Out of the 48 individuals and families in the Eastside apartment complex that Robert Hale owns, one faces eviction now that the coronavirus pandemic-triggered eviction moratorium has been lifted.
Hale said that during the pandemic he froze rent increases and didn’t charge late fees. The tenant he’s seeking to evict “was working the whole time through the pandemic … no issues with income.”
But the tenant hadn’t paid rent in several months. In the end, Hale felt he had no choice but to force the tenant out.
“Some [tenants] just don’t want help,” he said.
For landlords, the end of the eviction moratorium last month means they can now evict tenants for nonpayment. During the moratorium, people could still be evicted for lease violations such as criminal activity.
And while many landlords got help from the pandemic rent relief programs designed to keep tenants in their homes, others found it difficult to get tenants to apply for assistance.
Some landlords faced both situations. The vast majority of the people who live in Hale’s complex, which is made up of two-bedroom apartments renting for $840 a month, have worked with him to take advantage of rental assistance programs, he said.
“We have a decent portion of residents who were in the service industry,” said Hale. “So we did have some job loss in our community, for sure.”
Since Hale purchased the property more than three years ago, he estimates he has had to evict only 10 or 12 tenants. While he did file some evictions for nonpayment during the pandemic (filing was allowed during the moratorium, and it often was the step that prompted tenants to seek assistance), none of those cases resulted in eviction. They were able to connect with state and city rent relief programs.
“I think that landlords get a bad rep for evicting, but I can tell you something: there’s nothing pleasant about that from our standpoint either,” he said. “It’s not emotionally satisfying at all to see somebody suffer. … Nobody wins from a financial standpoint. The resident’s losing, the landlord’s losing. It’s a lose-lose situation when we actually have to end up going to eviction.”
Some people think we want to kick people out, he added. “Hell no. Our business [is] to serve people and we can’t do it for free, because the mortgage comes, payroll comes, taxes come, all those kinds of things come and we still have to operate the business.”
Connecting tenants to resources is “part of what we would do normally just to prevent evictions,” but his and his staff’s efforts have greatly increased, he said.
‘We really will be homeless’
On Friday morning, Judge Rogelio Lopez started hearing eviction cases that were paused during the moratorium. He had roughly 100 cases on his docket and granted about a third of landlords a default judgment for eviction because those tenants didn’t show up. They were given five days to leave the property or appeal. Roughly another third of the cases were dismissed because neither tenant nor landlord showed up. That likely meant either the tenant had already left or had worked out a deal with their landlord on their own, Lopez said.
Several other cases were moved to another date, and about a dozen went to trial right then.
One woman, whose lease expired in January, said she couldn’t find a new place to live because her car had broken down. The landlord wasn’t seeking payment; he just wanted the woman and her daughter to vacate.
She said she needed 30 days to find a new place “or we really will be homeless,” she told the judge.
Lopez asked if the landlord would accept a compromise.
“If I’m handed the keys on September the 30th … I will dismiss the case,” the landlord responded.
“I can work with that,” the woman said.
If she doesn’t, the case will proceed on Oct. 6.
Most of the cases heard Friday resulted in a 60-day extension for the two sides to figure out a payment plan or apply for assistance. In at least two cases, however, the landlord declined to participate in the Texas Eviction Diversion Program, which offers lump sum payments to landlords in exchange for allowing tenants to remain in their homes.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the moratorium, Lopez said he has not seen a significant increase in eviction filings. In two weeks, he’ll see the remaining 100 cases that were paused when tenants filed the declaration required by the moratorium.
One hundred cases in one day might sound like a lot, but the docket moves quickly, as absences are common. Landlords are required by a local ordinance to provide tenants with notices that outline the process and offer resources in English and Spanish to tenants being evicted for nonpayment.
It’s unclear how widely that rule is being followed.
Most landlords in court or attending via Zoom on Friday were represented by an attorney or management firm. None of the tenants appeared to have legal representation.
“Somebody who’s getting evicted for not paying their rent doesn’t have money for a lawyer,” said Christina Trejo of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, which provides free assistance at the courts. Unlike criminal or civil courts, the county is not required to appoint an attorney in eviction cases.
The City of San Antonio and Texas RioGrande have set up kiosks inside the justice of the peace courts to connect residents with legal help as well as rental and relocation resources.
“What we’re trying to do here today is capture people who kind of slipped through the cracks,” Trejo said. “There’s a lot of ways that different entities try and reach out to tenants before it gets to actually eviction day … but when they walk in here, it’s the very last place that they can get caught and helped.”
Having an eviction on their record means tenants will struggle to be accepted by landlords in the future. Federal law allows tenant screening companies to access and report eviction filings and judgments for up to seven years.
The city’s budget for its Right to Counsel program, which partners with Texas RioGrande or San Antonio Legal Services Association to provide tenants with legal counsel, has grown fivefold since it began in 2019 as a pilot, to nearly $500,000 this year with additional city and federal coronavirus relief grants. The city also has applied for a $3 million grant that would allow the city to serve even more residents through eviction mitigation programs such as the Right to Counsel program.
The city also has millions in federal grants for its Emergency Housing Assistance Program, which helps residents with overdue utility and internet bills as well as relocation costs. Cash assistance is no longer available, but city staff can help those who qualify enroll in long-term benefits programs.
Rental assistance is landlord assistance … to a point
The rental assistance programs have helped many landlords stay afloat, Hale said.
“It minimizes the loss that we have for sure as landlords,” he said. “But we’ve had tenants that didn’t want to sign the paper, didn’t want to turn in an application. And then after four months, they just leave and go somewhere else,” leaving the landlord unable to recover the unpaid rent.
“We’ve written off a lot of bad debt over the last year,” he said.
For landlords like David Fisher, who owns more than 30 single-family homes and smaller apartment complexes, the rent tenants pay is his and his wife’s only source of monthly income.
His experience was similar to Hale’s in that most tenants were willing to seek rental assistance. He even ended up hiring some tenants to do maintenance and repairs at his properties.
Fisher said 1%-2% of tenants “don’t want to follow the rules and don’t want to work with us.”
He vehemently disagreed with the moratorium because he said it allowed some tenants to take advantage of landlords. Moving from one home to another wasn’t more dangerous “because of COVID,” he said.
But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued the moratoria for evictions to keep people out of congregate settings — such as shelters or other family members’ homes — and in their own homes. And a recent study found evidence that “eviction-led housing insecurity may have exacerbated the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“A lot of us were really scared because [the pandemic] was the unknown,” Fisher said. “It was like, this could be the end of the world. … Are we gonna be able to pay our mortgage payments? Because if they stop all the renters from paying rent, that was our biggest fear.”
The moratorium might have helped some renters, but it offered no way to make landlords whole, Fisher said. “We’re here to [house] other people, but if you cut our legs off underneath us, we can’t help more people. So I’m glad it’s over. That was not the right way to go about this.”
Fisher evicted a few tenants during the pandemic who didn’t qualify for protection under the moratorium and has other evictions pending. The end of the moratorium hasn’t prompted him to file any additional evictions.
He acknowledged that not all landlords try to help their tenants out.
“There are so many [landlords] out there that don’t do it right,” he said. “They don’t take care of people. To us, it’s like, if you take care of people, they’ll take care of you.”