evictions that could occur this fall without substantial added relief for renters and property owners.
New data from the US Census Bureau's Household Pulse Survey underscores the concern, revealing that in Texas specifically, around 40 percent of renters have "no" or "slight" confidence about making rent next month- and millions have relied on temporary sources of income, including expanded unemployment benefits and stimulus checks, to pay their bills.
Robert Soza Jr, along with his work as a partner for law firm Jackson Walker, is President of the San Antonio Legal Services Association, a group of attorneys volunteering their time and expertise to assist with issues exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
He says that includes preparing wills for healthcare workers, assisting with probate issues, potential projects to address an increase in domestic violence cases, and an initiative to educate and support renters, many of whom could face evictions in the months to come.
"I guess the thing I’m most concerned about is the effect on children," Soza said. "To have them be forcefully removed from their home, to not have the resources to be able to attend school, this has such a traumatic effect on them.
And studies show that it’s an effect they may never recover from, and it’s an impact that may affect them even as they grow into adults, so they’re our most vulnerable in this problem."
Soza says current circumstances also present challenges for landlords and property managers, many of whom say they cannot pay their own bills or taxes without rent payments. He says all are looking to lawmakers for a stopgap measure, but in the meantime, renters should educate themselves on their rights and the timelines in place.
It's important to note that rules and circumstances may differ based on the part of Texas or Bexar County that a person lives, and renters are advised to seek official legal guidance where necessary.
KENS 5: WHAT RIGHTS DO RENTERS HAVE?
Soza: First of all, they’re entitled to notice – and that notice gives them three days before they will be sued. So they get a 3 day timetable from a notice of eviction, to the day the landlord files a lawsuit. If a landlord does not give proper notice and does not wait three days, that gives the tenant the right to object and make the landlord start the process all over again.
Attending the hearing is important, and that hearing may not be for ten days after the lawsuit gets filed. Depending on what the courts are doing, it may be longer. Futhermore, Bexar County’s instituted an exception to the rule that a tenant has to show up in court – if the tenant can show they are in a vulnerable population. We don’t know how long that will stay in place, but that’s another thing tenants can take advantage of.
There are also appellate rights after trial as well that might extend some timetables, but they do involve the tenant depositing money owed to proceed with an appeal.
Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid has compiled resources tenants can use to educate themselves on their rights. Find those, and other resources, here.
St. Mary's Law has created a housing help hotline to answer renter questions. Learn more here, or call 210-570-6135 and leave a brief message with your name, phone number and a description of the legal problem.
YOU'VE BEEN TRACKING SURVEY RESULTS ABOUT RENTER CONFIDENCE, AND MONITORING PROTECTIONS ON A FEDERAL AND LOCAL LEVEL. DO YOU THINK WE REALLY WILL SEE A "WAVE OF EVICTIONS" AND WHEN MIGHT THAT HAPPEN?
As a result of the pandemic, the proceedings in Justice of the Peace courts for evictions have been delayed. Furthermore, the CARES Act also caused delays in some housing units that receive federal funds. These two conditions have slowed the rate in which landlords are seeking evictions, because they don’t have access to the court at this point or because by law they’re prohibited from moving towards an eviction until August 24th.
So right now what we’re seeing is the near future- and what’s going to happen in the near future. We’re also looking at the numbers of people who have not paid rent last month or previously. That puts tenants in a very precarious position legally when it comes to their rights, because failure to pay rent almost always leads to an eviction.
So really, the only thing the tenant can do if they’ve not paid rent, is take advantage of the timelines the law provides to make sure they get adequate notice that they’re gonna have a lawsuit filed against them, get served properly, and then attend that hearing. Those things will help delay and give the tenant more predictability about when they need to be out, as opposed to having it thrust upon them by a constable knocking on their door with a moving company or with other officials that will be there to evict them at that time.
ARE LANDLORDS MAKING AN EFFORT TO WORK WITH RENTERS- AND HOW LONG DO WE EXPECT THEY COULD AFFORD TO DO THAT?
A lot depends on what happens in Congress. Are we going to get a new stimulus package to help people for another quarter, for a few more months?
Because ultimately, even if a landlord can be generous, a landlord has got bills. A landlord has got loans. They have banks looking very carefully at their cash flow. So landlords exercising their rights are also facing enormous pressures- and they may not have the option to be generous.
WHAT IS YOUR MESSAGE TO RENTERS AT HOME RIGHT NOW WHO ARE CONCERNED THEY AREN'T GOING TO BE ABLE TO PAY NEXT MONTH OR THE MONTH AFTER THAT?
Get educated. There are a lot of resources online. There are a lot of resources to help you understand the eviction process, there are a lot of rental assistance programs by the city of San Antonio, which is paying portions of rent. Become educated- because you don’t want to be in a position where you’re having to move yourself and your family at a time that is inconvenient, or a time that you don’t know about it, the first time you know about it is when someone knocks on the door to move you and your possessions.
That is such a traumatic effect, not only on you the tenant, but your children and your family. It’s a very traumatic experience to be evicted forcefully from your home- and I would encourage everybody to learn enough so that if they have to leave, they leave on a schedule they are aware of.
THE SAN ANTONIO LEGAL SERVICES ASSOCIATION HAS MOBILIZED TO FILL INCREASED LEGAL NEEDS FOR A VARIETY OF SERVICES, NOT JUST ON RENTERS' RIGHTS. WHAT WORK HAVE YOU BEEN DOING AND WHAT'S AHEAD?
We need many, many more volunteers for the programs we are developing right now in anticipation of what we know is growing need and will grow further through the year.
We have just completed a wills project, where we drafted wills for employees at [hospitals]; we are going to serve 300-350 people by giving them wills, end of life documents- these are hospital workers that are worried about getting COVID and having a bad outcome. We’re almost at the end of that cycle; we’ve almost completed that project.
We’re now shifting our focus to tenants’ rights; we’re recruiting people to join SALSA. Mainly civil practice attorneys in San Antonio and Bexar County, and we’re hoping that project gets off the ground mid-to-late August. We’re working closely with Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid and St. Mary’s pro bono programs as well, so we’ve got a number of partners, and we certainly will work with anyone in the community who’s got the same goals as we do in terms of helping alleviate the problems in this area.
We’re also looking to develop programs for domestic violence as well- and so we’re still working with the county on that to see if we can come up with a program they might be willing to fund. We’re also working with the county on helping people probate assets, probate estates, for deceased people- where they need to get title transfers, access bank accounts they desperately need, during this time to help them pay rent or pay a mortgage or put food on the table.
To volunteer with the San Antonio Legal Services Association or learn more about their work and services, click here.