As a federal ban on evictions reaches its final month, officials anticipate a significant increase in filings, which could leave many residents stranded.
The ban imposed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in response to the coronavirus pandemic was again extended June 29 through the end of this month. The White House said it will be the last extension for both the eviction moratorium and another that applies to foreclosures against homeowners with federally backed mortgages.
For residents facing eviction after the moratorium lifts, various rental, relocation, and utility assistance programs will be funded through the summer through local, state, and federal money.
“There are still programs that are going to be available to help people” after the moratorium ends, said Ian Benavidez, assistant director of San Antonio’s Neighborhood and Housing Services Department. “So we just … [have to] wait and see.”
Eviction filings in Bexar County have drastically decreased since a statewide eviction moratorium started in March last year. Bexar County saw an average of 1,761 eviction filings each month in 2019, compared with 793 in 2020 and 619 this year, as of May.
“It is trending in the right direction,” Benavidez said. “I think that it’s a combination of the moratorium and landlords maybe not filing as much. But also, I think landlords are becoming much more aware of the state’s rental assistance program” and the city’s Emergency Housing Assistance Program.
The local program — which provides housing, utility, and direct cash assistance to lower-income residents — received a $55 million boost from federal COVID-19 relief grants last month, bringing the program total to nearly $190 million.
So far, the program has spent nearly $108 million helping more than 37,000 households.
A City Council member last year feared that a “tidal wave” of evictions will overwhelm the program.
“I personally disagree with that description because I think that the wave is already here,” said Matt Garcia, an attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid who represents tenants. “Evictions continued throughout the pandemic despite the moratorium, and despite [housing] assistance.”
The federal moratorium applies only to evictions due to nonpayment, and tenants must sign a sworn declaration attesting to their financial situation and efforts to secure other assistance. Bexar County justices of the peace, who rule on eviction cases, continue to hear backlogged evictions and those stemming from other lease violations.
But some tenants aren’t aware of the declaration requirement and are evicted anyway, Garcia said. “We are seeing a lot of cases … where they could qualify [for assistance], but the tenant simply is not aware of their rights and haven’t been able to provide the declaration.”
The City of San Antonio has partnered with the county to provide on-site outreach teams at each courtroom and contact information for individuals listed on eviction dockets.
“We send out mailers to both parties, the plaintiff and the tenant, with information about the [assistance] programs and propose next steps for them,” said Sara Wamsley, the city’s housing policy manager. “And we let them know to call us or email us anytime. If that’s not an option for you, we’re in the court every day, you can come visit us anytime — you don’t have to wait for your hearing. But unfortunately, people still don’t show up for court. It’s an intimidating process, and we get that.”
For people living paycheck-to-paycheck in a city that lacks reliable mass transit, getting a notice to vacate and having to show up in court — often without an attorney — is especially difficult, he said.
“We’re one of the poorest major cities in the country,” Garcia said.
Between 2015 and 2019, 17.8 percent of San Antonians lived below the poverty line, according to the Census Bureau’s 2020 American Community Survey five-year estimates.
Sometimes tenants mistakenly interpret a “notice to vacate” on their door as an order to leave immediately when it’s actually a notification that the landlord has initiated an eviction. To address this, City Council approved an ordinance last summer requiring landlords to provide an overview of the eviction process and information about assistance programs to tenants when a notice to vacate is issued.
While the state’s eviction diversion program is slated to expire in September, San Antonio will likely continue deploying outreach teams to eviction courts and funding its Right to Counsel program, Benavidez said. During a budget goal-setting meeting last month, eviction and housing issues emerged as some of the top priorities for the new City Council, he noted.
About 344,000 Texans recently stopped receiving the additional $300 weekly federal unemployment benefit, which might lead to more families applying for local assistance.
“We might need to be aware of additional activity over the next few weeks,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg told reporters last week. “But I’m confident that we have the program and resources in place to address whatever need is coming our way. And I think there are a lot of cities that are going to be bracing for what’s next as a result of the federal benefits ending.”
The Biden administration said it would help local and state governments speed up the distribution of tens of billions of dollars in unspent housing assistance. It also encouraged courts to set up or continue eviction diversion programs.
“Establishing diversion programs will help landlords and tenants reach agreement and access emergency rental assistance in addition to other available resources to keep families hard-pressed by the COVID crisis in their homes while helping make landlords whole,” a June 24 White House statement read.
The U.S. Supreme Court in late June rejected a request to lift the CDC’s moratorium. The landlords, real estate companies, and trade associations in Alabama and Georgia that filed the request argued that the CDC didn’t have the legal authority to issue such a moratorium.
Plaintiffs in Texas, also arguing that the CDC exceeded its authority, won their case in February. It awaits a hearing at the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Supreme Court, which voted 5-4, did not provide reasons for its ruling, although Justice Brett Kavanaugh suggested that he would have voted to lift the moratorium had it not been set to expire July 31.