This year, Kevin Gandy spent much of Father’s Day preparing for – and stressing about – his eviction court hearing the next day.

“I wouldn’t wish this stress on my worst enemy,” Gandy told the Rivard Report.

He’s out of work and owes his landlord at Las Cimas Apartments more than $4,400 in rent for the apartment he shares with his wife and son. While City of San Antonio staff said its COVID-19 Housing Assistance Program would cover his bills, those payments hadn’t come through yet. He started his application in early May, but there was a lot of “back-and-forth” to get all his information and paperwork in order, he said.

Gandy’s eviction hearing was scheduled for 10 a.m. in Precinct 2 Justice of the Peace Roberto “Robbie” A. Vazquez’s chambers on the Northwest Side.

“They say [the City] will pay it, but I’m in limbo right now,” Gandy said before walking into the courtroom.

The Texas Supreme Court halted eviction proceedings until May 18 as the coronavirus pandemic triggered a statewide shutdown that swelled unemployment rolls; local judges resumed hearing cases on June 15. To keep residents in their homes, the City of San Antonio created a $50 million COVID-19 housing assistance fund – nearly half of which has been dispersed. Still, some residents like Gandy walk into eviction court not knowing if they qualified for that help.

Fortunately for Gandy, once there he learned that payments from the City were on their way, and Vazquez delayed the hearing until July 28. Once the rent is paid, apartment manager Olivia Panciera could drop the eviction case. Panciera did not respond to an email seeking comment on Monday.

As a 14-year U.S. Air Force veteran, the 60-year-old Gandy said he’s disappointed that his country has let him and others be threatened with eviction during a pandemic.

“This is supposed to be America. … How can this happen here?” he said.

Help from City staff, advocates

In mid-February, Gandy said he suffered what’s known as a “mini-stroke” or a transient ischemic attack. The Veterans Affairs hospital told him he needed to rest, so he took a few weeks off of his job as an on-demand contractor installing Google’s fiber optic network. He worked out a payment plan with his landlords at first, but NFI Management Company filed for Gandy’s eviction due to nonpayment on March 17, just before business closures and stay-at-home orders were issued. Work orders from his employer slowed to a crawl, and he couldn’t find another job.

He found out about the City’s assistance program and applied on May 5.

“I’m like an orphan who found a parent,” Gandy said of the network of people, including housing advocates, who helped him navigate the system. Some of them joined him in the parking lot before and after his hearing to show support for his case.

Kevin Gandy speaks about his eviction case at the Bexar County Precinct 2 Justice of the Peace office. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Gandy called Joleen Garcia of Texas Organizing Project, who worked her City Hall contacts to get his paperwork expedited, an “angel.” For her part, Garcia said she’s concerned that other residents like Gandy aren’t as fortunate.

“I don’t know how many folks are in his situation,” she said. “Unfortunately, I am not surprised that a program that services the community isn’t given enough focus and attention to reach our people.”

As of June 17, the average processing time for an application was nearly 33 days, according to an email the City sent an applicant. Typically, applications for rental assistance are completed within 30 days, said Edith Merla, a City spokeswoman.

“We needed income information for his family members,” she said of Gandy’s application. “That information was provided in early June. The City was in communication with his landlord and they have been very helpful.”

A change in the process in early June made the applications process less cumbersome: Instead of requiring both the tenant and landlord to fill out the paperwork, only the tenant applies to the City, which pays the landlord on the tenant’s behalf.

“The clients who are at the eviction courts, we’re prioritizing them,” said Edward Gonzales, assistant director of the Citys’ Neighborhood and Housing Services Department. “This is our second week at the court, but we’re constantly learning and getting feedback from our staff that are there. … Time is of the essence, especially with eviction court.”

Before Monday’s hearing, an employee from the City’s Neighborhood and Housing Services Department told Gandy the City will pay his landlord four months’ rent on his behalf, and more funds are coming to pay his utility bills. Since eviction hearings resumed last week, both the City and County have staff members stationed near the courtrooms to connect residents to resources such as housing assistance or an attorney through the City’s Right to Counsel program. So far, the eviction court has referred 15 individuals or families to the City’s housing assistance program.

New or existing applications for people facing eviction court dates are fast-tracked through the system, Gonzales said.

In addition to Gandy owing his back rent, City staff members anticipate that he’ll have difficulty paying July’s $1,162 rent payment, too, so the landlord will receive a $5,000 check. In addition, Gandy’s family will receive $300 in cash through the Family Independence Initiative.

“The checks will be mailed tomorrow and should arrive in two to three business days,” Merla said.

In the meantime, Gandy said he’s close to landing a job with FedEx as a driver.

“I want to pay rent – just like I always have for 40 years,” he said.

Kinks in the process

The City increased its housing assistance program by $25 million in April and has received 11,696 applications for funding. Nearly $23 million has been paid out or is pending. More than 3,000 applications were referred to Bexar County, were duplicates, or did not meet income threshold or other requirements.

The City’s housing assistance program will receive another $25 million from federal coronavirus relief funds, spending that was approved by City Council earlier this month. That money is slated to help another estimated 10,000 to 12,000 families pay rent.

Some activists said more of that relief funding should have gone to housing assistance. Last week, Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) joined activists with concerns that the application and payment processes take too long, letting some residents slip through the cracks towards eviction.

Because Gandy walked into the courthouse not knowing if his application was accepted or not, something is wrong with the process, Garcia said. At the very least, communications with applicants are lacking, she added.

Garcia said she is glad City staff was there to confirm his payment before the hearing to “at least give him some peace of mind.”

Nearly half of the approximately 260,000 rental units in San Antonio are protected under a federal eviction moratorium, which lasts through July 25. Residents in the city’s remaining units are subject to the eviction process now.

Gonzales, who has worked on homeless issues in the city, said there is a sense of urgency within the City’s Neighborhood and Housing Services Department. The City’s presence at eviction courts could continue post-pandemic but only with the necessary funding to sustain the program.

“It’s much harder to rehouse someone than it is to keep them in a home,” he said. “We’re doing everything we can to be flexible.”

In May, City Council rejected a “right to cure” relief measure that would have given tenants an additional 60-day notice before a landlord could start the eviction process.

The legal standing of that rule, however, would have been shaky, Vazquez told the Rivard Report, because courts aren’t subject to such legislation.

Whether or not to delay an eviction is up to each judge, Vazquez said. While the statewide moratorium on evictions lifted on May 19, the four Bexar County justices of the peace agreed to delay all cases until June 15.

So far, he said, Bexar County hasn’t seen a spike in eviction filings, though he expects one in early July. Local courts are taking their time in addressing the backlog of “pre-COVID” cases because of new safety measures implemented to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

Before the pandemic, the Precinct 2 justice would hear 65 eviction cases in one afternoon, two times per week. Now, his court is hearing about 70 per day once a week. Some of those have been via videoconference, to which each tenant or landlord has a right, Vasquez said.

However, if COVID-19 cases continue to spike, he said the court may stop hearing eviction cases in person or possibly altogether.

Out of the five cases on the 10 a.m. docket, four were dismissed or delayed “because the tenants and landlords are working” on making payment arrangements, Vazquez said.

Such arrangements were typical in his court even before the pandemic, he said.

The other case on Monday morning’s docket resulted in a default judgment in favor of the landlord because the tenant didn’t show up. This is often because 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.

That’s one of the problems that a proposed tenants’ rights ordinance seeks to address. The rule would require landlords to provide an overview of the eviction process and information about assistance programs to tenants when a notice to vacate is issued.

City Council will vote Thursday on the ordinance, which would impose a $500 fine for landlords who do not provide the City-approved information. Enforcement of the new ordinance would start in August, and the City would begin making renters aware of the changes in July.

Courts are already sending out a notice that includes information about City and County housing assistance with the notice to appear for court.

Gandy is disappointed in the six City Council members who voted against the right-to-cure measure, including his representative, Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8). He vowed to support the campaigns of their opponents during next year’s municipal election.

Council members Clayton Perry (D10), Manny Pelaez (D8), Shirley Gonzales (D5), Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4), Rebecca Viagran (D3), and Jada Andrews-Sullivan (D2) voted against the measure, citing a lack of authority to interfere in state law regarding evictions and private contracts between landlords and tenants.

Council members don’t understand that the “depth of the situation here is stretched to the point of madness,” Gandy said.

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

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