Judge Jeff Wentworth sits in the courtroom at Bexar County Justice of Peace, Precinct 3.
Precinct 3 Justice of the Peace Jeff Wentworth. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Bexar County’s five justices of the peace signed an order this week agreeing to a moratorium on evictions amid the economic upheaval caused by coronavirus spread.

The courts will still accept filings from landlords seeking to evict tenants through April 16, but they will not be heard by the courts or enforced. It was unclear if the pause of evictions will be extended beyond that date. Once it’s over, tenants could again face eviction over unpaid rent, late fees, or other lease violations.

As the City has taken steps to stop the spread of coronavirus, many bars, restaurants, movie theaters, and other businesses have closed or limited their services and hours, moves that have impacted workers who are paid hourly, don’t receive paid time off, and don’t have savings to dip into to make rent payments.

The moratorium order on evictions came after Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff declared a public health emergency last week. Wolff’s declaration included a direction to halt evictions in the county, which includes San Antonio and other smaller cities, as well as suspend jury panels.

“In my experience, this has never happened before,” said Precinct 3 Justice of the Peace Jeff Wentworth, who has held an elected or appointed office for more than 40 years.

The court is still open to receive filings and accept fee payments, Wentworth said, but there are more employees there than there are civilians.

“We’re going to have a significant logjam of cases after April 16,” he said, to get through “a lot of hearings and paperwork that hasn’t been done.”

He expects his daily caseload – which was roughly 56 criminal cases and 90 evictions last week – to double once the court is fully functional again.

When the courts will take up normal activities again is up to the Texas Supreme Court, which makes operations across the state remain consistent, Wentworth said.

Landlords may start to feel an impact from missed rent payments in the future, but many lenders provide a hardship forbearance for borrowers who are unable to make their mortgage payments, said San Antonio Board of Realtors chair Kim Bragman.

“For borrowers that may be experiencing a hardship, I encourage you to reach out to your servicer,” Federal Housing Finance Agency Director Mark Calabria said in a statement last month.

The San Antonio Housing Authority, which houses more than 50,000 residents, has indefinitely suspended late fees, notices to vacate, and evictions for noncriminal activity for all of its public housing. It also canceled or postponed transfers, move-ins, move-outs, and noncritical inspections and maintenance work. The eviction moratorium also applies to landlords who use SAHA-funded section 8 vouchers.

The City’s $1 million Risk Mitigation Fund supports various programs that help residents find or keep their housing, including relocation assistance, rapid re-housing, and emergency rent and mortgage assistance.

There’s about $500,000 left in the fund, according to a spokeswoman for the City’s Neighborhood and Housing Services Department. “Our offices and phone lines remain open during the COVID-19 situation,” she said.

Prohibiting evictions means “we’ve softened the impact” on that fund, Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) said. “It has bought us more time … to deal with this crisis.”

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The last thing the County or City wants is for residents to lose their homes, said Treviño, who successfully lobbied the city to earmark $100,000 for a tenant right-to-counsel program within the Risk Mitigation Fund last year. The pilot program gives renters access to free or discounted legal help when facing eviction.

“We need to recalibrate how we view [eviction] mechanisms that are in place,” he said. “That should be discussed at next legislative session.”

Evictions were a problem in San Antonio long before the virus was, he said. “The coronavirus has demonstrated that we’ve had a lack of empathy for the issues going on in our community.”

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Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@sareport.org