Ann Cerda arrived at Las Palmas Shopping Center on Saturday to find that a line had already formed for an event that didn’t start for two hours.
She wasn’t there to shop. Cerda was among hundreds of people seeking free legal aid and rental assistance at District 5 Councilwoman Teri Castillo’s field office. The overwhelming turnout, on the same day that a federal coronavirus-related moratorium on evictions expired, suggested that many residents expect to be forced out of their homes.
Cerda, 56, and her husband lived with a daughter who died in May owing $12,000 in back rent. Cerda couldn’t pay, and they were given a notice to vacate in early June.
“I panicked. I thought I should start packing,” Cerda said. “I didn’t know what to do.”
But a notice to vacate is not an eviction but the first step in a long legal process. Cerda would have known this if the landlord had provided her a notice of tenants’ rights. Landlords are required by local law to provide these notices, which outline the next steps and resources in English and Spanish, to tenants being evicted for nonpayment.
Cerda said she will look into filing a complaint against the landlord for not providing the notice. But since San Antonio’s Notice of Tenants’ Rights Ordinance took effect on July 25 last year, there has been only one complaint of a violation through July 21, according to city officials.
It’s unclear how widely the ordinance is being followed. That leaves tenant advocates worried, especially because Democratic members of Congress failed to extend the moratorium over the weekend.
“We know that this ordinance … is not being enforced,” said Matt Garcia, an attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid who represents tenants.
“It’s ironic that enforcement of the ordinance depends on renters making a report,” Garcia said. “Tenants are not reporting violations because they are often unaware of their rights, the exact issue the ordinance was meant to address.”
Residents are supposed to be able to call 311 to file a complaint, but that wasn’t the case for most of the last year, he said.
“My clients have reported that when they’ve attempted to report the issue that the representative they spoke to said that that’s not in their purview,” he said.
However, he was able to report a violation through 311 last week.
“The ordinance is important because renters need to know they are entitled to the due process of law and to tell their side of the story to the court,” he said. “Our clients get told that the constable is on the way to kick them out before there has even been a hearing. That is simply not true.”
Enforcing the ordinance
Once a complaint is received, the city’s Development Services Department (DSD) investigates to determine if there was a violation, said Veronica Soto, director of the Neighborhood and Housing Services Department.
“It is important to keep in mind that the [ordinance] only applies when a landlord is issuing a notice to vacate for nonpayment of rent, the step before issuing an eviction notice,” Soto said. If someone is getting a notice to vacate for another reason, such as criminal charges or and other lease violations, a notice of tenants’ rights is not required.
The city’s Code Enforcement Division will issue a warning for a first violation. After that, violations will be addressed by an administrative hearing officer and can result in fines of up to $500 per violation, according to the ordinance.
The one complaint that DSD received (outside of Garcia’s more recent complaint) was determined to be “unfounded,” Soto said.
But the number of complaints is not the best nor only way to judge the effectiveness of the ordinance, she said.
“Because the [notice] is meant to provide resources to avoid an eviction, the best measurement of success would be [fewer] evictions filed,” she said in an email. “Right now there are a few variables to consider including the moratorium but eviction filings are down 32% from January-June 2020, and 62% from the same time period in 2019.”
Communities across the country are bracing to see the impact of resuming nonpayment evictions. It’s unclear if Bexar County will see evictions continue their downward trend or a wave of new filings that some have predicted.
“We know that because this is still a relatively new ordinance, not every landlord or tenant may be aware of the requirement,” Soto said, noting increased awareness efforts at Bexar County justices of the peace courts, which rule on eviction cases, and training with the San Antonio Apartment Association and San Antonio Board of Realtors.
For residents facing eviction, various rental, relocation, and utility assistance programs will be funded through the year through local, state, and federal money.
The Biden administration said last month 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.
The city has partnered with the county to provide on-site outreach teams at each courtroom and contact information for individuals listed on eviction dockets.
An imperfect ordinance, an imperfect system
Rich Acosta, president of the nonprofit housing advocacy group Mi Ciudad Es Mi Casa (My City is My Home), is optimistic that the tenants’ rights ordinance — and other policies to protect residents — will continue to evolve and improve.
“The [tenants’ rights ordinance] was a huge win,” Acosta said in an email. “We need to keep the progress going to truly make it successful.”
He said one way to improve the ordinance is to enhance coordination between the department that is managing the policy (Neighborhood and Housing Services) and the one that is enforcing it (Development Services).
The ordinance now may be ineffective, but it’s going to take more than one policy to establish a coordinated housing system, he said.
“It’s not like all the needed policies are going to happen at once,” Acosta said. “We will keep pushing and advocating as we go along. … [We] look forward to seeing how this new council will progress the work.”
Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7), whose office coordinated with District 5 to support the drive-thru and walk-up event on Saturday, said she was concerned that the tenants’ rights ordinance wasn’t being enforced.
“I think this, in particular, is one of those ordinances where we want to follow up and ensure compliance,” Sandoval said. “But certainly on our team, we want to reach out to the apartment complexes or any landlords … and let them know that this is something they should be doing” and provide help or materials if needed.
As she spoke, cars snaked around the crowded parking lot as staff members and volunteers answered people’s questions and provided brochures on what they’ll need to receive rental or utility assistance. Those with more in-depth needs were directed to park and wait in line behind the field office to sit down one-on-one with a caseworker inside.
In that line, a woman fanned herself in the heat with brochures on legal aid. Families looked through folders to make sure they brought all their documentation. Restless children played hide-and-go-seek in the courtyard.
The resources being explained inside are all available online, but “being able to see someone, when you’re coming for assistance, makes you more likely to trust that process is going to work,” said Sandoval, who expects more of these in-person resource fairs will be needed citywide.
‘This gives me the chance to breathe’
Cerda’s caseworker said the city’s program will cover her back rent and will be in contact with her landlord, she said.
Because her only sources of income are checks from the Social Security Administration, less than $800 per month, Cerda qualifies for assistance. The local program provides up to nine months of rental and utility assistance for residents who earn up to 50% of the area median income (AMI), which is $51,900 for an individual. Applicants making 51%-80% of AMI qualify for up to six months of assistance.
“But getting rental assistance is not always the end of the story and some tenants get evicted anyway,” Garcia said.
“The city needs to ensure that if a landlord accepts [Emergency Housing Assistance Funds] funds to cover the balance, they also agree not to evict,” he said. “The program should be used to prevent displacement and homelessness, not to subsidize evictions.”
For now, Cerda says she is hopeful that her landlord will accept the money and she can soon find housing elsewhere.
“This gives me the chance to breathe,” said Cerda, who plans on sharing her positive experience on Saturday with her friends and on social media.
“I know for a fact that there are people in my neighborhood … that are in the same boat and don’t even know about this,” she said. “There’s a lot of people like me that fall in between the cracks. … I want people to know that they don’t have to pack up and move everything.”