New Houston task force aims to prevent evictions

Houston and Harris County Recovery leaders are forming a task force to prevent the mass of evictions expected to begin soon.

The Housing Stability Task Force says their aim will be preventing evictions, mitigating the impact on landlords and tenants, and stabilizing households

They're just getting started so no specific plans were announced yet, but one idea already being discussed is funding legal counsel for tenants facing eviction hearings.

Renters who can't pay the rent are stressed as they face possible eviction, homelessness, and being left vulnerable to catching COVID-19.

"If you're testing positive, if your family is testing positive, you more than likely have to isolate for 7 to 14 days. You need to be in a home. So I think the urgency has always been there," said Harris County Recovery Czar and Representative Armando Walle.

The Task Force leaders, Walle and Houston Recovery Czar Marvin Odum, were joined by Justice of the Peace Jeremy Brown, who said low-income tenants need to be provided legal counsel just like they would be in criminal court.

"If we're serious about this being a basic need, right, this is why we need local dollars to fund legal aid services.  Because this is a complex system," said Brown.

Another idea discussed was following the lead of cities such as Austin that imposed 60-day rent relief period. Though Judge Brown says that can't be argued in court as a defense against eviction.

"If the City of Houston came up with an ordinance, a tenant would not be able to use that as a defense in my court, because state law only gives certain defenses that tenants can use," said Brown.

Last week, Harris County Judge Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Turner wrote a letter asking the 16 Justices of the Peace to delay eviction hearings until August 24th.  Some are delaying, but most are moving forward, saying they cannot delay without an order from the Texas Supreme Court.

"Even with the moratorium, it's not going to stop Judge Brown from hearing these cases.  It's immediate," explained Walle.

Only about 28% of renters are protected by the Federal CARES Act provision that delays evictions in federally-funded homes until August 24.

The Gulf Coast Labor Federation, which has been advocating on behalf of tenants facing evictions, issued this statement today

"Unemployed workers who have lost their jobs due the pandemic should not be thrown out on the street in the middle of a public health crisis. The Gulf Coast Labor Federation is thankful to Harris County for the constructive steps they've taken to address the ongoing COVID-19 eviction crisis, including the creation of a $30 million relief fund and today's establishment of an eviction prevention task force. We also strongly support County Judge Hidalgo and County Attorney Ryan's efforts to encourage Harris County Justices of the Peace to use their legal and constitutional authority to suspend COVID-related evictions through August 24th."